Transcendence marks the feature filmmaking debut of Wally Pfister, the “visionary” cinematographer who was responsible at least in part for the mind-blowing look of Inception, Chris Nolan’s 2010, love-it-or-hate-it, dream-world hit.
Pfister’s science-fiction thriller attempts to blow minds in the same fashion as that earlier film. But after a promising start, it eventually turns into the typical, big-studio movie release, in a brainless, style-over-substance manner that’s more Michael Bay than Chris Nolan. As such, it has to settle for being headache-inducing and mind-numbing instead.
However, that’s not meant to completely come down on the movie, which has a few interesting ideas – some of which are very heady, much more so than you’d expect for a May movie release. But Pfister and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen are clearly confused about how far they should go in exploring them, settling on the more predictable, expected road.
So as a result, Transcendence winds up being in the position of being the first – but certainly not the last — big disappointment of the 2014 Summer Movie Season.
On the plus side: For a change Johnny Depp isn’t just offering yet another variation on the now-tiresome, drunk pirate caricature he’s “perfected” in several huge film blockbusters. He stars as Will Caster, a scientist on the frontline of artificial intelligence research.
In fact, he believes his latest invention is as close to being a “sentient” computer as possible, and that it retains something he calls “collective intelligence.” That may come in handy when Will is shot by anti-technology radicals. It’s clear that Will, who’s been poisoned by the radioactive bullets, is not going to survive the assassination attempt, so he tries to convince his colleagues – including his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and his best friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany) – to download his consciousness into the machine.
At first the experiment seems to work, and husband and wife are “reunited.” But soon, the virtual “Will” begins suffering delusions of grandeur, and, as he consumes data and knowledge, he begins taking over computer systems around the world. And, as you’d expect, Max and Evelyn may be the only people who can “pull the plug” (so to speak) on this technological nightmare. Both are conflicted — She’s not ready to let “Will” go, while Max has fallen under the sway of the radicals and their charismatic leader (Kate Mara).
In themes and even some imagery, this material may remind a few viewers not only of Inception, but of the should-have-been-forgotten Lawnmower Man movies and the Ghost in the Machine anime and animated features. Unfortunately, it’s more akin to the former than the latter. Furthering the Bay comparison, things blow up all around the place, in loud, bombastic fashion. (If you thought this was a problem for the Marvel Studios movies, you haven’t seen anything yet!)
It does look good, though. As in keeping with tradition, veteran director of photography Pfister used actual celluloid to shoot the film, eschewing digital photographing for a more “organic” look. (This would be a seeming irony, considering what his subject matter is here, but you do have to respect Pfister for sticking to his guns.)
However, his lack of cinematic storytelling experience is glaring at times. There are some real dead spots in the action and the story, and both Pfister and screenwriter Paglen have a hard time finding meaty things for all the members of the huge cast to do. The talented Irish actor Cillian Murphy is stuck in a go-nowhere role as an FBI agent, while Morgan Freeman seems to be there simply to explain the plot for the more confused audience members. Perhaps they should have named his character Mr. X Planation or Mr. X Pository instead?
To be fair, this is supposed to be Depp’s show, with support from both Hall and Bettany, of course. And if nothing else, the fact that he’s doing something a little different in terms of his performance – he’s deadly serious here, for the most part — should be applauded and encouraged.
Jeff Michael Vice can also be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), and can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff).