It has plenty of ambition, but a poorly-executed screenplay leaves far too many questions left unanswered.
BY RYAN MILOWICKI
It looks like we can circle the third Friday of April as the annual “High-Concept Sci-Fi Appreciation Day.” This time last year, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion hit theaters, and first-time director Wally Pfister’s Transcendence trots out in the same slot this weekend. Unfortunately for the Christopher Nolan protegé, his directing career may not be off as hot a start as he would have hoped.
Transcendence is a very ambitious directorial debut, and it certainly contains flashes of filmmaking prowess that we all expected from an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. But as is the case with so many new directors, the script isn’t up to snuff with the rest of the production.
After being attacked by an anti-technology terrorist group and given only weeks to live, brilliant scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) agrees to upload his consciousness to an extremely powerful computer, with the help of his wife (Rebecca Hall) and close friend (Paul Bettany). Predictably, the amount of power Will gains from this decision corrupts his mind, and his still-human colleagues must determine which side they support. As the stakes get higher and higher, Will and the terrorists (called RIFT) are set on an inevitable collision course, with nothing less than the future of human-technology relations on the line.
Didn’t we see the same thing happen to Toby Jones’ character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I’ll let that coincidence slip, since the movie’s nearly synchronized release dates suggest that no idea-stealing was involved. However, the film bears many similarities to another film which I won’t let Transcendence get away with. I realize that Wally Pfister DP’ed Inception, but that doesn’t excuse the film’s almost shameless re-hashing of the Christopher Nolan formula.
For obvious starters, a few familiar Nolan faces show up to lend a hand. In addition to the trio of established actors, Cilian Murphy (Inception) and Morgan Freeman (both of the Batman trilogy) play static supporting roles. This doesn’t bother me at all, as I’m sure that those actors have built up good rapport with Pfister over the years. What did bother me was the inconsequentiality of their roles. Other than being notable names to help with marketing, their characters do little more than standing idly by and reacting to the events unfurling around them. Ideally, they should have added some depth and context to the plights of the three protagonists, but instead they served as a constant reminder to me how vastly unimportant their characters were to the ultimate chain of events.
But enough of that tangent. My main issue with Transcendence was its veneer of a unique and thought-provoking sci-fi film. Lying just underneath its visually appealing exterior was a confusing and tremendously unexciting attempt at a techno-thriller. For starters, it loses originality points for essentially borrowing the same themes as Inception. When watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think of Hall’s character as a new iteration of DiCaprio’s Cobb, and Depp’s character as an omnipresent version of Mal. If you’ve seen Inception and know how Cobb eventually handles the Mal situation, then you’ve got a pretty good guess as to what happens in the climactic moment of Transcendence.
At least I think you do.
See, that’s the other glaring issue with the screenplay. It just doesn’t make any sense. While I fully admit that I am of below-average technological intellect, I am familiar enough with computers as well as cautionary science fiction to feel confident that I would be able to understand whatever the film threw at me. And at the beginning, I was feeling proud for understanding most of what was happening right until Johnny Depp was plugged into the computer. From that moment forward, the film turns into a bombardment of murky descriptions and visual demonstrations of Will’s power. Combine that with the most confusing time jump in recent cinematic memory, and you have a veritable head-scratcher. There are plenty of rules as to what things can and cannot be influenced by Will’s superintellect and technological advances, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what those rules were. By the final half-hour, I forewent suspension of disbelief and just had to accept that anything and everything was possible if it fit the plot.
It’s a shame that the story is this haphazard, because there were plenty of things to like about Transcendence as well. For starters, Depp, Hall, and Bettany collectively put forth very solid performances. Their chemistry is authentic, and Bettany is especially good as the once-loyal colleague driven to question his intentions in a Stockholm Syndrome-esque encounter. The trio do their best to elevate the film to watchability and they certainly succeed. I highly suspect that filmgoers who don’t scrutinize plot elements as much as I will find the movie quite enjoyable.
In addition, the level of craft shown by Pfister from his Nolan employment is on full display here. Beautifully shot on film, he works with a full palette of visual delights which often made me briefly forget the gaping plot holes. Also to his credit, the pacing was never an issue for me, and the ability to finish the story in a runtime under two hours is a laudable achievement in an era where longer seems to be considered more desirable. I fully expect that Pfister has a bright future in directing films of this kind, provided that he begins to receive better scripts to bring to life.
But as for his debut, excellent direction plus solid lead acting minus a static supporting cast and minus a mind-boggling (not in the good way) screenplay puts the film in a zero-sum situation. Transcendence aspired to be the kind of sci-fi film which puzzles, entertains, and sparks conversation for many years to come. Instead, it will likely be wiped completely from memory once superhero season starts next month.
RYAN’s RATING: 2 Stars out of 4