transcendence 2.jpg
UK Release Date 25th April 2014
Director Wally Pfister
Starring Rebecca Hall
Runtime 119 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 29th April 2014

One half of Broken Shark actually knows something about how movies are made. The other half is writing this review. So the step up from Director of Photography to Director is somewhat mysterious to me. I’m assuming it’s like moving from Assistant Manager of the team to Manager. Something any football fan will tell you is bound to end in tears. So, as Christopher Nolan stalwart Wally Pfister makes the leap, we wonder if the same is true in the cinema….

Pfister has gone all out for his debut at the helm, a $100 million thoughtful sci-fi epic, complete with mega-star headliner. Nobody can accuse him of lack of ambition. Transcendence finds Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his partner in science and life Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) on the cusp of creating the first self aware Artificial Intelligence. A prototype PINN (I forget the acronym) already resides in Caster’s lab and answers such questions as ‘Can you prove you are self aware’ with smart-ass answers like ‘Can you?’. When burgeoning anti-AI terrorist organisation RIFT (no, can’t remember that one either) blows up most of the work and mortally wounds Caster, Evelyn and fellow scientist Max Waters (Paul Bettany) go off the grid with just enough hardware to upload Caster’s mind to the machine. Needless to say, this does not end well.

Transcendence has garnered much criticism since its release and perceived flop in the US (where it is a long way short of making anywhere near its money back), so much so that I actually took time out before writing this review to read through a good selection of other people’s thoughts. It wasn’t a pretty read though there were a few notable exceptions. I’m slightly baffled as to why the movie has copped so much grief but having given it some thought, I can only think that it’s down to three factors. One; Johnny Depp’s performance, two; high expectations on the debuting director and three; the movie is neither wham bang sci-fi epic nor small budget thinker, it falls squarely between the two.

Depp’s performance is perhaps hamstrung from the outset by him spending so little time physically on screen. Confined to a head and shoulders monitor image for the most part, Depp merely mumbles his way through the performance, presumably in an attempt to inject huge gravitas to the situation. It doesn’t work and produces a character every bit as flat as the screen he is projected on. To be fair, he isn’t helped by a script that fails to catch fire for the duration of the movie. A talky affair anyway (no bad thing), despite all the words we never really get to know any of the characters and the central couple’s relationship in particular seems short of depth.

Which brings us to the good things about the movie. Rebecca Hall gets lumped with the only role that has any real screen time devoted to emotions and, despite some utterly horrible wardrobe, her Evelyn is the heart of the movie. Again the script struggles though. Because we never really get to know Evelyn and Will, it’s difficult to swallow her wholehearted leap into the unknown when she rejects Max’s cautious words and acquiesces to Will’s electronic demands to be plugged into the internet. Once she does though, her actions become far more understandable as she is gradually sucked into Will’s world - fleeing the authorities and setting up a vast complex in the middle of the desert, all with Will directing her. Hall plays just the right line between intelligent scientist and devoted wife for us to really feel for her as she gradually realises how out of control the situation is.

Of the remaining cast, we get to find out frustratingly little about them. Bettany is as solid and stolid as ever as the scientist not entirely on board with the whole AI thing, Morgan Freeman pops up as an older scientist on the team and dashes about with Cillian Murphy’s FBI man and there are a number of terrorists that don’t have enough dialogue to register any lasting memory.   

And Pfister? Well, as you’d expect, he doesn’t lack the courage of his convictions and he makes an admirable attempt to create a science fiction film that is both ambitious and cerebral. Transcendence asks some very fundamental questions about mankind’s advancement but in all honesty, it doesn’t really bring a great deal of new thoughts to the table. Interestingly, it makes a similar mistake to Jurassic Park in that it seems to think that science should be responsible for governance as well as research. The case for science pushing every boundary it finds and legislation dealing with the trickier moral issues is omitted entirely.

Reading this back I feel like I’m becoming one of the many negative reviews of this movie but that was never my intention. Pfister should be commended for attempting a film this thoughtful on this scale but you have to wonder what he would have done with a smaller, less showy vehicle. As it is Transcendence is not by any stretch a bad film. It’s let down by a script that fails to flesh out most of its characters and by a headliner who fails to make any real impact in the central role but it’s still an interesting watch. At 119 minutes it’s not a short film but I didn’t find my mind wandering at any stage and in places the beauty of Jess Hall’s photography really does stand out. Rescued by this and an impressive performance from Hall, I think if you approach this one with curiosity rather than expectations, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Check out the trailer here.

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