Ryan Pollard takes a look at Transcendence, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, which stars Johnny Depp as a controversial researcher in the field of A.I.
Transcendence is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who is best known for being Christopher Nolan’s long-time DP from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises. Pfister famously started out by doing straight-to-video erotic grindhouse fare and coming in through the Roger Corman school of working fast and yet thinking big, and since then became regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers.
Based on the script by Jack Paglen, which was on the Hollywood Black List of most-feted unproduced screenplays in 2012, the story is about Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who is the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, and is working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him. At one of Will’s conferences’, they fatally shoot him with a radioactive bullet that leaves his body seriously compromised. However, in their attempt to destroy him, they inadvertently become the catalyst for him to succeed: to be a participant in his own transcendence. The only way to save him is to upload his entire consciousness into a massive databank, but for his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, the question is not if they can…but if they should. Once Will gets uploaded, is the version of him that’s in the computers really him or is it the computer becoming more sentient?
Ever since its release, Transcendence has famously become a flop: the film tanked in America as well as in the UK, got terrible reviews (currently 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and has drawn cruel comparisons to John Carter, another big budget sci-fi fantasy that sent critics and audiences running for the hills. Yet unlike Andrew Stanton’s headbangingly boring and dull adaptation of a much-loved source text (which, at an estimated $250m, cost more than twice the amount of Transcendence), Transcendence is guilty of nothing more than an admirable willingness to risk ridicule in pursuit of an interesting idea.
Despite the negative reception it has received, the truth of the matter is this: Transcendence is a much better film than people give it credit for, albeit with some reservations. While it may wear the clothes of an A-list 21st-century fantasy, at heart this is a throwback dystopian 1970’s B-picture about the future-retro collision between man and technology – a film that is built upon grand ideas rather than grand spectacle, and all the better for it. Pfister cites the pre-Star Wars canon of films like Soylent Green, The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, The Omega Man, and Silent Running as influential works, and they too focused sorely on the ideas ahead of plot. The film’s setup is pure early 1970’s sci-fi, as well as its central idea, which is once you have gone from a human state to a digital-like computer life form, can you still exist as the same person you were before?
Even though Depp gets top billing in the film’s marketing campaign (despite being daringly reduced to a small-screen presence at a fairly early stage), the real dramatic heavy lifting is really done by both Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall, who are both the centre of the film. Both Bettany and Hall do incredible, sterling work, keeping the human blood count high, even as Depp’s world of rampaging nanobots and secret underground facilities push the narrative toward something the vein of The Terminator series, especially with the overarching Skynet being seen in comparison to the omniscient Will’s vision of the future. The intelligence may be artificial but the emotions are real, that comes largely down to Hall and Bettany’s solidly organic efforts. Thanks to them, we believe in them even if we don’t always believe in the story.
With the film being big on conceptual ambition, it’s surprisingly short on crowd-pleasing explosions, despite some spectacular visuals (the lack of eye-popping action perhaps proving its downfall in cinemas). It’s much more a movie concerned with its central idea about the state of consciousness and what happens to it in the digital age of the Internet. This is a very old and creaky Twilight Zone-esque idea that has been touched on before in many other works of sci-fi cinema, literature, and comic books, and will no doubt continue to obsess science fiction to come.
Also, Pfister has always been incredibly reliable when telling a story in camera. His images for films, such as Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy, may be visually sumptuous and dazzling, but his visual sense is always rooted in the “show don’t tell” school of narrative cinema. The film hasn’t been edited to within an inch of its life, and with his excellent editor, David Rosenbloom (who tellingly cut the moody 35mm 70s throwback Out of the Furnace), Pfister maintains a steady, languid pace, making this film completely and utterly at odds with the frenetic balderdash that has come to plague and characterise modern blockbuster fantasy entertainment in the era of Michael Bay. Plus, Mychael Danna’s moody and brooding syntho-score uses similarly long and extended strokes, always rising and falling on a romantic undercurrent of intertwining themes, underpinning the action with a persistent sense of longing. The film is also shot on 35mm anamorphic, so Pfister is still holding out for film instead of digital. As the environment of the story changes, the environment of the screen changes, going from the natural hues and tones to the reflective surfaces of massive shimmering computer databanks, and that’s all that’s down to brilliant cinematographer, Jess Hall.
The film is not without its faults and suffers from a couple of missteps. Most notably, the script lacks the dialogue elegance of Inception, with gaping plot holes and clunky dialogue littering the landscape. Critics and audiences are naturally comparing this to Inception, sorely because of Pfister’s connection to Christopher Nolan (who shares an executive producer credit), which now makes his relationship with him seem more curse rather than a blessing. Also, such cinematic dreams, like Transcendence’s, don’t pay the bills in Hollywood. Although Jonathan Frazer’s recent outing, Under the Skin, recently proved that there is a thriving market for heavy thought-provoking experimental sci-fi, it did so at a mere fraction of the cost of Transcendence, which seems oddly overburdened by its $100m budget. There had been reports of the studio inserting Morgan Freeman portentously intoning: “It will be the end of mankind as we know it!” into the trailer against the director’s wishes (the line, which Pfister disowns, is not in the movie), which suggests a rift between his desires and their expectations.
So, the film clearly has big faults, it’s clearly not working for many people, but perhaps, the reason why is because it’s not a big and explosive blockbuster. It’s more about the small interactions between the characters and dealing with huge concepts and ideas, like spirituality, God, the issues of consciousness and personality, and what separates a human from a machine. The film doesn’t quite get a firm grip with those issues and doesn’t quite explore them in great depth, but what the film is brave to do is grapple with them. No matter how much it fumbles doing that, it’s best and exciting to have a big budget Hollywood blockbuster do something like that, than do something like the recent Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That film set up the ideas government espionage, corporate snooping and surveillance investigations, but it never really explored those ideas and ended up becoming just a standard Marvel action movie. Whereas Captain America II failed to explore big ideas, Transcendence succeeded.
Despite having problems, what matters, when it comes to science fiction, is ideas and how well it manage to present those ideas, and in the case of Transcendence, it is a bold and ambitious sci-fi flick that dares to dream big and isn’t scared to look ridiculous in the process. Anyone out there who has a fondness for broad canvas, ideas-heavy sci-fi should ignore the preposterous and unfair negative scuttle and give Transcendence the benefit of the doubt it deserves. It may not be perfect and it’s certainly no Inception, but it is a sincerely ambitious first feature from a filmmaker who has both the technical skill and the artistic vision to aim as big as he can and do it with his head held high.