When coming up with my list of Most Anticipated Films of 2014, one film that stirred my interest was Wally Pfister's directorial debut "Transcendence". After years of working closely with Christopher Nolan (one of my all-time favourite directors), I figured he must have learnt something from that modern genius. Sadly, that wasn't the case as this film turned out to be a major disappointment.
On the surface, it's easy to see why Pfister would be interested in this script (a 2012 Black List honoree no less). This story about a scientist named Will Craster (Johnny Depp) whose consciousness gets uploaded into the powerful artificially intelligent computer which he created, is just the kind of material that he worked on for years with Nolan. Based on complicated science surrounding "technological singularity", it's a premise that one could envision Nolan exploring with exhilarating results. Of course, this isn't a Nolan film and Pfister's shortcomings as a director (as well as Jack Paglen's poor writing) are self-evident here.
"Transcendence" springs into motion following a lecture where Will Caster (Depp) explains his project (along with his wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall) about creating sentient technology that surpasses human intelligence. In the aftermath of his presentation, he is shot in protest by a group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) who oppose the "godlike" intentions of the technology. Discovering that the bullet is laced with radiation poisoning, Evelyn decides to upload his consciousness to preserve his "being" before he dies. With the reluctant help of fellow researcher Max Waters (Paul Bettany), the plan works, effectively bringing Craster back to life. Hooked into our worldwide network of technology thereafter, he becomes increasingly powerful.
As with any sci-fi thriller, there are inevitable complications. It starts out well, as Will and Evelyn invest in a highly advanced technological facility in the desert, improving various fields of science, like biology, nanotechnology and medicine. However, when Evelyn realizes that his powers extend to analyzing people's minds, she realizes that they may have gone too far.
Well, she was right. Like this Transcendence project, the script overextends itself to absurdity. Mainly, it takes a lot of narrative shortcuts (like lazy usage of "X" years later to skip the explanation of the technology) that keep the audience at a distance from the core premise, no matter how fascinated you may be. For a film that is rather long (about 2 hours), there's a perplexing lack of actual "stuff" happening. By the time you reach the point where there's a fairy dust substance being dispersed throughout the world, the film starts to feel more like magical fantasy than intellectual science fiction.
Apart from these conceptual absurdities, the film's greatest offence is its false advertising. Now, I won't go as far as suing the filmmakers but a plot that involves an assassination attempt, revolutionary technology gone awry and FBI investigations, has no excuse for being this dull. In fact, one would find it difficult to even consider this a thriller, as its trailers would suggest. Throughout the film there are many mentions of impending danger, yet we see no urgent conflict until the final act. Somehow Pfister expects to keep our attention without giving us anything exciting to engage with (visually or thematically) for the majority of the running time.
To add further insult to injury, the film is capped by a Nolanesque poignant ending that is completely unearned. With little engagement with the science or the dynamics of the central romantic relationship, it leaves you annoyed rather than invigorated as clearly intended ("look, isn't this clever?"). No thanks, I'll take "Inception" and its spinning top instead.
There's no denying that making the switch from cinematography to directing is a major step, and I commend Wally Pfister for giving it a go. However, the bland outcome of this effort indicates that he may not be up to the task. The good news is that he remains a talented cinematographer, so this is just a bump in the road in an otherwise impressive filmography. Maybe with some more mentoring in the art of directing he can actually make a good film from the director's chair in the future.