Transcendence is the directorial debut from long-time Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, and while the film is visually stunning it unfortunately fails materialize into anything we haven’t seen before.  Pfister has worked as cinematographer on every Nolan film since 2000′s Neo-Noire thriller Memento, and even won the Oscar in Cinematography for 2010′s Inception.  The credentials were obvious, so the buzz prior to the release of Transcendence was justified, however the ideas never lead to a satisfying conclusion, and in the end, Transcendence becomes another film that will quickly be forgotten amongst more of the same.  After creating some of the most unique visuals, Pfister has tried his hand at directing and the audience is left with an extremely shallow film, in what is undoubtedly an interesting topic and one that could be a possibility in the near future.  The strong visuals couldn’t save the weak characters and overarching story, which lead to  a terrible third act that fails to deliver much of anything, other than the generic thriller elements we’ve seen overused for years.

Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a world-renowned artificial intelligence researcher who is working towards creating an artificial intelligence greater than the collective minds of everyone who has ever lived.  His partner in both life and work is Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), who with best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), sets out to change the world.  Not everyone is happy with their work and an extremist group known as RIFT sets out on their own mission to stop this intelligence from spreading.  After a series of attacks on artificial intelligence research labs and a seemingly failed assassination attempt on Will, they soon find out that the bullet which struck Will was laced with radioactive matter that would kill him within 40 days.  The three eventually decide that while Will’s body is dying, his mind is still active, so they decide to upload his memory into the computer which in turn, turns him into the smartest AI, with the power to expand beyond our wildest dreams.

The idea of artificial intelligence growing uncontrollable seemed relevant enough to make for an interesting and thoughtful film.  The topic of creating artificial intelligence will only become more prevalent in the coming years (why is the NSA collecting and storing all of our data?).  Along with an interesting idea, they have a talented filmmaker making his directorial debut and an all-star cast.  The film however was not very deep, and failed to ask the important questions that should have been explored.  Instead, we got a generic-feeling Hollywood film which occasionally featured some stunning cinematography.  It’s certainly disappointing with the expectations that were put on the film, and an idea that, while certainly not the most original, looked to expand on the science fiction aspects and bring something new to the table we hadn’t seen before.  The problems with the film stand out, and at 119 minutes, Transcendence feels much longer.

The most interesting topics were never truly expanded to their full potential, as the story instead focused on the relationship of Will and Evelyn.  That’s where the film suffered.  The pace was terrible, and the characters were not interesting to say the least.  You never had a true connection to any character, so when the audience should have felt emotion during certain points, I found myself with no connection.  Transcendence needs the audience to care when Will went through his Transcendence-but again, nothing.  It’s partially because of how the film was edited-with years coming and going quickly, but never feeling like any time had passed at all.  All of a sudden two years have passed: meanwhile, all the characters are the same.

Directing a movie isn’t easy, and I’m sure Wally Pfister has learned a lot from the experience.  He clearly knows the visual side of filmmaking, so the failure of the film is certainly not entirely on his shoulders.  The story was the weakest part of the film and even though it wasn’t written by him, I’m sure he contributed a fair amount.  Besides the weak story, with unrealistic character motivations that left me scratching my head, the acting was nothing spectacular.  While nobody in the film was bad, nobody stood out to be mentioned.  Johnny Depp received a nice salary, and seemed to be going through the motions (even before he turned into a computer).  However that’s not me saying he did it for the money, he just didn’t seem too into it.

It’s a shame that the Robocop remake, which came out earlier this year, was a deeper philosophical film and left me asking more questions than Transcendence.  A day after having seen the film while writing this review, I’m already forgetting about the storyline (or at least haven’t thought about it once).  It was a surprisingly shallow story that not even the visual genius of Pfister or an all-star cast could save.  The complexity of filmmaking is a difficult thing, and while his directorial debut may not pan out so well with critics or audiences, the future still seems bright for Mr. Pfister.  With a better script, I’m sure he will make something special.  Maybe he’ll get get a Nolan brother to help write a screenplay or something like that.  Some, however, may be entertained enough to enjoy the film, and I’m sure many will enjoy Transcendence.  For now, if you’ve seen everything else that’s already playing, or are a fan of the cast, check it out.  And hey, it’s in IMAX and that’s enjoyable, regardless of the film.

Transcendence stars Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany, and opens in theaters April 17 in 2D IMAX, and other large format screens.

About the Author

Peter Towe
Peter Towe
A graduate of UMASS Boston, I have successfully put off getting a "real" job, and continue to watch, produce, review, and obsess over movies. I lived in Boston while I completed my degree, and now live in Chicago trying the improv thing.