This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 4th May 2014
Cinemagoers who stick around through a movie’s closing credits should recognise the name Wally Pfister and may be forgiven for experiencing a surge of excitement on hearing he is the force behind Transcendence. Indeed, Pfister is best-known as Christopher Nolan’s Director of Photography, and his talent for picturing great stories on screen is a big part of why the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Memento are such terrific films.
Transcendence marks Pfister’s first step out from behind the camera and into the director’s chair, but unfortunately, despite the film’s starry cast (with a host of Nolan regulars and the return of a post-Lone Ranger Johnny Depp) and a fairly Nolanesque story line, this film won’t leave you blown away so much as underwhelmed.
Set in the near future in a post-Internet world where electricity and communications are all but kaput (making this a horror movie for some), the story slips back five years to show us how this dystopic reality came to pass. Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a stereotypically vague-yet-brilliant expert in neural engineering and artificial intelligence. On the brink of delivering the product of decades of brainy work, his cause is attacked by activists. It falls to his loving and almost-as-brainy wife (a fairly bland Rebecca Hall) and earnest scientist mate (Paul Bettany) to pursue their technological intentions before a greater danger befalls humanity. Enter Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy (both Dark Knighters) and the story, although it lacks excitement in its execution, starts as nonetheless intriguing.
Unfortunately, 15 years watching a master at work have not quite transferred to Pfister Nolan’s panache or ability to exhilarate. Transcendence is surprisingly not much to look at, and the soundtrack is so muted it feels like the musical budget was slashed after they’d only recorded two sections of the orchestra. Depp doesn’t help matters with his limp, slightly drunk acting, and when things get a little crazy (and more than a little inexplicable) in the third act, the denouement lands with a dull thud.
It’s all terribly disappointing, because the initially engaging and curious premise is played out seriously and without haste, that in itself kudos to a novice director who might otherwise have chosen jump-cuts and CGI for his debut. But ultimately Transcendence cannot reach the promise of its component parts nor transcend the limits of its banality.