Review by: Christopher Haskell
July 24, 2014

Give Wally Pfister a break. In his directorial debut, Pfister was placed against impossible odds. Having been Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer for around fourteen years, the man was being compared to one of the best directors of our time. With Nolan’s name almost front and center in the marketing and with everyone hoping some of Nolan’s thought-provoking talent would rub off on Pfister, “Transcendence” was doomed right out of the gate. Nolan has progressed to become the director we know and love. He worked his way up to his mind-blowing films like “The Dark Knight” and “Inception”, but watch his earlier work, and although his talent shines through, they are nothing in comparison to his later ventures. Compare “Transcendence” to Nolan’s earlier work and it is actually quite astonishing compared to say “Insomnia”.

“Transcendence” builds around the idea of artificial intelligence and the limitless possibilities that come along with that idea. Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist who, along with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is on the edge of developing a sentient computer technology. All of this comes to a screeching halt when a member of the extremist group named “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” (R.I.F.T.) shoots Caster with an irradiated bullet. Fearing the loss of not only Will, but this huge technological breakthrough, Evelyn spends Will’s final days uploading his consciousness into the sentient computer against the wishes of their friend and colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany). From the moment she plugs in what she believes to be Will’s consciousness, all hell breaks lose. Eventually involving nanotechnology which can essentially turn humans into robots, the audience endures watching the human protagonists like Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman fight battles that they simply cannot win.

The casting is a testament to Pfister being able to pool his resources well enough to at least get recognizable faces on-screen, especially with Johnny Depp, who steps out of his strange, odd ball character roles and plays a real life human being, at least until he becomes a computer. Everyone involved performs as best they can given the material, but the film simply collapses in on itself. Becoming too big of a concept to sustain believability, the visual of the nano-bytes seeping through the earth and floating into the sky is hard enough for the active viewer to fully buy. The emotions and relationships that start off strong in the beginning of the film eventually become melodramatic and unbelievable, exposing the weaker side to humans interacting romantically with computers. If there is one thing Pfister nails down, it is the visuals which remain above average for most of the film.

Given his cinematography background, however, especially with Nolan who often pushes the limits, Pfister fails to wow with his choices and for that, allows another let down. Does “Transcendence” push the boundaries of film-making? Not quite. But does it deserve all the overly harsh criticism because it does not live up to the marvel that is Christopher Nolan’s body of work? Not in the least. “Transcendence” is a valiant effort in science fiction film-making from a director who has a long road ahead of him before he reaches his potential.

April 18, 2014

Wally Pfister

Jack Paglen

Warner Bros. Pictures

$150 million

(for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)


119 minutes


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