As we were dutifully informed before the preview screening of Transcendence, Wally Pfister not only shot this movie on film, but he also developed the film photochemically rather than digitally. This isn’t surprising for Pfister, acolyte of fervent film fetishist Christopher Nolan, but it is reflective of this cinematographer-turned-director’s old-fashioned approach to the material.
Old-fashioned isn’t necessarily a pejorative. But Transcendence feels less classical than prematurely dated. The FBI (headed by an underused Cillian Murphy) shares every bit of information about a neo-luddite terrorist cell with prominent computer scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a plot point already dusty by the 90s. The computer science here is equally antiquated – blocks of green text filling monitors surrounded by aging power supplies – at least until the last half shifts into the hackneyed futuristic aesthetic that characterises the last decade of sci-fi cinema, somewhere between Kubrick’s 2001 and an Apple store.
Dusty tropes and sets don’t necessarily preclude fresh ideas. Unfortunately, there are few in evidence here. The film is built around a conflict between the aforementioned anti-technology terrorists, led by Bree (Kate Mara), and aspirational scientists – Caster and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) – who charge headlong into developing artificial intelligence without a thought of the consequences. Perhaps, Transcendence’s screenplay posits, we should approach new technology with caution? Hardly an original concept. See also: The Matrix, The Terminator or, hell, even the Manhattan Project.
The convergence of terrorism and science finds Caster with a radioactive bullet in his belly and, soon afterwards, his consciousness on the internet (or something; the details don’t make a lot of sense, but you’re not supposed to worry about it). It all goes pear-shaped, but this is hardly a surprise: the film opens with a post-techno-apocalyptic flash forward narrated by Paul Bettany, and the screenplay insists on informing us exactly what’s coming next. This contributes to a “thriller” whose lack of narrative tension is keenly felt, no matter how often Pfister overlays the action with a foreboding, throbbing score.
As an Oscar-winning cinematographer, Pfister clearly knows how to produce good photography, and that’s in abundant evidence here. The film is characterised by beautiful framing and careful lighting, but it can’t invest the technique with a sense of purpose. We feel a technician at work, not an artist; the photography is professional but rarely emotionally evocative. Visual storytelling is relegated to cutaways to groaningly obvious symbols: a broken laptop turned into a literal doorstop; a sunflower drooping limply as Caster succumbs to radiation poisoning.
The actors don’t fare any better. Depp’s latest career arc has been about flamboyance and idiosyncratic flourishes, so why he is cast in a role that mostly requires him to converse in a dull monotone is beyond me. Hall’s efforts are squandered on an utterly implausible character who can apparently stomach the enslavement of dozens of small-town workers but draws the line at computer-Caster measuring her hormone levels.
Transcendence is a science-fiction thriller that displays little interest in science, thrills or – most egregiously – developing potentially substantial ideas. It doesn’t even have the good grace to be entertainingly terrible. It’s simply bland and forgettable.
This review was originally published at The 500 Club.