IT IS a shame that for such an interesting premise (a dying man’s consciousness gets merged with an experimental AI in an effort to save him), the end result is somewhat underwhelming.
The problem with Wally Pfister’s directorial debut (most known for his work as the DP on several Christopher Nolan films) is that it severely lacks focus. Transcendence is not quite a decent sci-fi, not quite a techno-horror and not quite a love story. It pushes in all three directions at times – but never quite succeeds as any of them.
Pfister’s pedigree as a cinematographer does shine through at times – many beautiful shots are peppered throughout – but the film always seems to be in a rush to get somewhere, sprinting through all its scenes, as if afraid that the audience will get bored if the characters end up standing around chatting too much.
The initial setup is perhaps the most intriguing: terrorist attacks by an anti-technology sect (who ironically use a lot of technology in their operations) whose strike is built up with a decent amount of unease – little snippets here and there that hint at the imminent assault.
The rest of the film however, remains devoid of any kind of tension, largely due to the fact that the opening scene tells you how it’s all going to end anyway. The excellent cast (on paper at least) seems severely wasted throughout. Rebecca Hall gamely takes the lead (forgiving the occasionally dodgy accent), although she sometimes struggles to wrangle the most out of her character’s weak motivation. Fans may also be disappointed that Johnny Depp is largely reduced to a disembodied voice or a face on a screen for the majority of the film.
Others in the supporting cast are also given little to do. Paul Bettany is good but feels sidelined in the dull middle section, and it’s nice to see decent character actors such as Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr. and Josh Stewart in small roles. Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman meanwhile, pick up the easiest paycheck of their careers as they pretty much just show up.
None of the characters or scenes are given enough time to breathe and, as a result, sometimes you just can’t help but see it as a bunch of famous faces standing around together in a room.
Similarly, the interesting ideas and themes of the implementation of technology and AI in our lives and how it may help or clash with the concept of humanity – are all neatly brushed aside in order to get to the next plot point. There’s not enough action or excitement for the blockbuster crowd, nor is the film cerebral or techno-centric enough for those looking for a more thoughtful viewing experience. Even a B-movie techno-horror route could have worked (think Virus or Demon Seed), as the concept of a rogue AI is fairly terrifying, but Transcendence even shies away from that, all leading up to a rather unimpressive ending.
It’s a shame that so much is wasted in this film, despite the overly economic editing. It should have been cleverer, more philosophical even, given the concept. Even a ponderous, self-indulgent meditation on the subject matter, delivered in a poetic way (barely hinted at here in aerial shots flying over beautiful nature accompanied by a voiceover) may have elevated the film to something great. Instead it just feels safe and clunky – as if we are just being presented with the highlights of a big budget TV series that have been squashed together into a feature length trailer for easy consumption.
Whilst occasionally visually impressive, Pfister’s directorial debut is a collection of missed opportunities that will likely leave audiences wanting more. It’s basically the set-up for The Terminator …without any Terminators. If Pfister had spent more time fine tuning the story instead of attempting to capture footage of the perfect raindrop (though that is certainly visually appealing) then this film might be able to (ahem) transcend its muddled focus. Instead it just sinks.
(Score: 2 out of 5)