'Transcendence' Review: Wally Pfister's Debut Is More Machine Than Man

In his directorial debut, Christopher Nolan's longtime DP Wally Pfister serves up a dire warning about all the things that can go wrong when someone other than Christopher Nolan tries to make a Christopher Nolan movie. Transcendence is Inception, in spirit if not in plot, only without the heart, style, intelligence, or grace.

Luckily, the bullet only grazes Will. Unluckily, the bullet was poisoned so Will is still dying, just more slowly. Luckily, that extra time allows Will's wife Ev (Rebecca Hall) and their pal Max (Paul Bettany) to upload Will's consciousness into a computer. The easy thing for the terrorists to do, obviously, would've been to just shoot to kill to begin with. But this isn't the last time that characters in this movie make inexplicable decisions to move the story along.

Anyway, Ev and Max's desperate experiment proves successful, to Ev's delight and Max's deep ambivalence. Naturally, Max's pessimism turns out to be totally justified. When the movie fast-forwards two years, we discover that Will has become, essentially, a god. He is omnipotent and omniscient for all intents and purposes, at least when the plot isn't requiring him not to be.

That time jump comes about a third of the way into the movie, and it's at that point that the holes in this movie become huge, gaping tears. To buy into what happens next, you have to believe that none of the characters in this film have any friends or family; that the FBI has spent the past two years doing absolutely nothing; that Ev, a brilliant scientist in her own right, lacks any common sense at all; and that no journalist in the world is remotely interested in the story of the millennium.

That's a lot to swallow, and the smart thing for Pfister to do would've been to make us want to try and swallow it. He doesn't bother. He and Paglen seem to be laboring under the assumption that their premise is so inherently interesting, they don't need to bother fleshing out their characters or themes. But watching a bunch of ciphers make terrible choices gets really boring really fast, no matter how often they insist that they've made "breakthroughs" that could "change the world."

Which is a shame, because Transcendence does have the building blocks of a much better movie. The concept is ripe with big themes, but Pfister just glances in their direction without grappling with any of them. More than once, a human asks a machine how it knows it's self-aware — a good question! — and gets back the half-joking non-response, "How do you know you're self aware?" Rather than press the issue further, the humans either shrug or compliment the machine on its sense of humor.

Transcendence also whiffs on the visuals, which is ironic and disappointing given Pfister's own illustrious career as a cinematographer. His own DP Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz) does him few favors, employing a cheap-looking combination of dull colors and bright lights. The only thing that saves Transcendence from total visual blandness is some laughably bad CG.

The talents of the illustrious cast are wasted as well. Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy barely make any impression at all as an extremist leader, a scientist, and an FBI agent, respectively. Hall and Bettany try their best to bring human warmth to their stiff characters, and even manage to get some sparks flying between the two. But Paglen's clunky writing drags them down.

As for Depp, it seems he's forgotten how to act without the aid of heavy makeup and ridiculous wigs. Depp has rarely looked more uncomfortable than when he's playing Will pre-transcendence; his ordinary guy act is enclosed in scare quotes. He relaxes a bit once Will goes into the machine, but at that point he has little to do besides look aloof and possibly evil.

Which, come to think of it, might actually make him a perfect fit for this film. There's a scene in the movie when Will, in his post-transcendence state, attempts to empathize with an upset Ev. He's baffled to realize that his clinical chatter about her serotonin levels is making her more, not less agitated. That's the movie in a nutshell. It wants to be about humanity and technology and the complicated relationship between them, but is no better at understanding people than a giant computer would be.

/Film rating: 2.0 out of 10.0