Review: Transcendence

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Seriously, Morgan, what *are* you looking at?

The Pitch: The Nolan system.

The Review: For all that you can say about cinema, it’s not a career path that lends itself naturally to progression. While the likes of Steven Soderbergh have mastered more than one skill in film production, you don’t hear many stories of key grips that went onto thriving careers as make-up artists. If there is a natural pairing of professions in the film industry, you’d think it’s director and cinematographer, the two people most concerned with getting the image right on screen, but when pretty much every list of famous cinematographers turned directors has Jan “Speed 2” De Bont on it, it’s clearly not an easy transition to make. Full marks for effort to Wally Pfister, then, for deciding to break away from a twenty year career in cinematography and a lengthy collaboration with Christopher Nolan to making his own films.

It’s also decent marks for attainment when it comes to the visuals. Pfister’s films have always had a compelling visual quality and he’s stuck to his principles, shooting Transcendence on traditional 35mm film. In collaboration with another Brit, this time his own cinematographer Jess Hall (veteran of Brit films including Hot Fuzz and Son Of Rambow), Transcendence balances beautiful moments of intimate slo-mo with grander, sweeping vistas. Unlike other blockbusters that live just to excite your inner fanboy with a robot riding a giant dinosaur, Transcendence aims for something subtler. The stock middle-America townscape is a bit of a cliché, but that’s one weak link in Pfister’s composition.

For those getting their hopes up that Pfister’s film could be of equal quality in all the other departments, it’s time to unceremoniously dash those hopes. That even extends as far as general shot composition; while certain brief moments might look good, as a whole the film is a dull canvass of browns and whites and nothing sticks in the mind for more than a few minutes. That pales in comparison to some of the acting, which is led by a dialled-in (probably on a 56k modem) performance from Johnny Depp. Once Depp’s settled on an accent, he sleepwalks through the film, sapping interest out of scenes while barely even trying. Rebecca Hall makes a bit of an effort, but everyone else, from Paul Bettany to Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, wanders around in a general state of confusion, wondering where their character development has disappeared to and failing to invest the tired script with any sense of conviction.

There are numerous problems with that script, and not only does the dialogue fail to convince in individual scenes, the script as a whole is a damb squib. Transcendence thinks it has a couple of good ideas, but anyone who’s ever seen more than a couple of episodes of any sci-fi series on TV won’t be surprised at any part of the “human consciousness in a computer” plot, and Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey – which wasn’t that great itself – was a far better exploration of the dramatic possibilities of nanotechnology, a thread which plays out laughably here. To top it all off, the script begins at the end and then flashes back, killing any dramatic tension stone dead. Most of the film’s ideas about technology are laughably poor, but not laughable enough to tip the film into the “so bad it’s good” category. When Christopher Nolan comes up with films about dream worlds, wormholes and men who dress as bats and fight crime, you have to wonder what drove Pfister to trot out such a succession of barely warmed-over clichés that make you yearn for some paint to watch drying. Sad to say, but Wally Pfister’s first film makes Jan De Bont’s directorial career look like a constant procession of genius by comparison; even Morgan Freeman reading out binary code for two hours would have been more appealing.

Why see it at the cinema: As I’ve said, there are some lovely looking individual frames, it’s just a shame they never form into anything resembling a coherent whole. But they do look great on a giant cinema screen.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and bloody images. The BBFC rating advice also indicates that, “there is also a scene in which a couple embrace and kiss.” As that’s in the rating advice, does it mean that embracing is only to be witnessed by 11 year olds with the consent of their parents?

My cinema experience: A Sunday evening at my local Cineworld would not normally be heavily populated, but for some reason this was a big draw so I was sat third row from the front. Someone sat in the middle of the bank of seats in front of me, and then refused to move when another couple came in looking for the two seats either side. That confrontation, as brief as it was, proved to be more interesting that anything projected onto the screen in front of them.

The Score: 3/10