Transcendence (2014) – Review

The big talking point behind Transcendence, the story of a man whose conscience is successfully uploaded into a computer after death, is its director, Wally Pfister.  Many will know him as Christopher Nolan’s brilliant long-time director of photography – only now he isn’t, finally jumping ship into the realms of shot-calling, rather than shot-crafting.  There was a certain assumption that the transition wouldn’t be a big one for him because he’s worked for so long in the industry alongside the likes of talent like Chris Nolan, but really, when it comes down to it, direction and cinematography are two very different things… and that’s not even to mention the scope of the film that he’s chosen for his debut.

Unfortunately for Pfister, he doesn’t seem to quite have the directing thing down yet.  That’s not to say he won’t in the future – perhaps this is just a warm up gig (if it is, mind you, it’s a terribly big one to let flutter away), because there are certainly elements of promise and skill to be found within the film, but for the most part things just don’t hang together very well.  I think what it boils down to is a lack of confidence, as strange as it clearly sounds for someone of Pfister’s stature.  There’s just no consistency or shape to the film; no clear handle on proceedings.  The pacing of the first two acts is all over the place, with scenes feeling tacked together and abrasive rather than running off one another smoothly.  Pfister’s presence as a cinematographer is still there – the visuals are sleek and shiny – but on the evidence of this he hasn’t quite found his rhythm with the creative decisions.

Transcendence finds itself another debutant in screenwriter Jack Paglen, and the script needs to be held equally accountable for the problems plaguing the opening acts.  It’s his first stab at a feature, and while that’s not in itself a sign of trouble – far from it – there are clear issues with what he’s come up with and that lack of experience is probably partly responsible.  The story he’s working with is immensely compelling and the plot does lead into some interesting avenues, yet for some reason he bogs the drama down with melodramatic dialogue and irritating plot contrivances.  Rather than being constantly wowed and intrigued, we’re forced to fall in and out of love with the film with naff character exchanges and much too protrusive exposition diluting the wonderful discussions about this idea of transcendence and the implications of technology on the human race.

Fortunately the third act gradually pulls things together as the script tightens up and delivers on some of the promise of its premise, and Pfister appears to know, or at least enjoy, what he’s doing with the climax more than the rest of the film.  There’s also a genuinely meaningful message we’re left with, which appears to be the goal from the opening sequence.  Perhaps it lacks the impact we would expect, but there’s a refreshing lack of big, CGI monstrosities being blown up to satisfy multiplex audiences.  Pfister is quite happy to let the story resolve itself within closed confines.

The performances are pretty solid across the board.  Occasionally they have a habit of looking poor, but then you realise it’s actually just the words they’re saying, not the way they’re saying them.  Pfister has grabbed a few Nolan disciples (Freeman, Murphy) to fill in smaller but pivotal roles, and given Johnny Depp the chance to remind us how good an actor he really is.  Far from being his best performance, it’s still refreshing to see him doing something with a bit of heft and meat again – basically something other than kooky drunk pirate.

Transcendence is a film which frustrates and teases its audience .  On the one hand, the story is interesting enough to make it worthwhile and it does have important things to say, but on the other, with such a wonderful cast, sleek visuals and enormously rich template of ideas to draw from, it really ought to be more powerful than it is.  In the end it just about arrives at the right destination in terms of entertainment, but it’s takes a very precarious route.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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