Transcendence, Wally Pfister’s debut directional effort, brings together a wide selection of ideas, but is it an epic film, or an epic fail?
It’s Her meets Lawnmower Man, as Captain Jack Sparrow gets reincarnated as the world’s cleverest man. He’s swapped his tatty hair and crap Keith Richards impersonation for a pair of glasses and an ambition to push the boundaries of Artificial Intelligence. Unfortunately for Captain Jack, sorry… Doctor Jack, there’s a group of anti-Information Technology activists on the loose. Whilst they frown upon Facebook or the electronic distribution of cute kitten pictures and dirty videos, they really have a serious issue with anyone creating an omnipotent self-aware computer.
In a series of attacks that would fit in perfectly on 24, the technophobic terrorists wreak havoc among the offending scientific community. Doctor Jack Sparrow is mortally wounded, and in a last ditch effort to save his soul, his equally attractive and intelligent wife downloads his brainwaves into a computer. This is where it begins to get a little daft.
Once the good Doctor gets fed into the machine, fairly serious issues with the logic of the characters’ actions start to appear. A previous scene pitches the idea machines are superior to humans at decision making, because they are incapable of making impassioned mistakes. This seems like a bad excuse for dodgy plot devices. Perhaps a few extra hours of contemplative script editing, and less extraordinary shots of water droplets, could have made a big difference. A question Mr Pfister has to be asking from now on should be: “Does it even make sense?”
Visually Transcendence is very impressive, deep staging in rooms full of computer equipment provide a sense of mankind’s impotence against the march of technology. There’s a hefty slew of slow-motion photography thrown in as well. Some of it weighted heavy with metaphor, but pretty all the same.
The individual performances are also great, without exception. Paul Bettany is impressive as a concerned scientist and friend, as is Rebecca Hall, despite her character often not possessing the sense she was born with. Johnny Depp is reliable as usual, despite spending much of the film appearing as an impassive screen-bound rendering, like a super sexy Max Headroom.
Fans of antiquated doom–laden Science Fiction workouts, like Colossus: The Forbin Project or Demon Seed, will find plenty to enjoy here. But, as most of the films themes are looked at without any sense of coherence, to many it will just seem confused and ill-disciplined.
Although its story follows a well-trodden path in Science Fiction, it’s undoubtedly a timely retelling. True Artificial Intelligence is only a couple of decades away now. The most common application for those developing systems isn’t concerned with providing companionship for lonely agoraphobics, or novelty chat show hosts. The desire to create a machine that learns, thinks and reacts to the stock market sees the biggest advances in this field. No one seems to question the dangers of a hyper-intelligent, self-aware machine being plugged into the internet, especially one concerned only with the acquisition of wealth. Perhaps the possibility of bowing before our machine overlords is nearer than many are prepared to admit.
Stylish, beautifully shot and occasionally awkward, the film doesn’t ever stoop to become patronising or boring. Maybe Transcendence will be viewed differently after the disappointment of its audience ebbs away. But what were we all expecting to get from this film?
Pfister started out adding a touch of visual sheen to bad horror films, before moving on to work as Director of Photography for Christopher Nolan. That long term partnership saw Phister creating some of the wonderful images in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the claustrophobic Insomnia and the mind-bending Inception.
Nolan himself stared out as a director with films that took a simple premise and made them extraordinary. Ostensibly this may be where Pfister has fallen down, boldly choosing to jump into directing with a work that questions the very nature of our existence, he’s taken an extraordinary story and made it plain bonkers.
It’s certainly not a cineplex-filling blockbuster. There are few explosions and no fart gags, so here’s another fundamental problem with the film. From the trailer you imagine a thrill-packed foray into a war between man and machine. Instead Transcendence’s audience is faced with a slightly ponderous narrative that analyses too many ideas to be completely intelligible.
Considering the film’s $100 million budget and the pedigree of his previous photography work, there must have been enormous pressure to create a box office smash. So that is where the film has been placed. Other Science Fiction works, like the magnificent Robot and Frank, have also explored the relationship between man and machine. The miniscule budget of that piece forced it’s makers to focus more on providing deft touches in the script to carry it.
The massive finances and expectations for Transcendence have proved to be a troublesome burden for Pfister. Given time to develop, and with the right script, there’s every chance he will produce some of the greatest works in modern Cinema. Transcendence is an interesting work, but not for a mainstream audience seeking mere distraction.