Director: Wally Pfister
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy
Plot: When Evelyn Caster (Hall), is forced to upload her husband’s consciousness into the Internet, he becomes all-powerful, his intent spinning wildly out of control.
Well, seeing as I put this as my predicted film of the year, I feel a little embarrassed.
Wally Pfister comes from the school of Christopher Nolan, being the cinematographer for a lot of Nolan’s movies. As his first time directing, Pfister often leans to Nolan for inspiration and that is very clear with this movie. A lot of the Nolanisms here work really well and it does give Transcendence that idea of an ‘epic’ movie, atmosphere pouring from every musical note and frame. However, the difference between Pfister and Nolan is that Nolan never forgets to have fun with his movies. His Dark Knight trilogy might be the most exposition-heavy Batman movie out there, but there was this sense that Nolan was loving the idea that he was making a god damn Batman movie! And Inception might have been weighty in places, but when you strip the story to its essentials, it is a fun, action thriller that just wanted to be a little more intelligent. Pfister has this really great story (and it is a really good story, despite its flaws), but he never really had fun with it. I felt like I was in a restaurant and ordered too much. I loved almost everything on my plate, but it was too much to get through in one sitting, making the whole affair exhausting rather than exhilarating.
However, I did like this movie more than I thought I would. When the bad reviews starting flooding out, I was expecting a nonsensical two hours, filled with Jesus imagery and anti-technology protest. I am not going to lie, those reviews were pretty spot-on, because we still do get those things. There are too many characters and I didn’t like how the storyline spanned over five years, which made crucial scenes need to be cut before they got too long. However, the core of the story was solid and that is what kept me through this until the end. I liked how Will Caster became something akin to a classic Gothic villain. Deep down, he was good and we never truly lose touch with the thought process of this character. However, at the same time, he had so much control, we could see Caster get corrupted by his own position and that was an exciting arc to follow. Evelyn was also a pretty good Gothic heroine, trapped by her husband, through misplaced devotion and love. However, while I appreciated this elements, I am not entirely sure Pfister purposefully meant for Gothic imagery to be present in his script, so I feel cautious about giving the director credit for that.
The acting was good and this was one thing that Pfister managed to inherit from Nolan: the ability to get the best out of his actors. Paul Bettany was amazing here and I wish that the movie wasn’t cutting between so many characters, giving the actor more time to shine. We get his internal struggle and it is suggested that he and the ‘good guys’ are just as destructive as the enemies of the film. Rebecca Hall really disappointed me in 2013, yet here she comes back fighting, with one of the best performances I have ever seen from the actress. Sadly, Depp lets the side down a little. I cannot blame the bloke, as he is essentially playing a computer that struggles to express emotions. There are only so many directions to take that role. In fact, maybe Johnny Depp deserves praise for doing what he does with Will Caster. However, when you stick Johnny Depp in a movie, you must expect floods of his fans to turn up just to see him. They are probably the people that will be let down the most by Transcendence.
The only other thing I have to criticise is the fact the movie gives away the ending at the very start. That was a massive mistake and removes almost all of the tension in the final act. The climax manages to be emotionally resonant, but it very nearly misses the mark.
Final Verdict: While Transcendence isn’t a complete disaster, it could have been handled a lot better. Hopefully Pfister learns from his mistakes.