We are the company we keep, and in the case of Wally Pfister, he and his professional cronies are some of the most iconic around. As DP alongside Christopher Nolan, his outlook working with key actors promises a certain atmosphere, a unique method. So here we are: a gloomy thriller trying to ground its at-times-daffy premise, emphasis on a grieving protagonist, with supporting turns from Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy. These aren’t rumored plot details from Nolan’s “Interstellar,” however. No, in mounting his feature directorial debut, “Transcendence,” Pfister has chosen to tackle familiarity head on, carving out a new arena for himself while rigging the grounds with pitfalls at every step.
In reality, the film serves as a stronger document of Pfister’s creative DNA than a compelling narrative. It tosses neatly mussed extremists and surly FBI agents into a sci-fi love story about the dangers of technology, and offers far fewer moments of intrigue or pleasure than that combination should produce. What proves intriguing at the start, though, is the unknown signature of Pfister. In short, by working with a $100 million budget, what would the seasoned eye behind “Memento,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” deliver in performance and narrative himself?
For much of “Transcendence,” that answer is slick portent fading into dreariness. Jack Paglen’s script casts artificial intelligence and its dangers as the central trouble for its ensemble cast, but Pfister chooses to explore it in essentially a two-hour “getting ready” montage. The plot concerns a scientist (Rebecca Hall) questioning her marriage once she successfully uploads the brain of her husband Will (Johnny Depp) to a computer—and fair enough, it’s a worthy concern. But as we gaze upon Hall’s Evelyn weighing her relationship with an online Depp, we then cut away to endless board rooms, base camps, and labs, where end times are discussed by R.I.F.T., an anti-technology outfit led by Kate Mara, and Freeman and Murphy as a A.I. expert/FBI team.
A sense of dread could work wonders with that set-up, but dread and wonder are what the film simply lacks. For years we’ve seen the loose grasp on involvement from CGI in physical environments; here we have the same dramatic disconnect, only now that union between technology and humanity is a vital plot point. As Depp—whose lone costume change thankfully stops at a digital dress shirt—grows more powerful in his electronic skin, influencing stock markets and scientific options, the impact of these events is never felt. They feel distant and weightless, resulting in the film feeling small even as it hunkers down in a New Mexico satellite field for a grand stand-off.
Given that Depp plays a computer for most of the film, I suppose he’s somewhat off the hook for such a static performance. Meanwhile, Hall does the best she can with her role, which jarringly shifts her from sober optimist to ruthless devotee in a single scene, leaving the other characters—and the audience—to make sense of it. Mara, Freeman, and Murphy are wasted, stuck in holding patterns of exposition; only Paul Bettany, as a scientist wary of his colleagues’ path, treads a winning, if somewhat telegraphed journey, bringing a warm and empathetic performance to this largely humorless affair.
Over six collaborative efforts, Pfister and Nolan fashioned a much-debated approach of emotional logic over narrative coherence. In this film, it seems Pfister has swapped the routine, stringing a clear, episodic plot together with a perplexing mish-mash of motivations and actions. To make matters worse, Pfister’s allegiance to anamorphic 35mm is severely misled. Using DP Jess Hall (“The Spectacular Now”), he plunges his actors into murky browns and drab whites, topping the look off with a back-lit sheen that looks fairly cheap.
The cinematography was so unremarkable that it made us question if the film was in fact shot on digital—a peculiar conflict, considering the themes at the heart of “Transcendence.” It is wondered aloud among characters how much humanity presides in artificial intelligence, and whether the appearance of empathy or love is enough, even when there’s nothing but code behind it. I love that Pfister treats these issues not as a punchline, but with an engaged eye—and to be sure, for better and worse, it is not the eye of his longtime collaborator. But as technological advances hint that these events aren’t too far off, it’s a safe bet life will unfold differently to Pfister’s deeply uninvolving debut: there will be humor, there will be disbelief, and there will be a moment of tangible spectacle if it actually works. [D+]