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Monday, April 21, 2014

Rohan: On Failure to Achieve Transcendence

(Our friend Rohan Morbey has been blogging prolifically at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK of late, and has graciously allowed us to cross-post his rather lukewarm review of Transcendence, the directing debut of Dark Knight cinematographer Wally Pfister. We're always happy to include his posts here, and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)      

Do you remember when movies were turned into novelizations to tie-in to their release? Watching
Transcendence it dawned on me around the hour mark that this film would probably make for an engaging and fascinating read over the course of 500 pages or more, but when you’re left thinking this, it’s clear the film playing in front of you isn’t working. In a reverse logic to how Hollywood works, this is one film which someone should adapt into a book because the screenplay is essentially unfilmable.

This is a shame because if Transcendence has one thing going for it it is originality, and it at least attempts to present a story which provokes discussion long after the film has finished. This alone is a reason why the film isn’t a complete disaster and praise should be given to first time screenwriter Jack Paglen and to debut director Wally Pfister for taking on a project of this scope, rather than something mindless like Fast and Furious 10. The idea is fascinating: scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is at the forefront of artificial intelligence advancements and, with the help of his wife (Rebecca Hall), has developed ‘transcendence’, this having more intelligence and understanding of science than all the collective minds of every person who has ever lived on Earth before. It is the evolution of humanity, beyond all our understanding, so obviously people are scared and want Caster stopped before his creation is put into practice.

Shortly after announcing Transcendence at a conference, an assassin for anti-technology terrorist group R.I.F.T shoots but doesn’t kill Caster, giving him a month to survive after complications appear, so transcendence is put into play. It is at this point, where the film should leap into the next gear and fully take the audience into a technological world beyond our imagination, that it begins to show its significant narrative and visual flaws. Unfortunately these flaws are the fundamentals of film making, rendering Transcendence lifeless for the remaining 90 minutes.

There are many ideas running through the film about what it is to be human and how machines and programs can never distinguish between conflicting emotions, but this is all talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. This could be tolerable if the visuals were able to offset the tech-heavy dialogue but Pfister shows us servers and screens and solar panels, whilst Depp, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and an excellent actor when given a script worthy of his talents, is mostly seen on screens or heard over speakers. This leaves Rebecca Hall to carry this already weighty film, and she does not have the screen presence to do so. The cinematography by Jess Hall is serviceable but bland, quite ironic considering Pfister himself is rightly regarded as one of the best cinematographers working today. Certainly the film isn’t without some visual flourishes, especially towards the end, but there's nothing here which shows Pfister to be a promising directorial voice.

The real trouble with this as a film is that it doesn't make us care: Its central love story is tired, whilst the R.I.F.T terrorist plots, superhuman regeneration, and end-of-all-technology doomsday scenarios never ignite or go anywhere as the film tries to juggle too many ideas for its own good. As I mentioned before, this can work in a large novel but not in a two hour film which is supposed to entertain as well as provoke and inspire thought. Moreover, the portrait of the world without technology in the opening scenes really had me hooked but this is never capitalized on, and that is a huge disappointment considering the quite boring stuff we are given.

Transcendence is a wasted potential but a decent effort nonetheless. I believe it was far too big of a project for a first time director and needed some serious script revisions to lend itself to a visual experience; if this were Pfister’s third or fourth film after a set of smaller, more personal films then we could have been looking at something far greater but giving him $100m the first time around only shows his limitations. For a film which wants to make you think ‘what if?’, we shouldn’t be left wondering ‘if only’.

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