Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014) – More than anything else, Transcendence is a lesson in how tone can kill a movie. The premise is goofy, the science is half-cocked, and the message is obvious. However, it is a blockbuster, so those things wouldn’t matter quite so much if it were bright, colorful, and silly. But Transcendence is none of these things. It’s serious, deadly serious, as if it’s saying important things through pulp. In other words, it’s a Christopher Nolan-styled blockbuster. He produced this one and even got his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister his first directing gig to run the show. Trouble is that Christopher Nolan is very good at what he does and can make stories about superheroes and dream thieves feel like it deserves serious film reverence. Pfister on the other hand doesn’t seem to have moved past making pretty pictures despite the fact that his new job requires so much more. He got the stars and resources to make a Chris Nolan movie, too bad he didn’t get Nolan to write the script as well.
Johnny Depp stars as an artificial intelligence guru who just designed a computer with a sense of consciousness. It’s a big scientific breakthrough and even Morgan Freeman is impressed (at this point it doesn’t matter who Freeman plays in a movie, he’s just Morgan Freeman). However, other people aren’t so impressed. In particular, there’s a group of anti-technology terrorists known as neo-luddites (yep, that term is used in the movie and not treated as a joke) who are so infuriated with Depp that they shoot him with a radioactive bullet (once again, not a joke). Depp has only a few weeks left to live, so his scientist wife (Rebecca Hall) and scientist best friend (Paul Bettany) decide to upload his consciousness into artificial intelligence so that his mind can live forever. It’s a movie so that concept works, but the neo-luddites (led by Kate Mara) somehow find out and attack. Next thing you know, Bettany is kidnapped by the terrorists and Hall runs away with virtual Depp. Flash-forward a few years and Hall/Depp now have an underground super science layer in the dessert where computer Depp is slowly starting to create a means to take over the world. Meanwhile, Bettany is now one of the terrorists and somehow knows what’s up, so he decides it’s time to take that Johnny Depp living computer brain down…or whatever.
There are some compelling ideas at the core of Transcendence, enough to explain how all of these actors who should know better signed on to such the stupid project. Unfortunately the ham-fisted script by Jack Paglen stole all his ideas from better sci-fi writers and only added facile characters, confusing narrative twists, and massive potholes. It still could have been fun if played in an over-the-top manner, but instead Pfister treats everything far too seriously for any camp appeal. All the actors speak in hushed tones and give muted performances, most likely out of a mix of Pfister’s only line of direction being “even more seriously, please” and the screenplay offering nothing in the way of characterization.
Pfister does deliver a handful of striking images, but beyond that his directorial debut is a muddled mess that’s neither an entertaining blockbuster nor a thoughtful sci-fi experiment. It’s nothing for nobody and weirdly for a movie loudly expounding about the importance over messy human life over computerized perfection, is as cold, calculated, and inhumane a movie as you’ll see all summer. Maybe that was Pfister’s point? Who knows? Regardless he delivered a pretty dull and stupid movie that doesn’t even offer fodder for ironic laughter. Transcendence’s will work best as an sleep aid and now you can take full advantage of that on Blu-ray.
It has to be said that the disc does look gorgeous. Pfister was always a great DP and got one hell of a budget to make this mess, so it looks pretty in HD. Sound is also crisp and clean. The film has been treated well in its transition to home video and clearly this was done long ago when everyone involved still thought Transcendence had a chance at being a hit. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. The special feature section seems robust when you read the back of the box or check the menus. In addition to the requisite trailers, there are 7 featurettes with titles like The Promise Of A.I. or Wally Pfister: A Singular vision suggesting that there might be a wealth of material that will attempt to explain just what it was everyone involved with the movie was going for, even if it would never cover how those good intentions went so wrong. But then you press play and realize they are all EPK puff pieces ranging from a minute to five minutes and offering nothing beyond back slapping and plot summary. It’s a cheat and a disappointment, but so is Transcendence. I suppose in a weird way it’s a fittingly forgettable Blu-ray for a movie that’s justifiably already been forgotten. Don’t put yourself through the pain of acknowledging its existence. We’re all past that now. (Phil Brown)