Movie Review: “Transcendence” (Wally Pfister, UK/China/USA 2014)

It seems like everyone in Hollywood who is successful in one area eventually tries directing, and every profession has its own typical pitfalls. Actors tend to fall in love with giving their actors scenery to chew and meaty characters to dig into and neglect everything visual. Writers tend to fall in love with their stories and forget to have a point (and make the stories too complex). Musicians tend to be awful at everything. Cinematographers are the people who are most clearly positioned to make such a transition successfully, since they already have to handle the visual elements of a film as cinematographers, but they sometimes fall end up being the prototypical “style over substance” filmmakers–more interested in drawing attention to themselves than in serving the film. (However, I tend to enjoy style over substance.)

Wally Pfister has had an excellent 20-year run as a cinematographer, first for Roger Corman, whose obsession with making silly sexploitation flicks and low-budget crap has masked the fact that he has been a remarkable judge of talent for many years, and then for Christopher Nolan, who has become the celebrity director du jour for the public the last few years. Nolan’s films have always looked good, and that’s attributable not just to Nolan but also to Pfister, so I was excited to see his directorial debut.

Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen concoct a story that seems ripe for being another example the all-too-common horror/sci-fi warning about the dangers of technology: Artificial intelligence researcher Will Caster has the world’s strongest AI but no way of imbuing it with consciousness when he is attacked by a “neo-luddite” (awesome term) terrorist group that also destroys decades’ worth of research at other AI facilities. As a result, the FBI gives him groundbreaking research from another researcher that gives him that final piece of the puzzle–uploading an existing consciousness instead of creating it artificially–just as radiation poisoning from the attack begins to melt away his life. His wife (a fellow AI researcher) and best friend (another AI researcher) then come up with an obvious plan: Upload the dying Will’s consciousness into the AI. He of course becomes essentially all-powerful and moves technology forward at a frightening pace, always being dogged by the terrorists from earlier but also by former friends who find this newfound existence both frightening and decidedly un-Will-like.

It’s fairly standard “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” rip-off material, but Pfister and Paglen provide an interesting twist: throughout, the neo-Luddites and the others who are frightened by the AI’s growth and actions are frightened for unexplained reasons because they actually do not have good reason for their fear. They’re worried that “Will” is amassing an army when it turns out he’s just helping people to get better from illness and enhancing them because he can. They’re afraid that he’s sending out nanobots (straight out of Doctor Who) to embed himself irrevocably in the world when he’s really trying to fix the environment, as his wife had always hoped to do. They’re afraid he wants to upload his wife into the AI because he’s not really Will’s consciousness, but he actually wants to because he is Will’s consciousness and he wants to be with her. The film’s point is that we shouldn’t fear advancement just because it is advancement–we should make sure that it’s actually something to be feared first. And the film actually makes its point reasonably well for the most part, though it strays several times to improve its love story and give Paul Bettany and Kate Mara more screen time.

I was excited to see what Pfister would do because we already know he has a good eye, but he and cinematographer Jess Hall did fall a bit into the cinematographer’s trap of forgetting to serve its subject. He became obsessed with his slow motion shots of dripping water that served no real purpose and went through some watered-down Sergei Eisenstein montages that only served as distractions. He also used a bit much CGI, considering that his story could easily have been altered to avoid using quite so much of it. Still, his mastery of shadows and color was on full display, so the film still looked good enough. I also like to give points for being unconventional even when it doesn’t work. The film took some visual risks, and it should be applauded for that.

For a film with so many big stars, there was hardly anything for them to do. The makeup does all the work for Johnny Depp when he’s getting sick and his hair does all the work in showing that he’s a stressed-out schlub before that, and he really has no emotions to play throughout. Nolan favorite Cillian Murphy is wasted in a role as an FBI agent who doesn’t so much as get annoyed at someone or show any real anxiety. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman–kindly, wise, and eminently calm. The only person who really has anything to do is Rebecca Hall, who turns in an excellent performance in a surprisingly complex role. She has to play complex mixed emotions throughout the film, and does it very well. It’s a credit to Hall that the strongest single moment in the film isn’t one of Pfister’s shots but rather her exchange with Morgan Freeman when he asks if she is okay at Will’s AI facility–it’s a beautiful moment of complex emotion watching her trying to convince both herself and Freeman that she’s okay and Freeman not believing it for a second.

All told, Transcendence was a reasonably good film. It had some weaknesses and came off a bit pretentious because of Pfister’s desire to show off a few visual ideas he had, but it had a point and mostly stuck to it. It wouldn’t be an inaccurate to call this one style over substance, but at least it has enough style to be that. We’ve certainly seen some worse films this year.


  • With all of his technological innovation, Will still couldn’t make it so that his face wouldn’t flicker and glitch constantly?
  • Morgan Freeman listening to classical music–David Fincher would be proud.
  • Seriously, they were Doctor Who nanobots:
  • The nanobots can heal the guy’s skin almost instantly but not his clothes? Self-repairing clothing is not all that far off now, but Will can’t figure it out?
  • I’m sure that Freeman likes doing sci-fi films because of his professed love of science and reason, but it’s starting to feel like somewhere in Hollywood all the directors have to sign a contract to cast him in all futuristic or sci-fi films they make.
  • Johnny Depp spends nearly the entire film on video screens, presumably filmed in front of a green screen, and yet he needed two drivers. Why would you ever need two drivers? Presumably you can’t need to go to two places at once. Maybe one could only drive him for part of the time so they ended up changing or they fired one and replaced him with the other? I’ve probably thought too much about this.
  • Apparently Kate Winslet was supposed to be the lead but had scheduling issues. I guess Pfister knew he needed someone good!