9 June 2014

Capsule Review: Transcendence (Wally Pfister, Warner Bros., 2014)

Grade - D

As films go, few 2014 releases have left me more despondent than “Transcendence”.

The directorial debut of cinematographer supreme Wally Pfister, the picture has a premise that simmers with gentle potential, but a melee of screenwriting missteps rob the final product of potency or grounded characterisation. As the terminally wounded genius morphed into an AI, Johnny Depp gives perhaps his best performance since 2009’s “Public Enemies”, although I genuinely feel the competition on that front couldn't get any softer (His turn in the otherwise unfairly scorned "The Lone Ranger" a nadir). He’s at least emoting with some degree of subtly here, slipping organically into an increasingly remote and chilling cyber entity. Props to Pfister for banning the actor from garish make-up choices and Rebecca Hall for giving him a mature screen companion to work alongside. As Depp’s increasingly beleaguered and conflicted wife, Hall is one of the movie’s few functional dramatic weapons. She’s very sad and very real, a beating heart for this otherwise mismanaged flop.

Visually it's dull (confusing, right?), with Pfister translating few of his own celebrated skills over to incoming DP Jess Hall. There's no dynamism in Hall's compositions or aesthetic choices, "Transcendence" a blend of familiar dystopian hues and washed out tones. It's not amateurish or incompetent, but it is staggeringly unmemorable. The feature cribs imagery from a vast quantity of other science-fiction enterprises, and the way it registers a human/computer hybrid is far less nuanced or sophisticated than the recent Oscar-troubling "Her". You can't put a price on innovation it seems. 

The screenplay takes some suspect detours, many of which feel at odds with the development of a satisfactory narrative. “Transcendence” opts to skip perhaps the most interesting period in its characters’ lives, the interim where Depp transforms completely from man to program, thusly denying us first-hand exposure to the trauma etched over Hall’s love-sick face. Much of the film is founded on the tragedy of their relationship, so by excising the juiciest portion of said facet you reduce the movie’s dramatic value considerably. Supporting characters weave in and out of the film inconsistently, including a band of anti-AI terrorists (headed by a faceless Kate Mara) and the gormless double-act of Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman. Both men are usually great, but they don’t have much energy together and their characters are depressingly formless.

Disappointingly Pfister opts to rush toward a flat action climax, replete with military firepower and zero pathos. “Transcendence” crams as many superficial ideas as it can into this barrage of empty-headed destruction, including nods to “Frankenstein” and environmentalism. It’s all pay-off and no foreplay, a rare complaint, but one which explains the finale’s hollow self-righteousness and unimaginative carnage. The film-makers likely believe it communicates essential global awareness, but I suspect “Transcendence” will be heralded only as a reminder that cinematographers should stick to their day-jobs. “Speed 2” anyone?

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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