Transcendence, dir. Wally Pfister, wr. Jack Paglen, st. Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara
Much as I have a soft spot for The Fly II, the 1989 sequel to Cronenberg's 1986 remake of the 1958 original, I do think its director, Chris Walas, was better suited to life as a special effects artist than as a bona fide auteur. He won an Oscar for his make-up work on The Fly, although The Fly II garnered much negative criticism. And Hollywood has rather chequered success when it comes to cinematographers who step in to direct - people who, arguably, should know better. At the successful end of the transition we have directors like Nicholas Roeg, who shot, amongst others, Lawrence of Arabia (as second unit photographer), Roger Corman's The Masque of Red Death, and Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 before going on to direct acclaimed films such as Walkabout, Don't Look Now, and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Jan de Bont cut his teeth on the gorgeous-looking Basic Instinct, Flatliners, Black Rain and Die Hard, before directing Speed (great), Twister (not so great), and the grammatically-challenged Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (really not so great). Even Spielberg's right-hand man Janusz Kaminski has had a go - a man of considerable talent (think how good Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Lincoln and War Horse look), but do you remember his directorial effort Lost Souls with Ben Chaplin and Winona Ryder? No, neither do we. Which brings us to Wally Pfister, a cinematographer primarily known for his work with Christopher Nolan, and whose distinct high-contrast visualisations have become an integral part of Nolan's cinematic vision.
On paper at least, Transcendence is ripe with technicolour possibility. It deals with Kurzweilian hi-concept futurism, the scientific and ethical dilemmas inherent, and all manner of complex bio-mechanical relationships. Movie history tells us Man and Machine is the golden conceit that keeps on giving. Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist a breath away from creating the world's first sentient computer, but who takes a bullet courtesy of RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a terrorist movement determined to keep humanity from overreaching. His wife Eveyln (Hall), unable to confront Will's inevitable demise, plugs him into his own creation, uploading his consciousness into a supercomputer. Once connected to the 'net, Will propagates his intelligence and begins to grow at an exponential rate, setting up base in a remote dustball town, and proceeding to build a vast array of underground labs complete with remote controlled cyborgs to help him carry out his research. The most astonishing thing about Transcendence is how it manages to pack so much into its considerable running time without demonstrating much heart or vitality at all. Evelyn and Will have so little connection as to appear to be little more than co-workers, whilst Will himself is a picture of unsmiling stoicism. Seeing as Transcendence reads as an alternative love story, and the myriad of ways it forms and takes shape, this seems like a quantum oversight. Its co-stars fare little better. I'm still not sure how Cillian Murphy's FBI agent or Morgan Freeman's government scientist fit into the chaotic, untidy narrative. Undoubtedly, and predictably, Transcendence looks as good as a bona fide Nolan picture: Caster's Apple-campus labs are a triumph of minimalistic design, and Evelyn's on-site lab-recreated apartment glows softly with the kind of hazy surrealism that recalls the home the Mecha synaptically recreate for David and his mother Monica in Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence. But the gaping holes in the plot are too large to ignore, and the cast (that given the pedigree ought to delight) come across as expressionless as one of Caster's automatons.