Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser | Written by Jack Paglen | Directed by Wally Pfister
Surely one of the more anticipated American films of the year for a lot of cineastes, Transcendence is the directorial debut of the wonderfully named Wally Pfister, a man who up until this film was predominantly known for being one of Christopher Nolan’s key collaborators, shooting all of his films since Memento and in the process heightening Nolan’s cerebral work with a look that is pretty much as polished as you can ever hope for, while also being a vocal proponent of non-digital film formats and keeping the 35mm dream alive. Armed with $100 million for a budget, the ability to use 35mm and a rather starry ensemble cast, critics have been lining up to take a swing at Transcendence and audiences haven’t been lining up to see it with the film likely to be a huge financial write-off for the interested parties.
Transcendence is certainly not a perfect film but there is a large amount of quality elements to the film as a whole. It poses a great many questions but the one I found most interesting is the idea of how a society would react to something truly extraordinary which shows us just how much good it can do, but that the basis for which is something that we cannot really understand. The reactions to this in the film feel wholly grounded and depressingly real and Pfister works this balance between the wonder and fear of technology very well.
The key to the film which this theme is very much a part of however, is the relationship between Johnny Depp’s Will and Rebecca Hall’s Evelyn, a loving couple who are ripped horrifically apart, again by a force which cannot comprehend that which they are trying to achieve. Hall is the beating heart of the film, the real engine for the narrative in terms of getting the plot wheels turning but also the person on which everything hangs. She makes the decision to upload him, with his approval but not his prodding, and she is the one who the third act hinges upon. Depp plays his role well but despite the impression given in the marketing, he is not the main character, instead playing a robotic and not wholly human version of a man who appears to be slightly robotic to begin with, Depp’s usual odd vocal stylings leading to an impression of an otherworldly man who doesn’t really need to be so. Hall is reliably fantastic though, believably playing a genius in very dark stretches of grief, a trope played often in the world of sci-fi and horror but not often by a woman, an aspect which lends a depressingly original take on it and one which aches for much of the runtime and Pfister demonstrates an obvious ability to coax a complex performance from her.
This being hard sci-fi, there are concepts at play here which could be seen as somewhat “silly”. It would be spoilerish to really get into this but they lend a somewhat surreal feel to the film’s latter portions which impress more than the explosions and gunfire which surround them. These notions feel appropriate for the content of this film and for this writer at least, broke beyond the on-the-surface level and I feel will be memorable when it comes to talking about the more interesting moments of film in 2014.
Depp and Hall are also aided by some solid support though some rather less so. Paul Bettany’s character becomes less important in the grand scheme of things, but his usual blend of smarts and affability works still. Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman’s characters feel like they had more to do in earlier drafts and essentially act as empty calories to the film’s near 2-hour runtime though both do better than Kate Mara whose patented surly and arrogant routine wears here.
An expensive film concerned more with ideas than action working in a subversive sci-fi horror environment. Not your usual $100 million film but for my money, Transcendence works on an intellectual and emotional level, asking and posing questions about humanity and what it is to be human. It may not be your cup of tea, but if it is, prepare for a future unheralded gem.