Working as the cinematographer for Christopher Nolan on all his major films, Wally Pfister has managed to assemble quite the resume. Together, they have developed a certain cinematic style and built up reputations for themselves with audiences and the box office. So it is no wonder that all this success has lead to Pfister securing his first feature film as a director with Transcendence. Sticking to familiarity, Wally Pfister had a big budget, a solid cast of some friendly faces, and an intriguing premise – all of which couldn’t add up to a good film this time around.
A young man sticks his useless keyboard under a door to prop it open. This describes one of the first shots of the film, and provides us with a cringeworthy clue that we’re about to jump backwards for this story to unfold. Five years prior, Will and Evelyn Caster are two scientists trying to make the world a better place. Will (Johnny Depp) has successfully uploaded a chimp’s brain to a computer, allowing it to keep “living” beyond death. This is a huge advancement in science and study of the human consciousness, but a group called RIFT believes it’s more of a threat than a discovery.
At a conference where Will is presenting, a member of RIFT shoots him with a poisoned bullet that slowly begins to kill. Not yet ready to give up, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) decides to take his work and use it to save him by uploading his consciousness to a computer. It‘s a success. RIFT tries to intervene but is stopped once Will’s digital self goes online. The world is now at his fingertips, yet he’s only beginning. The possibilities are endless.
This premise is huge and packs plenty of potential, but with this particular story to tell, a two-hour film just wasn’t the best approach. There was simply too much going on and too much exposition to ever get a grasp on these characters and their motivations. And Jack Paglen’s script is a mess. His ideas are relevant and imaginative, but the plotting and dialogue lack a flair that may have elevated the film. Wally Pfister doesn’t go without blame. Assuming he could have gotten just about anything reasonable made for his directing debut, he chose a project that clearly wasn’t ready. In the end, both men share the responsibility for wasting great talents – Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy – with unrefined dialogue and characterization.
It’s easy to imagine the Wally Pfister was attempting to step out from behind Christopher Nolan’s shadow and put his own stamp on cinema. Rather or not it was a step or leap he took, Pfister shows that he has the ability with Transcendence, but perhaps not yet the finesse to take on a Nolan-sized film. The slump seems to be out of the way and I’m eager to see what’s next. [D]
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