If anything, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence serves concrete proof that good cinematographers don’t necessarily make good directors. Having shot seven of Christopher Nolan’s films, Pfister seems to think that he can turn first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s poorly thought-out cautionary tale of humanity vs. technology into his very own Inception. Indeed, aside from both featuring Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Lukas Haas, the two films could be seen as reflections of each other: Where one was about accessing man’s mind through a machine, the other is about man’s mind being transferred to a machine; where one had a grieving male protagonist whose deceased wife appeared to him as a dream imitation, the other has a female protagonist uncertain as to whether or not the figure before her is indeed her husband back from the dead or just an imitation. The film’s respective climaxes even share the same intercutting between the mending of personal wounds and the dramatic action scenes consequent to them.
Unfortunately, while Pfister’s shots are generally as impeccably composed as usual, the actors and actions within them are directed with the kind of laziness and lack of imagination one generally associates with direct-to-DVD action movies. It lays bare all the clichés in Paglen’s script – Pseudo-philosophical voiceover bookending the film, exposition delivered via conference speeches in front of a big screen and TV news reports, platitude-laden dialogue such as “you always fear what you don’t understand” (Hi Batman Begins!) – and with the exceptions of Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany, leaves most of its talented cast directionless and stilted. Johnny Depp in particular, a truly great and uniquely expressive actor, looks like he’s sleepwalking his way through a very boring dream. It’s by far his worst performance since The Astronaut’s Wife.
What’s most infuriating about Transcendence isn’t the contrast between its intellectual vapidity and its self-serious tone so much as the sheer laziness with which it treats its ideas. This is a film where a depressed small town population that has allowed a computer-man to turn them into a network of drones he can access anytime he wants to heal their ailments or even resurrect them, thus improving their lives at the cost of their own personal independence and bodily integrity, is treated as just another plot point rather than individuals whose decision carries heavy contemporary political connotations and whose point of view deserves further exploration. A woman is forced to continue a relationship with a digital husband she cannot touch and whose true nature is in doubt, yet the best Paglen and Pfister can conjure from that situation is a brief dinner scene where her husband’s imitation of the sounds of cutlery and dinner plates unsettle her. Whether he realizes he and Paglen are dealing with philosophical and political topics beyond his grasp or believes the concepts alone are inherently profound, Wally Pfister never budges from the plot imperative and goes from scene to scene like a schoolboy writing down sentences from a half-remembered lesson. His only moments of grace come in the forms of semi-abstract long-focal shots of background details in motion, little moments that were small but significant elements that gave Inception a fittingly melancholic tone, but who appear in Transcendence like lost pictures from a different, better film. Impossibly outmatched by the themes it tries to raise and directed without vision or tact, Transcendence looks and feels exactly like it is: A pale, soulless imitation of a Christopher Nolan film.