Ace cinematographer and frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister has made a name for himself in the last few years as one of the most sought after talents in Hollywood. He DPed on Memento, Insomnia, The Italian Job, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Moneyball (my personal favourite of his work) and The Dark Knight Rises. Having worked on such high caliber films in the past, it was only a matter of time before Pfister made the big directorial jump behind the camera.
[Transcendence](movie:703173) is the result of Pfister's directorial debut and frankly, it's rather disappointing. Considering all the hoopla surrounding the project and the pedigree of its esteemed cast, it's hard not be thinking that the film should be leagues better. Fact is, it's not. For what it's worth though, it was honestly refreshing to see Johnny Depp not be lathered in pounds of obscene makeup or indulging in his inherent quirk factor. Here he's "relatively normal" in the regard that he's just some genius. Just some genius, no big deal or anything. That being said, Depp turns in a rather blasé performance. Before the whole initial incident, he just seems generally nonplussed to be there. The only actors who give decent enough performances are Rebecca Hall as Depp's wife and Paul Bettany as his BFF. Hall is a capable actress, but her character is poorly written with a rushed second half arc that's barely believable. Bettany tries to project some gravitas and pathos with his whole "Calm Down Icarus" character portrayal. Unfortunately, the script gives him no real room to develop enough.
The person I was most excited to see was Cillian Murphy because that guy is straight up awesome. Yeah, so he was in the movie for all of about five minutes. Same with Morgan Freeman. Yes he's awesome because he's Morgan Freeman. The man could read the phone book and make it the most interesting thing in the world, but here he's a wasted talent. With the exception of Hall and Bettany, everyone else in the film of thespian repute is just there for what feels like nothing more than a glorified cameo. If you're a guy like Pfister then you'd probably be able to pull some pretty serious strings. It's just too bad he hadn't gone and done more with the enviable talent he had at his disposal.
The same thing goes for the story itself. The basic premise for the film is an intriguing one and the trailer involved my very rapt attention, despite unfortunately showing too much. The script by first-timer Jack Paglen is rather rote in its story, characters and dialogue. The film starts out at the end and then goes to the beginning. This can work in some cases (Mission Impossible III or Lost. Both JJ Abrams projects, hmm...), but here in Transcendence it doesn't. Giving away the ending from the beginning is just pointless. With the exception of the very beginning, the first third of the film is quite intriguing and entertaining. Here's where Pfister's failings as a first-time director really start to show. The whole middle act of the film is one long, drawn out affair that drags its feet and spins its wheels. Not to mention a cringe-inducing and painfully heavy-handed environmental message shoved in there for good measure, because every story just totally needs one of those.
Pfister is so focused on the ideas behind the film, that his actors and their corresponding characters fall by the wayside. As Depp's character becomes more and more power-hungry and intelligent, the more the events in the film go sideways and the more we simply don't care.
2 stars out of 5