I was jazzed to see Transcendence largely because it’s the directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister. Forget Johnny Depp; for me, Pfister is the above-the-title draw. The guy has shot almost all of Christopher Nolan’s movies (The Dark Knight, Inception, etc.), finding time between Batman outings to handle camera duties on Moneyball and the excellent doc Marley. Though it doesn’t happen all that frequently, there are notable examples of cinematographers who have made a successful jump to the big chair — Barry Sonnenfeld, Jan de Bont and Ernest Dickerson all come to mind. So why not Pfister?
Unfortunately, the most surprising thing about Transcendence is just how boring it is. Ostensibly a sci-fi yarn about a scientist (Depp) working on creating artificial intelligence who is poisoned by a group of anti-technology wackos before uploading his consciousness into a computer, Pfister’s debut is a sterile, bloodless experience loaded with boring performances and a distinct lack of drama. Material like this should be mind-expanding, not coma-inducing.
Transcendence features an A-list cast of actors dispassionately making their way through scene after boring scene. It’s as if Pfister’s main direction to his performers was to emote less. Or not at all. Depp lacks all of his usual off-kilter energy, even after he’s turned into a Max Headroom-style animation — which sounds fun but isn’t. Instead, he’s like Hal 9000 right when Dave Bowman is pulling his memory cards, only here it’s your mind you feel going as the film limps through it’s bloated two-hour running time.
The rest of the cast fares even worse. Paul Bettany, an actor I usually adore, just seems lifeless. Morgan Freeman comes across as vaguely confused — most likely about why he agreed to be in this movie in the first place. Rebecca Hall has always been a pretty but cookie-cutter actress, and she does nothing here to change that impression. The rest of the cast is filled out with actors who have appeared in past Nolan films. By the second half of Transcendence, the only joy I could find was in picking out bit players from The Dark Knight Rises.
Sure, the movie looks great (Pfister acolyte Jess Hall gets the official cinematographer credit), but it’s a dud on just about all other levels. Transcendence inspired nothing in me besides boredom, but at least I made it all the way through. Some guy sitting in the row right behind me passed out at the midway point and snored through the last hour. Excellent call, sir. I was jealous.