Transcendence is the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s go to cinematographer Wally Pfister. While he has outsourced the cinematography duties to Jess Hall the photography vision is still intact. There are more parallels. The problems that Pfister has as a director are also somewhat similar to Nolan’s directorial issues. There is too much exposition. There is more telling than showing. The ideas in this drama masquerading as sci-fi aren’t new and it is well set up but long drawn and tedious in the end. Unfortunately, Jack Paglen doesn’t share Nolan’s writing talent. The film transcends the meat of the material and not in a good way.
The initial few sequences are the strongest. It feels like a Steven Soderbergh feature where we are simply observing people and taking in their world. This is lingering and slow and it pays off because something alarming happens soon after. Pfister wants to set this up as a God vs Science debate and it is not a bad idea for drama. Rebecca Hall, in easily the performance of the film (everyone else is just there) is the only one who seems to be aware of it. The others talk science and killing and philosophy in heady ways. In a film that discusses god, Hall effortless provides the soul.
In the credit where it’s due column, Pfister has some good ideas. He sets up a few god’s eye view shots of cities and the data center etc. When things get out of hand, there is a scene with Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and Max (Paul Bettany) where they are discussing destroying the god they helped create. Pfister sets it up from the ground to them standing at a higher altitude. There is another scene where Joseph (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) on their first encounter with the Johnny Depp made of 0s and 1s (in a curious bit of irony Transcendence was shot in film, not digital) exclaim, “Jesus Christ!“.
The symbolism is all fine till Pfister decides to go all onanistic about his supernatural theme. He has to show Max wearing a cross in a crucial scene in the end. There is a bigger issue where he tries to go for redemption for the Depp character that never deserved any. The whole idea of law and order units collaborating with terrorists is another theme that’s problematic. Kate Mara plays her grey character as unconvincingly as she plays her grey character in House of Cards.
Focusing on drama in this not-really-science-fiction film is a good road to go down. But Transcendence fails because after a point it becomes a sermon.
(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)