Tuesday 29 April 2014

Review: Transcendence

Year: 2014
Director: Wally Pfister  
Screenplay: Jack Paglen 
Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany

Synopsis is here

I squirmed uncomfortably through a lot of Transcendance. I was slightly shocked at just how soulless the film felt. It contains hefty themes of man vs machine, techno terrorism, environmentalism and man created reverence, yet administers them with the sternness of a strict schoolmarm. Far too often I found myself siding with either the humans or the computers and was willing the film to stop being so po-faced.

For many, their main concern with the film was it’s cumbersome science, which joylessly displays itself fully in the film’s third act. I’m less bothered by this. Mostly because most sci-fi heads enjoy similar tales which also hold bad disciplines. Nor for me the film’s dispassionate treatment of its characters was what irked me the most. The actors (with Depp as the prime target) have been attacked for sleepwalking through their performances, however, Jack Paglen’s script isn’t particularly concerned with investing the audience with any real reason to give concern. The threat of technology taking over the fleshbags is something that movies enjoy exploiting, yet Transcendance does very little in imposing any menace. 

Pfister does transfer his keen visual eye in his direction with sharp macro imagery of accumulating in droplets and contrasting them with the vast, detached open spaces we’ve witnessed in Christopher Nolan’s escapades. The crisp visuals, however, are perhaps at the detriment of the screenplay and performances. The image of computer circuitry trapped within a dream catcher is a provocative one, but feels weak when we combine with the distant performances and cumbersome screenplay. 

The fact is we’ve seen these themes work better in more substantial features. It’s hard not to look at Kate Mara’s Bree and be reminded of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s alt-rebel games maker; Allegra Geller, in David Cronenberg’s greasy Existenz (1999). The film's main conceit should of course prod viewers in the way of Frankenstein (1931), but Transcendance doesn’t even have the scenery chewing mania of Kenneth Branagh’s 1994’s adaptation let alone the clean and simple terror of James Whale’s original. Transcendence talks a good game about the god in the machine, but forgets that the enjoyment of these stories is the hysteria and emotional response we gain from the folly of man. Sure looks nice though.