The argument that Hollywood should be making movies that aspire to something smarter than big dumb action hasn’t been well served by this misguided sci-fi disappointment.
Wally Pfister’s directorial debut was among the most highly anticipated films of the year. Certainly the pedigree was there; Pfister’s work as Christopher Nolan’s DoP on such striking works as Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy set pulses racing, while the mouth-watering cast of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Nolan veterans Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy promised much.
What a shame then that such promise has been squandered on a movie that fails to turn an interesting central concept into a logical and engaging viewing experience.
Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a genius in artificial intelligence whose work to create a sentient computer – a tipping point he calls transcendence – rubs up against an extremist group who shoot Caster and launch a series of terror attacks against tech labs. As Will slowly dies from his wound, his wife and colleague Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Bettany) work on a radical plan to upload his consciousness into a super computer.
Now free to roam online, Will-A.Im (sorry) promises technological nirvana and a better world, but invites suspicion among even those closest to him, including scientist Joseph Tagger (Freeman), as well as FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Murphy).
The thrust of Pfister’s film, based on a script rescued from the Black List, is both intriguing and prescient – have we becomes slaves to technology that’s now moving so fast we can’t control it? Will the ‘singularity’ – the moment when machines achieve the ability to think for themselves – be a defining moment in mankind’s technological revolution or spell our doom, a la Skynet?
However, a sound idea does not a great script make and the cracks quickly start to show. The film takes odd leaps of logic; characters make decisions that aren’t properly explained; and dialogue gets bogged down in expository ramblings that make conversations sound stilted.
As you’d expect from Pfister’s background, the film looks great. His use of stark lighting is especially impressive and gives the impression of a cold intelligence at work, while the dead-end town of Brightwood, which is turned into Will’s HQ, is an effective location; all be it one Pfister isn’t able to take full advantage of, especially in the film’s lackadaisical final act.
Depp, who must be wondering if his box office magic is on the wane in light of Transcendence‘s and The Lone Ranger‘s disastrous performances, never looks comfortable, least of all when he’s playing a less sardonic version of Holly from Red Dwarf. The further Depp walks away from his more interesting ‘indie’ career choices, the less interested he looks.
Hall and Bettany are fine actors and do their best, but as the movie goes on they start to look less convinced of the material, while Freeman (whose terrible line – “It will be the end of mankind as we know it” – from the trailer was a stupid marketing decision rather than a Pfister-ism apparently and doesn’t appear in the finished movie) and Murphy are given next to nothing to do.
In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair. Oh well, at least we have Interstellar to look forward to, right?