Dir: Wally Phister
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate… Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” – Stephen Hawking, 2014.
This warning from Stephen Hawking, essentially sums up the main concept behind the directorial debut of Wally Phister, considered of the greatest cinematographers alive. Sadly this wasn’t the resounding instant success I’d expected it would be.
Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are one of many teams of scientists working on big advances in the field of artificial intelligence. However when a radical terrorist group kill Caster in an attempt to stop the work, his wife and their colleague Max (Paul Bettany) upload his consciousness to their system, giving it intelligence beyond mere programming. When this new form of consciousness begins to get out of hand, the anti-AI terrorists led by Bree (Kate Mara), with the help of Max, Professor Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) must find a way to stop this formidable threat.
Wally Phister is primarily known as a cinematographer, nominated for four Oscars and winning one, for his work with Christopher Nolan, their partnership has proven formidable. However, when put in the director’s chair I’m not quite sure where it went wrong, but after some strong criticism on release, in the box office this film performed quite badly and struggled to make its money back. Honestly, this came as a huge surprise to me, as I’d personally been looking forward to seeing it, and on the strength of the trailer and those involved, I expected a sure success.
Maybe it’s the pacing, that while there are special effects and moments of action, there aren’t really the huge set pieces people have come to expect from the Sci-Fi genre. If you have to compare it to Nolan’s work, you might think of how ‘The Dark Knight’ has some impressive action scenes, and ramps up the tension and excitement with these. ‘Transcendence’ doesn’t really do that to the same extent. The storyline is about the mind, and most of the developments are intellectual and scientific breakthroughs that aren’t depicted through big explosions or chases, but rather on operating tables, in labs, and small things that are meant to induce a ‘wow’ at their scientific incredibility not their impressive action.
Slower pacing and stories that revolve around big concepts and deep ideas are nothing new in Sci-Fi, having seen ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for the first time just a few months ago it reminded me of just how much this is true. Quite often, though these films don’t satisfy all audiences desires for a night at the cinema, they do go on to find a new respect in later years once they have stood up to repeat viewings and in-depth discussion. I think that’s quite likely what will happen here, especially as the film really does handle some huge concepts, depicting many different types of scientific discoveries that are often considered on their own, here shown very deftly and with great visual style.
I expect that thanks to the incredibly stellar ensemble cast it’s not going to become completely forgotten, it’ll get seen in years to come. I expect it will be passionately defended by those who love the genre and enjoy this type of story and style, possibly making its way up in the estimations of many over time.