Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, brief profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.18.14
The White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass may have been able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but smart screenwriters limit themselves to one.
Meaning, viewers generally are willing to stretch credibility and accommodate one massive leap of faith per movie. Transcendence kicks off with an intriguing premise and rather quickly unveils its fanciful notion. Fair enough: We buy it, for the sake of the impending drama.
But first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen doesn’t know when to quit. He piles absurdity atop contrivance, then gets sloppy with logic, basic human nature and socio-political behavior. By the third act, you’ll lose track of the glaring plot-holes.
Newbie director Wally Pfister doesn’t do much to improve the situation; in fact, he makes it worse. While he deserves credit for drawing compelling performances from his stars, Pfister also succumbs to the weakness suffered by most cinematographers who insist on helming a movie: too much reliance on arty scene compositions and camera shots, and a smothering atmosphere of Great Significance.
Pfister is best known as director Christopher Nolan’s visual amanuensis: the cameraman behind The Prestige, the Batman trilogy and most particularly Inception, for which Pfister won an Academy Award. He has given Transcendence the same labored, walking-through-glue self-importance that made Inception such a chore to watch.
Every scene seems to carry an invisible subtitle: “This is really cool, and very important, so pay close attention.”
Yawn. Wake me when it’s over.
And, as is the case with many first-time scripters, Paglen’s so-called “original” narrative begs, borrows and steals from many other, better sources. Avid sci-fi buffs will recognize strong elements from films such as 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project and 1974’s Phase IV, and books such as Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Michael Crichton’s Prey.
Finally, on top of all their other sins, Paglen and Pfister open their film in the aftermath of horrific events — thus ruining the suspense they quite easily could have built — and then flash back five years, to show us how everything went to hell. That’s an irritating cliché these days, and one that makes sense only if it later turns out that assumptions derived from said prologue are inaccurate, as a result of a clever twist.
No clever twists here. Just a long, slow descent into sci-fi silliness.