Pfister’s ‘Transcendence’ earns his degree

By Karsten Burgstahler

Graduation isn’t just for college and high school seniors across the country. It’s also for Oscar-winning cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister.

Pfister is well known for his work on Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception,” which won him the award. One could look at “Inception” as his Taliesin, Nolan his Frank Lloyd Wright.

Pfister takes the lessons he’s learned from Nolan and applies them on a smaller scale in “Transcendence” (Rated PG-13; 119 Min.), an attempt at Nolan-esq big idea science fiction without the gunplay and action sequences that push “Inception” along at a breakneck pace. It’s a little less exciting without these sequences, which Pfister shot so beautifully, but considering how tangled he becomes in plot it’s probably smart he didn’t try to throw any more elements into the stew.


“Transcendence” focuses on technology guru Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a genius closing in on a way to meld the human mind with technology. He’s assassinated by a group known as R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), but before his brain goes dark his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) manages to hook it up to a computer and feed it in to the hard drive. Soon Will exists within the computer, able to gain knowledge from every device on the globe and complete scientific feats deemed impossible. Of course with all this power comes great cost, and soon it’s not clear if Will or the computer is in control.

The biggest gap “Transcendence” leaves in the Nolan formula is the way Pfister expects the audience to strain credulity. Despite how crazy “Inception” gets, the logic behind it, no matter how impossible, seems airtight because the script is so well written. Nolan had an answer for everything.

Pfister follows the path so aptly described in Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” — two guys are sitting in a room, trying to decide how they can make a movie where two people have sex in space while smoking a cigarette. One guy says to the other, “Well, we’ll just say we invented that thing that lets you smoke in space.”

Because “Transcendence’ is so involved in its technology without building the world and its rules, essentially Evelyn says to the audience “We just invented that thing that lets us plug into his mind.” It’s such a leap of faith that the film’s groundings in reality begin to rip away, so much so that we soon see the shaky foundation the movie relies on. The movie builds and builds itself into a corner until it reaches a conclusion that reeks of deadline writing. The very end is a direct throwback to Nolan’s typical ambiguous endings and fills that requirement adequately.

But even when Pfister fights an uphill battle to explain his sci-fi elements, the questions he poses about artificial intelligence are smart and engrossing. Early on in the movie at a conference, an audience member asks Will if he’s trying to build God. Will responds, “Aren’t we all?” What Pfister builds is a god, born through Will, who tries to create a new species of man in his image. “Transcendence” has striking similarities to the biblical story of creation — Pfister has no problem coming up with the big sci-fi idea; if only his execution were a bit better.

Nolan is a producer and he’s brought a good number of his usual cronies to the cast. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy both have supporting roles, although they’re underused; Murphy is always better playing a creep, and here he’s confined to being a boring CIA agent. A couple of other actors from smaller “Dark Knight Rises” roles show up here too.

Pfister’s training as a visual artist is evident here, especially in the way he shoots the sterile lab Will’s computers are stored in. One shot from over Evelyn’s shoulder as she walks down a long white hallway stands out as an example of Pfister’s eye for creepy moments. It’s quite effective.


If Nolan were actually a professor he’d probably have to grade on a curve, considering what a challenge it would be to match some of his recent filmmaking. But if “Transcendence” were Pfister’s final exam it’d earn him a B-. Not a bad start, but definite room for improvement.

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected], on Twitter @kburgstahler_DE or by phone at 536-3311 ext. 254.