Pfister’s ‘Transcendence’ earns his degree

Pfister’s ‘Transcendence’ earns his degree

By Karsten Burgstahler

Graduation isn’t just for college and high school seniors. 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. “Inception” is 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-esque big idea science fiction without the gunplay and action sequences that push “Inception” along at a breakneck pace. It’s less exciting without these sequences, which Pfister shot so beautifully, but considering the tangled plot it’s smart he didn’t try to throw 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 the 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 into 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. Soon it’s unclear whether 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 has an answer for everything.

About a decade ago Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” smartly addressed such plot contrivances. In an early scene from Reitman’s movie about a Big Tobacco lobbyist, 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.”

“Transcendence” makes a similar suggestion. 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 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.

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 was 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.

Pfister’s training as a visual artist is evident, especially in the way he shoots the sterile lab in which Will’s computers are stored. 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 would earn him a B-. Not a bad start, but there is definite room for improvement.

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