Not a Director
It was kind of sad that TRANSCENDENCE didn’t find an audience, excited almost no interest, it seemed. An unconventional, ideas-based sci-fi film should be of interest, and you’d think the Christopher Nolan connectuon would be enough to ensure it opened. But no.
So it seems unfair to pick on it, especially since I couldn’t actually bring myself to sit through it all. Writing about a film you haven#t watched is extremely bad form. I can’t offer a review of its merits as a film, but it did strike me that one early scene indicated fairly clearly that Wally Pfister, an able cinematographer, was uncomfortable in the director’s chair, like a man in very slidey silk pantaloons.
Cillian Murphy asks to see Johnny Depp’s supercomputer. So they go to see it. Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall come along too. In an establishing shot, with the camera creeping slowly forward down an aisle of humming technology, we see the characters enter.
And then… nothing. Murphy advances, hits his mark, and stops. The others do the same, arranging into a laundry line composition which can then be cut up into a couple of two shots. The most interesting aspectis that Murphy’s body faces away from the other characters but he turns his face towards them. This is only because the computer interface is in front of him, but we never get a very clear sense of this.
What’s strikingly wrong is that Murphy has come to see something, yet he seems remarkably incurious. He doesn’t look around, he just stops, almost as if there were a chalk mark on the floor, and talks, failing to find a seat or a wall to lean against, or else to walk around and see what’s what. It feels stiff and unnatural. (This is the first film ever in which Rebecca Hall has struggled to bring a lively sense of natural behaviour to a character.)
We also get a couple different sized shots of a computer terminal which Murphy talks to. One shot includes a bit of foreground shoulder, which helps us figure out where it is, but if this is part of a whole wall that Murphy is looking at it might be nice to see more of what he sees.
Others, including David Bordwell, have given precise analyses of the Nolan style, which has only a few strategies for filming talk — the characters stand or sit still and we cut around them, or we track around them, or we track in on one of them as he says something ominous/bad-ass. Those might, on the face of it, seem like the key ways a camera can look at a subject, but if you actually allow the characters to go where they might choose to go if they were real people, a whole wealth of opportunities open up, visually. Or, you could say, a whole wealth of problems, which is how the fearful or inexperienced director might see it. Maybe if Pfister had more experience with other really able directors, he would be freer and more versatile. It’s notable that whenever his shots don’t feature actors, he’s much more inventive.
I wouldn’t give up on him ye, even though I gave up on this film. But I did say on Facebook, “Many films fail the Bechtel test. This is the first to fail the Turing test.”