Rhoades Review: Depp’s big screen ‘Transcendence’ transcends budget

Shirrel Rhoades

The Daily Advance

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The term “artificial intelligence” (or AI, for short) was coined in 1955 by computer guru John McCarthy. He defined it as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.”

AI has been featured in numerous sci-fi films, from the robotic boy in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” to Hal the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Samantha the sexy voice in Spike Jonz’s Oscar-winning “Her.”

For that matter, Sari on my iPhone is pretty darn smart.

In “Transcendence,” Johnny Depp plays an artificial intelligence researcher who gets a little too close to his work. Terminally ill, he decides to merge himself with a machine.

You see, the twist here is a human merging with artificial intelligence rather than intelligent machines seeming human.

This turnabout screenplay by Jack Paglen was featured among Hollywood’s so-called Black List, a listing of most-liked unproduced screenplays. Movies like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” once languished in this black hole.

Then along came Walter C. “Wally” Pfister. Having won an Academy Award for his cinematography on Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” he’d earned the right to direct his own film.

Being a 52-year-old old-time cinematographer, Wally Pfister chose to shoot “Transcendence” on 35mm film stock, a bit of a throwback in this age of digital moviemaking. And somewhat  anachronistic for a movie about high-tech computers, cutting-edge scientists, and futuristic AI research. But it looks good.

With Pfister having been DP on all but one of Christopher Nolan’s mega-hit films (“Memento,” the “Batman” trilogy, etc.) it came as no surprise when Nolan signed on as an Executive Producer. And the Daddy Warbucks financing came from China.  

Stars? “Johnny Depp’s an incredible talent and he just responded to the material,” says Pfister. “He really loved the script and he really brought a new life to it.”

Yes, Depp was up for it, especially when offered a $20 million salary versus 15% of the film’s gross.

And big bucks being offered, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, and Rebecca Hall jumped on board too.

With all this money being tossed around, Wally Pfister got nervous. “I told Chris Nolan, 'I think it’s a good project. My hesitation is that it’s just too big for my first adventure,’” recalls Pfister. “And Chris very calmly said, 'Absolutely not ... storytelling is the same whether you’re dealing with $100 million or $10 million.’”

So what the heck, Pfister went ahead and spent $100 million on making the film.


Shirrel Rhoades is a film writer for Cooke Communications