Movies open every weekend. Some soar, some fail. Every once in a while a flop comes along that is so unexpected and devastating that everyone in town is left saying, “How the hell did that happen?” Recent examples include John Carter, The Lone Ranger and maybe even Pompeii or The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, even if the latter two sank without making much of a ripple. The $100 million Transcendence, the Johnny Depp-Morgan Freeman starrer that marked the directing debut of Chris Nolan’s vaunted cinematographer Wally Pfister, is one of those what-the-hell-happened films. Consider it grossed just $10.8 million domestic for its opening weekend, about half of Heaven Is For Real, a starless movie whose $12 million budget was likely less than Depp’s Transcendence salary. Heaven If For Real has grossed $30 million so far domestically and looks like a breakout sleeper hit.
So what the hell happened? There is blame to go around, including at Alcon Entertainment, which with its offshore partners fully financed the Warner Bros-distributed flop. Talking to numerous parties, I believe this was a movie that probably never should have been made because the script was complex, derivative, and hard to market, and it was not easy to discern who the audience should have been. It also is a case where yet again it was a mistake to give a first-time director the keys to a movie with complex subject matter that required meshing with the high maintenance of a big movie star and a giant budget. Transcendence seems similar in some ways to John Carter, where first-time live-action director Andrew Stanton had the endorsement of Pixar’s John Lasseter that led Disney execs to give him a lot of rope, and he proved out of his depth despite having directed so many animated hits. Here, Pfister got the job after standing aside Nolan as cinematographer, and proving himself a gifted visual artist on such films as The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Nolan, who made the film Insomnia at Alcon, endorsed his protege there and encouraged him to start on the kind of big canvas on which Nolan creates his masterpieces. But just because Pfister stands next to Nolan doesn’t mean he is Nolan, or has his ability for making the most complex storytelling palatable for the masses, like he did on Inception. The shoot was rough. Pfister and Alcon certainly put in the work here, and got the test scores to an acceptable level, but critics just hated the movie. Audiences felt the same, with the film getting a 19% rating on RottenTomatoes. And Johnny Depp, mostly seen as a computer image on a computer screen, didn’t open it the way that highly paid movie stars are supposed to.