Transcendence Movie ReviewWarner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Running time: 119 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

Wally Pfister has made his name as one of the top cinematographers in the industry, having worked consistently with Christopher Nolan and winning an Academy Award for Nolan’s mind-bending masterpiece “Inception.” Now, Pfister is calling the shots himself, making his directing debut with “Transcendence” — and he seems to be aiming for the same kind of philosophical questions and existential dilemmas that “Inception” posed.

Pfister certainly brings his eye for striking visual compositions and dazzling special effects to this sci-fi thriller. Several individual images are really quite lovely. But his artistic talents are in the service of a story that begins life with some thinky (if hackneyed) notions about the dangers of being too reliant on technology before turning numbingly boring and, eventually, just plain silly. It’s an ambitious misfire.

Johnny Depp is oddly monotone and detached as Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who’s been experimenting with artificial intelligence alongside his equally brilliant wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), with whom he shares a charmingly boho-chic craftsman in Berkeley, Calif. When a high-tech terrorist group (led by a barely-there Kate Mara) shoots him at a conference with a radioactive bullet, he only has a few weeks to live. So he uploads his consciousness to the Internet to preserve his legacy. As one does.

Surely nothing will go wrong, right?

In no time, Will is everywhere, seizing access to millions of dollars, controlling machines and minds and — with Evelyn’s help — establishing an elaborate, underground, solar-powered bunker in a middle-of-nowhere desert town, ostensibly in the name of furthering technology. The plot holes are more like chasms, requiring great leaps of faith. The couple’s longtime friends and colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman, part of an esteemed supporting cast) are after them, as is the obligatory FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) leading the investigation into who’s targeting Will and where he is now.

Will’s omniscient, omnipresent quest for power should be frightening. The multitiered hunt to shut him down should be thrilling. The conflicted position Evelyn finds herself in should be heartbreaking. (And Hall’s performance truly is the best part here, because at least she infuses the story with some recognizable humanity). Instead “Transcendence” is none of the above. Working from a script by Jack Paglen, Pfister has made a film that’s actually quite talky, stodgy, dull and overlong.

“Transcendence” also represents a misguided use of Depp’s talents. He’s such a physically creative and fearless actor that it seems like a strange choice to trap him in avatar form inside flat-screen monitors for the majority of the film’s two-hour running time. This Max Headroom version of Depp’s character never registers as a force to fear, despite his growing appetite for control. He’s sedate, annoyingly needy, passive-aggressive and — ultimately — a source of unintentional laughs, pathetically popping up all over the place, begging his wife to talk to him.

Depp hasn’t exactly had a great few years between “The Tourist,” “The Rum Diary,” “Dark Shadows” and “Lone Ranger” (although the animated “Rango” was gorgeous and a great use of his off-kilter charm). But you can see why he would be drawn to the pedigreed team involved with “Transcendence” as well as to its themes, which couldn’t be more relevant. Still, the perils-of-technology parable has been told more grippingly countless times since the proliferation of personal computers began. Hell, “War Games” is scarier than this.

As for the man-vs.-machine interface at work, “Her” made that connection more believable, more moving, and that has everything to do with Spike Jonze’s script. “Her” always treated Scarlett Johansson’s character, the operating system Samantha, like a real and complex person which made her romance with the lonely Joaquin Phoenix totally relatable, despite its innate absurdity. But, as in “Her,” “Transcendence” also features a human surrogate for Will’s physical longings, courtesy of Clifton Collins Jr. When he puts the moves on Evelyn, the moment should be poignant, but instead provokes squirms and giggles.

When it’s all over, you will turn on your iPhone and ask Siri to find you a good restaurant for a bite to eat near the theater. And you will have learned nothing.

12 Comments on “Transcendence

  1.  by  fosgate

    This movie bombed in the theaters big time. Even though Depp has had a string of bad movies, he is happy.

  2.  by  Dan O.

    Great review Christy. Felt like it had so much to say, but somehow, didn’t say anything at all. Never really seemed all that confident with itself in the first place, anyway.

  3.  by  Katie Hinton

    I think all of you are crazy. This movie was very unique and great to watch. Sure, it did have it’s long duration parts but it all made sense in the end. I think Depp played a terrific part in this movie and really captured the personality of his character. No. Just no. This movie is great.

  4.  by  Ivan

    What a moronic review. Who said the machine was supposed to be scary? You did’t understand the movie. The machine was “the good guy”!

    •  by  Andrew Emmons

      Thank you.. I was beginning to think I was crazy! How did none of the critics get that the point of the movie was that the thing that humans were so scared of did zero damage to anything or anybody the entire movie, while the humans caused many deaths – thousands if you think about the implications of the entire world going off the grid long-term (hospital patients, the elderly, newborns, etc).

      •  by  Shaun Matrix

        I Agree, the machine was good, the review was bad.

        Just like a lot of characters in the movie, Christy made premature judgements half way through, assuming the worst of the nicest, most helpful, heart warming, A.I system ever invented before it had a chance of spreading love and happiness through out the world! Christy, Do you not realise that you proven the premise of the movie to be true..

  5.  by  Mat X

    Yes, indeed, those are surely long duration walks over white underground corridors at the facility or the fields of solar power units. What is great: the upload technology; or its destruction under pretense of “earthy” ecology, from protagonist’s wife early dreams? There is no real people with real mission; there are people doing stuff, without purpose detached from real world. Something of uncertain value gets created, then destroyed, so what?

  6.  by  Mike

    You really did completely miss the point of the movie. It’s actually pretty funny to read your review in that light.

  7.  by  Sin

    I don’t like to base my opinions of movies on box offices sales and popularity, so despite being aware that this one was not doing so well, i was really excited to see it. It was a little heartbreaking, to be honest. I adore Johnny. But there are so many aspects of his performance in this one (the Jack Sparrowesque quirks in his first scene, the glasses, rhe suit that he wears at the end) that are so specific to him as an actor, that they detract from what could have been an okay performance. There are certain themes that were hinted at in the film that I could, sort of think about getting behind. But I would have to agree with most aspects of this review.

  8.  by  Stephaniie

    Different from ‘Her’ this intelligent operative system had no rules. Depp ‘A.I’ could do anything. Shut down all computers in the world? No problem. Launch missiles and nuclear bombs? No problem. But this A.I. was even more ‘evil’ minded, he actually wanted to control every human/animal/living being on Earth.

    Why shouldn’t we develop self-aware A.I.? This is the main reason why not.

    The issue I had with Transcendence is how little we know how and where dr. Caster aquire his knowledge? The solution we get is.. ‘i can go anywhere’ . Sure it was cool watching what nanotechnology can achieve and very unsettling seeing how people let themselves be ‘drones’ just to cure their decease.

    I rather pay anything to be able to see if I was blind, but I never would let someone install a chip that anytime during the day give some A.I. total control over my body and thoughts. That’s even worse then Terminator.

    Despite the DA-DA-DA-DA superhuman powers displayed, I love too see more into the A.I. point-of-view . How it traveled around the Internet. What it really became? How it used it powers outside the U.S. desert city?

  9.  by  D. Neal

    The last paragraph of this review, in and out of context, is useless.

  10.  by  Selk

    I think the reviewer missed the whole point of the movie by 5 light-years or so. Transcendence is about power, in the sense of someone being able to change the reality that surrounds him/her, in this case, Dr. Caster’s. The question that you have to ask yourself is what would happen if somehow you could go beyond your limitations as a human being? The “machine” is merely a container for Dr. Caster’s mind. How did his wife uploaded his consciousness to the IA or how did he developed highly advanced nanobots is not the main theme, the choices that Dr. Caster and the people around him made is the thing that matters. It doesn’t take a NASA technician to understand that Dr. Caster’s objective, from the moment he became uploaded, is to ensure his continuing existence, finding a way to “come back” to a human form and being there for his wife. A very good movie about science, morals and relationships. 8/10