'Transcendence' (2014) Movie Review

Transcendence movie review
Johnny Depp in Transcendence
Photo: Warner Bros.

The idea behind Transcendence is big, ambitious and nearly impossible to pull off in a two hour feature film. For a logic-based narrative such as this one it becomes troubling when it ends up with logic flaws of its own, largely as a result of the film's running time as it would take nearly four hours or one thousand pages to properly set this story up so critical audiences wouldn't ask questions such as, "Why hasn't the government noticed this yet?" However, it's the underlying fabric of this story, the questions it poses about our future, that I found compelling, even if the characters and scenarios involved are a little hokey and ridiculous.

Grade: B-

Transcendence"Transcendence" is a Warner Bros. release, directed by Wally Pfister and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. The running time is .

The cast includes Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cory Hardrict, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Stewart, Xander Berkley and Lukas Haas.

Transcendence takes a look at "what's next" for humanity, with the increasing influence of technology in our lives, and how it will be used in the future, driving the narrative. Looking into the idea of what's next is scientist and Artificial Intelligence expert, Will Caster (Johnny Depp), his wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Each has a different idea of how to use advanced technology, while an anti-technology outfit going by the name of R.I.F.T., led by Kate Mara, is determined to make sure that technology is destroyed.

After an assassination attempt leaves Will with only a month left to live, Evelyn and Max attempt to upload Will's brain into a computer, keeping what they hope will be his conscience alive while his body dies. But will it really be Will? How will they ever know? Machines can't feel or show compassion? Or can they? If they can what does that mean for humanity?

If you've seen the trailer you know the attempt works (on some level), but to what degree you'll have to watch to find out. Eventually we find techno Will surfing the Internet, manipulating Wall Street and growing in power and intelligence, but to what end. He must be stopped! Right?

With Transcendence, screenwriter Jack Paglen presents a picture in which technological enhancements aren't exactly a creation of humanity, but instead an extension of humanity. Where things become dicey is when this extension looks to change the world in which we know it as humanity can only accept so much change.

These ideas are fascinating to explore and once the film's finale rolls around I absolutely loved the conclusions the narrative reached as a result of the action. Unfortunately the film has a hard time coming to these conclusions in a logical manner. Government agencies are blind to what's going on in the middle of the New Mexico desert while the R.I.F.T. organization is not only killing people, but going around kidnapping and has their own, crack surveillance team.

Director Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut after making a name for himself serving as Christopher Nolan's director of photography on films from Memento to The Dark Knight and Inception, for which he won the Oscar. Handed $100 million for your first directorial effort and a cast of thousands is a daunting task and Pfister couldn't have chosen a more complicated subject to delve into for his first time out.

Pfister must get us to care for these characters, understand their dilemmas and get us to understand the science behind what's taking place and why R.I.F.T. is against it all in a very short amount of time and it results in leaps in narrative logic and human emotion that don't quite gel. Morgan Freeman as an A.I. expert, friend and colleague to the Casters joins forces with an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy and their involvement in the story is no grander than an episodic primetime television show, so dumbed down and simplified it seems as if they belong on "N.C.I.S." rather than a high concept feature film.

Transcendence, on the other hand, does play with some cool sci-fi ideas and even bleeds into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory and is, more-or-less, the horror equal to Spike Jonze's Her, both suggesting the eventual coming together of technology and humanity, proving there's very little separating human DNA from the "ones and zeroes".

What most will probably find disappointing, given Pfister's past, is Jess Hall's (Hot Fuzz) cinematography. Hall presents a muted color palette and has some fun with macro-photography and bokeh effects through rain-driven windshields, but otherwise it's a rather drab picture with very little to catch the eye as the camera seems to be more of a passive observer rather than taking us deeper into the narrative.

From an acting perspective Depp is given little to do, spending the majority of the film as a digital recreation, but I do remember at the beginning how it's becoming increasingly hard for me to picture Depp as a "normal" human being, given his penchant for over-the-top characters. Most of the film, however, is placed on Hall's shoulders and outside of a few up-and-down moments in the beginning as she must flip a switch in support of her now-digitize husband, she does a complimentary job as her growing concern over what techno Will has become begins to surface.

Bettany is also given a lot of the load to carry, but his story gets so muddled into the R.I.F.T. camp and Mara's over the top, platinum haired character, I cringed a little every time the story went back to their makeshift bunker.

When it comes down to it, Transcendence stumbles narratively. For a film dependent on logic it has too many logic flaws of its own, however most of them in the opening hour. The intent of the film is there, thankfully, and once you strip away the path to where the film comes from and focus on the end game, Jack Paglen has conceived an intelligent look at a possible future humanity may very well face. What's most interesting about this future, and a question you'll have to ask yourself while watching the movie, is who is the enemy in this scenario?

Just by watching the trailers and listening to his God-like voice within the film, coming from all the corners of the theater, Will is clearly looked at as an antagonist in the film, but is he really? As you watch, look close at Will's intentions. Look closely at his goals and what it would mean for the world. There are some interesting discussions to be had here, especially once you push the selfish nature of humanity aside.


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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

    hmmm, sounds interesting, but I cant see myself watching this in theaters.

  • http://cineenuruguay.com/ Driver

    Brad, you made my day with this review as a lot of people have disliked the movie a lot. I thought you were gonna put the last nail on this coffin, but you make it sound a lot more interesting than I thought it was going to be.

  • yrabadi

    If it results in discussion, I'd say that's a win. I'll def. be checking it out.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

    Brad, you say that Mara's over the top but is that due to her acting being over the top or the character she plays? I'm not a fan of her work and I'm turned off when I see her on the trailers but could that be because of the director and screenplay.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Her character isn't the greatest.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ Michael

    This will be my third priority after Under the Skin and Dom Hemingway this weekend, but it sounds interesting!

    • andyluvsfilms

      I quite enjoyed Dom but on the 45 minute mark it kinda goes in a different direction, a lesser one. Really wanna see Under The Skin too, hearing good things.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Akd/ Akd

    I haven't watched any trailer or clips of the movie but the synopsis made it sound something similar to Ray Kurzweil's Singularity theory and that in it self had me intrigued. I usually just check out your grades before seeing the film and come back to read once I've watched. A "B-" makes me feel a little bit better about seeing the film in theaters given that other critics around the web haven't been as kind.

  • BradyD

    Really looking forward to this movie. I'd take Johnny Depp on a computer screen over a quirky character in make-up any day of the week. I'll be there opening night. Glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://bigpy.wordpress.com Paul Young

    Seeing as Pfister is a huge proponent for film over digital recording, I wonder if this had any influence on him choosing this project. It seems like having the "antagonist" being more-or-less the embodiment of technology is evidence of this mindset.

    Great review Brad, looking forward to hearing you talk about this on the pod.

  • http://www.silverscreenriot.com SmartFilm

    My biggest issue is the ending which got completely out of Pfister's hands so he just threw the kitchen sink at it. None of the plot reveals felt earned at all and I'm still scratching my head as to how they let the internal logic go so haywire. Also Morgan Freeman just looked confused the whole time.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I love the ending and what it means. To me it was essentially a higher power saying, "Fine, you don't want my help? Keep your shitty planet."

      • http://www.silverscreenriot.com SmartFilm

        Yeah, I got that as well but I think my biggest hurdle was not the "What?" of it but the "How?" How Pfister and Paglen got there just didn't compute for me. It felt like they went from A to B to D to K.

        Further, I don't think that the seeds of E-J were planted throughout the film to be later uncovered so much as just ignored. Like the solar panels before they're ground magicked, it's screenwriting gone rogue.

        I did walk out of the theater trying to really suss out whether I liked the ending or not but for me, the breadcrumbs for such a revelatory turn just aren't in play and so it felt empty and not earned. Accordingly, it felt like a film that thought it was way more clever than it actually was.

        • http://www.silverscreenriot.com SmartFilm

          Case and point: "There's not enough power! You have to choice one or the other." Or however that awful line of dialogue was written.

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

            I would argue against you but I think it would be too spoilery. I actually thought everything added up, I just thought how they got there was contrived.

            Yes, the "not enough power" thing is cliche, but it made sense to me, it also offered a chance for another theme that, again, I don't want to spoil.

            • http://www.silverscreenriot.com SmartFilm

              Yeah, I'd be interested in get into it more after the veil has been properly lifted.

  • andyluvsfilms

    I may go and see this one if it plays at my local cheapie cinema but I shan't pay Odeon prices, I'll hang on and get it on rental if that's the case.

  • Mike523098

    Brad's review is a breath of fresh air among the many very negative reviews out there (Rotten Tomatoes), some of them which I've felt are a bit unfair (maybe the expectations were too high).

    A few notes. Pfister was hesitant on making $100m debut movie, but Nolan felt he was ready to take on a movie of that size and Wally agreed in the end.

    In fact, Wally attempted to get the director's chair for "The Fighter" and "Captain Phillips", which were much smaller pictures ($25m-$55m). As a first-time director, however, he didn't have a change on getting those projects.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I mentioned this to someone on Twitter, but I wish he'd held onto this one and made it his third feature.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Elijah/ Elijah

    That's good to hear! I was starting to lose hope with the April release, I'd honestly rather spend the $10 to see Grand Budapest again.

  • Alexander T.

    It's a shame. On "The Podcasting Couch", another movie podcast I listen to, one of the hosts said that 2014 would be the "make-or-break" year for Johnny Depp, and I think that he (or was it she?) is right. The reviews on RT aren't promising, and it won't be long before Depp returns for a fifth "Pirates" movie, as well as a sequel to "Alice in Wonderland". He's definitely at a career low right now.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      It's just hard to take him seriously now. Even his "normal" voice sounds weird now because it's just close enough to his goofy voices to sound... off.

  • Xarnis

    Interesting. This seems to be getting trashed by most everyone else. Not sure if I'll see it or not.

  • zotje

    Brad, a question for you:

    >largely as a result of the film's running time as it would take nearly four hours or one thousand pages to properly set this story up

    With regards to this and past comments you made about other films, would you personally prefer to have the movie as is now, or 2 movies Part 1 and Part 2, that improve the narritive overall, but don't really work as seperate movies?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/azjoker1/ azjoker1

    Wow. Very happy to see you enjoyed it. I thought you would give it a terrible review because most of the reviews haven't been good so far. I'm going to see it tonight. I'm looking forward to it now.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

    I'm only mentioning it because it's the first time I've seen it to date..........but Brad, do you know you've been quotedand part of your review included in the Reception section of the film's Wikipedia page?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.anziulewicz PolishBear

    The concept of a coming “Technological Singularity” (look it up on Wikipedia) is certainly compelling. Imagine uploading your consciousness into a digital platform, neuron by neuron. Could you thus transcend your physical existence and live forever in cyberspace? Or would it not REALLY be you, just a copy of you? This raises all kinds of provocative questions about the nature of consciousness, identity, and even what we commonly call the soul. The old SyFy series “Caprica” did an interesting job depicting a world on the cusp of a technological singularity, and Charles Stross’ novel “Accelerando” explores where all this might be heading in our own future. While the concept has prophets like Ray Kurzwiel, it also has plenty of detractors who dismiss it as some kind of “Geek Rapture.”

    This new film, “Transcendence,” apparently aspired toward exploring the concept of the technological singularity, and I was looking forward to seeing it. But now, as I sort through the mostly negative reviews, it seems that what MIGHT have been a compelling, visionary film ultimately turns out to be little more than just another SFX-driven techno-thriller. I'm disappointed.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/kathrynlynn/ kathrynlynn

    I really enjoyed the last third of this movie, but the first two thirds of the story were a bit hard to connect with. I loved the ideas coming out of the story- but I struggled to really connect with any character, leaving me no one to really root for or follow an emotional journey of. Hall and Bettany were great together and interesting, but didn't have much screen time together and then Bettany grabbed my attention as he is the character strugging but we don't follow him much.

    You mentioned it's difficult to watch Depp as a regular human character and I felt the same way. It was difficult for me to shift my mindset with most of his high profile roles in the last decade belonging to eccentric and unrealistic characters.

  • trillspots

    It was never really clear if they were right and the main character really could love or not. I thought the ending was a bit vague in regard to this; it may have been a huge mistake for them to stop Will. It did have the sense of being a movie about how the Star Trek Borg would have gotten started, so it was ominous in that respect.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

    So all the debate on this film on Rope made me go to the theater this weekend. Having now seen it, I can say that both the critical and financial mauling of this film is well deserved. Good ideas is one thing, but this film just massacres them and becomes a dull mess by the time the credits start rolling. From Depp's flat acting to the uninspired direction, there is hardly anything that works in the film.
    The irony of it all is that once the film finished, I was so frustrated with my experience that I purchased a ticket to watch Catain America-The Winter Soldier immediately after (I had not seen it before). Now, I hated the first Captain America, but this one was excellent...it was ten times more rewarding than Transcendence. Glad I made that decision.