Review – Transcendence

The argument that Hollywood should be making movies that aspire to something smarter than big dumb action hasn’t been well served by this misguided sci-fi disappointment.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director's chair

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Wally Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair

Wally Pfister’s directorial debut was among the most highly anticipated films of the year. Certainly the pedigree was there; Pfister’s work as Christopher Nolan’s DoP on such striking works as Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy set pulses racing, while the mouth-watering cast of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Nolan veterans Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy promised much.

What a shame then that such promise has been squandered on a movie that fails to turn an interesting central concept into a logical and engaging viewing experience.

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a genius in artificial intelligence whose work to create a sentient computer – a tipping point he calls transcendence – rubs up against an extremist group who shoot Caster and launch a series of terror attacks against tech labs. As Will slowly dies from his wound, his wife and colleague Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Bettany) work on a radical plan to upload his consciousness into a super computer.

Now free to roam online, Will-A.Im (sorry) promises technological nirvana and a better world, but invites suspicion among even those closest to him, including scientist Joseph Tagger (Freeman), as well as FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Murphy).

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will's wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

The thrust of Pfister’s film, based on a script rescued from the Black List, is both intriguing and prescient – have we becomes slaves to technology that’s now moving so fast we can’t control it? Will the ‘singularity’ – the moment when machines achieve the ability to think for themselves – be a defining moment in mankind’s technological revolution or spell our doom, a la Skynet?

However, a sound idea does not a great script make and the cracks quickly start to show. The film takes odd leaps of logic; characters make decisions that aren’t properly explained; and dialogue gets bogged down in expository ramblings that make conversations sound stilted.

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

As you’d expect from Pfister’s background, the film looks great. His use of stark lighting is especially impressive and gives the impression of a cold intelligence at work, while the dead-end town of Brightwood, which is turned into Will’s HQ, is an effective location; all be it one Pfister isn’t able to take full advantage of, especially in the film’s lackadaisical final act.

Depp, who must be wondering if his box office magic is on the wane in light of Transcendence‘s and The Lone Ranger‘s disastrous performances, never looks comfortable, least of all when he’s playing a less sardonic version of Holly from Red Dwarf. The further Depp walks away from his more interesting ‘indie’ career choices, the less interested he looks.

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Hall and Bettany are fine actors and do their best, but as the movie goes on they start to look less convinced of the material, while Freeman (whose terrible line – “It will be the end of mankind as we know it” – from the trailer was a stupid marketing decision rather than a Pfister-ism apparently and doesn’t appear in the finished movie) and Murphy are given next to nothing to do.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair. Oh well, at least we have Interstellar to look forward to, right?

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27 comments

  1. Tom · April 30, 2014

    INTERSTELLAR!!!!!!!!!

    That movie will all but ensure we forget about stinkers like this. Oh my goodness this movie fell short of my expectations. I think there’s something to that, man — the ambition factor is maybe just a little too high here and if he maybe focused on a simpler, “smaller” movie it could have worked. There were just too many ideas going on here and so many of them weren’t even half-baked ones! 😛 It’s good to see we are right on par with this. I might have slashed it a bit harder . . . oh well. Next please. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2014

      There’s a lot of pressure on Nolan. Interstellar better be good! I remembered your movie when going into this. I honestly hoped it would be good, I really did. What a damn shame.

      • Tom · April 30, 2014

        It is a shame that my review couldn’t have been better, yhou’re right. . . 😉 haha

      • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2014

        Yeah, write a better review next time 😉

  2. Joseph@thecinemamonster · April 30, 2014

    Such a damn shame…:(…

  3. Mark Walker · April 30, 2014

    Fine work, Mark. It’s disappointing that most people are slating this flick but I still want to see it, just to see how bad it is.

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2014

      Always appreciated Mark. To be fair, I was of the same mind. I wanted to like this, but it just never got going.

  4. CMrok93 · April 30, 2014

    Lots of ideas and lots of things to say, yet, it never really works as a full-length, feature-thriller. Instead, it sort of just goes from one end, to the other, without much momentum, reason, or anything. Good review.

  5. Naomi · May 1, 2014

    Been stumbling upon negative reviews of this movie, haven’t seen it myself but I’m already quite disappointed. It was definitely one of the movies that I’ve been looking forward to (Pfister! Bettany! Murphy!) but alas.. 😦

    • Three Rows Back · May 1, 2014

      Yeah, it’s a damn shame. I was really looking forward to this too. Oh well!

  6. Writer Loves Movies · May 1, 2014

    Great writing! Shame about this one as the concept is interesting. Haven’t seen it yet but in the light of all these poor reviews I’ll probably catch it on Netflix later in the year. We need to recapture the Johnny Depp of The Rum Diary a few years back – hope he returns to something more original soon.

    • Three Rows Back · May 1, 2014

      Thanks! It’s very disappointing, but it’s still worth a watch, even if it is on Netflix. Depp needs to take a long hard look and get back to making more interesting indie stuff.

  7. ruth · May 1, 2014

    So I guess this is one of those ‘great concept, poor execution’ type of movies. It’s a shame as I was looking forward to this, but I did feel that it might be too ambitious for Pfister to tackle for his debut. I might still rent it tho.

    • Three Rows Back · May 1, 2014

      Afraid so Ruth! Give it a shot; would love to read your opinion of it.

  8. sati · May 3, 2014

    I’ll probably give it a shot seeing how I read the script and I’m kinda curious how they handled the special effects here. Shame it didn’t go well, the script wasn’t that bad. I’m inclined to blame Depp – his laziness and sleepwalking style of acting drains everyone around him out of energy in his new movies.

    • Three Rows Back · May 7, 2014

      The special effects are a bit odd to be honest; they don’t really work in my opinion, but still. Depp kind of sleepwalks through it, although Bettany and Hall are both good.

  9. Pingback: Flashforward: May’s Most Anticipated Films | Flashback/Backslide
  10. Ayush Chandra · May 11, 2014

    Great review, thanks for sharing all this..

  11. Ben · May 24, 2014

    I think this film starts well with decent Ida’s but clearly doesn’t know what to do with them afterwards. It just gets very silly and the science-fiction leaps it makes are non-sensical.

  12. beton amprentat · June 3, 2014

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  13. domain · August 20, 2014

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I
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