“The film’s benefits are there, despite being stunted and often overshadowed by the film’s various issues with clarity and characters.”

Due to harsh critical reception and, as of early box office reports, middling returns, Transcendence is destined to be the most forgotten, big-budget film of the year, which is a surprising thing to note when your film is headlined by Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, and Paul Bettany. Transcendence is a picture that, at times, can be hard to like, and it’s also a film that could’ve been game-changing science-fiction, as it centers around the intriguing ideas of technological singularity, a topic that has now been increasingly popular thanks to the rise and unfathomable progression of technology. However, muddled ideas, a confusing plotline, strange characters and character-motivations, as well as frequent dry-spots in the film’s narrative.

The film stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a renowned computer scientist and researcher, who is fascinated by the ideas of technological singularity. Technological singularity is the hypothetical idea that, at one point in the future, artificially intelligent computers and such will have progressed enough to the point where they can be more efficient, more practically managed, and, scarier, more intelligent than humans. The technological singularity movement could very well wipe out the human race and, in turn, produce a line of smarter, incalculably impacting supercomputers with capabilities we wish we knew; start singing “In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans.

Directed by
Wally Pfister
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman
Release Date
18 April 2014
Steve’s Grade: C-

Moreover, after giving a lecture on the topic, which he calls Transcendence, Caster is shot in the lobby by an extremist, part of an anti-Artificial Intelligence movement, which has orchestrated elaborate attacks on several computer and AI research facilities in America. Despite surviving, Caster is informed that the bullet permanently lodged inside of him was laced with radioactive and will slowly result in his organs and entire system failing.

Caster’s wife and partner in the AI/Transcendence movement, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), however, wants the show to go on, trying to convince Caster’s friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to upload Caster’s consciousness to the supercomputer’s hard-drives they were working on in order to keep him alive for Evelyn and to finish the transcendence project.

Transcendence is one of those science-fiction films where I often find myself alienated by it because the characters will not talk down to me and are using language that is difficult to comprehend and understand. With the advanced ideas of a computer’s potential and the technology that ensues with trying to construct an almighty supercomputer, there is a great deal of dialog on how to do it, a great deal of which is difficult to understand, at least in my position. To top that off, the writing devoted to the characters is unfortunately minimal as well. Everyone seems to simply play their role, with Depp as a computer scientist, Hall as a concerned and persistent wife, Morgan Freeman as an FBI agent, and Bettany as a skeptical computer scientist. There is little identity we come to associate these characters with, even after spending two hours with them.

Then there’s the fact that the motivations of the characters hop all over the place, especially Evelyn’s who wants her husband alive, albeit in digital form one moment, but has no desire to see him or love him ever again because he’s not the same in the next. This kind of development-hopscotch plagues Transcendence from ever really getting started and, in turn, produces several indecisive characters, who bear no personalities, that we have to watch.

The film’s benefits are there, despite being stunted and often overshadowed by the film’s various issues with clarity and characters. As stated, the ideas poses enough intrigue to keep one even mildly invested to the technology and the innovations seen on screen. To top it off, Christopher Nolan’s trusted, right-hand-cinematographer Wally Pfister marks his directorial debut with Transcendence, clearly working alongside the film’s cinematographer Jess Hall to infuse the film with a slick visual style that I can only find reminiscent of The Host, with its sleek interpretations of the future and frequent use of tiny little sprite-effects. Even with a story that finds ways to muddle itself, Pfister and Jess Hall always seem to find ways to make an interesting visual scheme rise above Transcendence‘s many shortcomings.

There’s a great movie being squashed by the lesser film in Transcendence that is struggling to wrestle its way out to allow this story to prevail. In the great movie, I see a thought-provoking drama along the lines of Gattaca, which serves as a surreal, mind-bending affair. In the lesser film, I see several confusing ideas strung together without much clarity and little character development, but both good ideas and a strong visual scheme just barely helping Transcendence out in the clutch.

Review by Lead Film Critic, Steve Pulaski