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Transcendence (2014)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cole Hauser

Written By: Jack Paglen Directed By: Wally Pfister

The Short Version

Christopher Nolan’s favorite cinematographer makes his directorial debut.

The promise implied by that note is, alas, not lived up to.

The cast does a decent job of holding things together, but…

…the storytelling is surprisingly lazy and overloaded with gaps, clichés, and leaps of illogic.

Transcendence is a major disappointment.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


So very many holes.  There’s goodness, but the holes stand out.

Pairs Well With...


After a few, one may feel capable of transcending anything.  Or one may just feel angry.

“Get out!”

“How can you say that?”

I wanted to like Transcendence.  I really did.  I find the subject matter appealing, I like the cast, and after admiring Wally Pfister’s cinematography in so many of Christopher Nolan’s movies, I was really hoping for him to knock one out of the park for his directorial debut.

Unfortunately, as I sat in the theatre on opening night, I spent a whole lot of time actively disliking what was happening in front of me, and though there was some goodness mixed in and a wee bit of redemption by the end, I walked away after the closing credits finished rolling knowing that I’m unlikely to want to watch this movie again.

The story centers on Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3), both of whom are amongst of the world’s foremost experts on developing artificial intelligence.  Unfortunately for them, there’s a fringe organization called “RIFT” that doesn’t appreciate their work, fearing that when a true AI rises, humanity will fall.  This is why RIFT arranges for a series of coincident attacks against AI labs and researchers, during which Will is shot with a radioactive bullet that will kill him in six weeks or less.  Unless…

It turns out that one of Will’s now-deceased colleagues had just figured out how to upload a monkey’s consciousness into a computer system, and Evelyn thinks she can duplicate the process with her husband.  His body may be dying, but maybe, just maybe, she can save his mind and soul.  Unless…

Unless the extremists from RIFT have been right all along, and what gets uploaded is devoid of soul, but fully loaded with doom…

And the audience is left with no doubts as to whether or not there will be doom, because in the first of many storytelling mistakes, Transcendence begins at the end of its story, with the power out and the world turned back about century or two, depending on the specific aspect of civilization in question.  On rare occasions, this can work, but often – including here – it’s a suspense killer.  From the very start, we know who lives, we know who dies, we know who wins, and we know who loses.  Of course there’s a tweak and a coda when the story comes back around just under two hours later, but...  well, a coda can only do so much, especially when an observant viewer sees it coming.

And therein lies the trap within which Transcendence finds itself.  The film’s concept is one that invites – indeed, demands – the audience to think, and yet, the director would apparently prefer the audience not to think, while the script simply can’t stand under the strain of any real scrutiny.  It’s a lose-lose situation.

The logical driver of a story based on the premise used by Transcendence begins with the suspense created by the question of whether or not the uploaded version of Will Caster is 1) really still Will Caster, and 2) good or evil.  (Transcendence already loses on the ground floor, since we all know he’ll be uploaded – hello, showing the ending first – but the film makes several obviously halfhearted attempts at suggesting he won’t be.)  There’s an inherent thrill involved with puzzling such questions out, but unlike his mentor (and producer) Nolan, Pfister and his screenwriter do everything they can to remove that thrill by very deliberately steering the audience.  There is no subtlety here, no gentle nudging one way or another; they plainly want you to think on one track and one track only: the one that says that the neo-Luddites of RIFT are right and that Uploaded Will is evil. 

This approach kept me on the verge of anger for most of the movie.  First, only a blatant actioner (a-la Terminator) can properly get away with the “only one right answer from the start” approach; since this isn’t one, my thrills were being actively stolen.  Second, I found the fact that Transcendence so very obviously wants to shepherd my opinion in what should be a thought-provoking film to be rather insulting.  Third – and this is the one condition for which I own up to bias – I find the automatic Luddite view to be abhorrent, especially in the “let’s just go ahead and burn the Alexandrian Library” approach used by RIFT.  And fourth… the ultimate revelation is obvious almost before the prologue is finished, which makes the steering that much more insulting to me as a viewer.

The insults are augmented by shockingly lazy storytelling.  The gaps in this film are huge, with no thought at all being given to such important things as how a character who’s been beaten up and taken prisoner against his will develops into a wholehearted confederate of the RIFT Luddites.  One minute, he’s in a cell with his eye swollen half shut while he says nasty things to his captors; the next, he’s at the table with them talking strategy.  Obviously some significant time has passed, and it would be awfully nice to have seen what happened there.  (It’s called plot and character development.)  It’s an issue that crops up many times throughout Transcendence, made all the more jarring by the fact that once – just once – the audience is given the bone of a subtitle card that says “Two Years Later,” while other massive leaps of time are allowed to occur without notice.  And then there the logical details, like how the stage conveniently shrinks to a single small town even as Will takes himself worldwide, suggesting that only a very tiny group of Luddite terrorists stand in the way of what surely must be civilization-destroying evil… even though that makes absolutely no sense.  There’s one guy whom we hear has connections to the government; where’s the real government?  And how is it that Will is supposedly world-threateningly all-powerful, and yet he can’t detect an incoming attack that even Ancient Chinese wall defenders knew how to see coming?  There’s more that I could bring up, but I think you get the picture here.

And don’t even get me started on the hacking and the virus stuff and the callback to – of all things – Y2K.  Talk about lousy clichés…

Based on the evidence, the story and direction try so hard to steer the audience because any attempt to ask questions reveals just how flimsy Transcendence is.  (And come to think of it, being angry with the film helped keep me from noticing how dreadfully dull it was until after it was over, too.) With a premise like this and a cast like this, this movie could have been great.  Instead, it’s an extremely disappointing disaster.  Only the efforts of the cast – particularly Depp and Hall – keep the movie watchable all the way to the finish.

Bottom line, Transcendence is an incredibly inauspicious directorial debut for Wally Pfister.  A great concept is killed by a lazy, gap-filled script and direction that only serves to augment its many sins, and when all is said and done, it’s hard to recommend this movie to anyone, even genre enthusiasts.  If you must give it a go, wait until it’s playing on a streaming service that doesn’t ask you to pay any extra money for the look.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2014

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