‘Transcendence’ Review

Published 1 year ago by , Updated October 7th, 2014 at 1:35 am,

Transcendence reviews starring Johnny Depp Morgan Freeman Kate Mara and Rebecca Hall Transcendence Review

They must’ve titled this movie with total irony, because Transcendence stumbles hard in its attempt to rise above.

In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, the top mind in the field of artificial intelligence. After an important lecture about the future of A.I. research, Will finds himself the target of an assassination attempt by R.I.F.T., an anti-tech terrorist group led by the enigmatic Bree (Kate Mara). The R.I.F.T. attack on Will leaves him facing a radiation poisoning death sentence; unable to let her partner in life and science simply slip away, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) recruits their best friend Max (Paul Bettany) for an impossible experiment: trying to download Will’s consciousness into an A.I. template, before his body gives out.

Evelyn and Max succeed against all odds, but their joy is short-lived: the A.I. version of Will has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and expansion, as well as grand ambitions about how to change the world. Before long, digital Will is fully plugged in and manipulating global events to fit his new vision, while Evelyn desperately tries to hold onto the man she once knew. When Will’s influence finally moves out of the digital realm and into the realms of the biological and environmental, a growing cadre of opponents decide it is time to bring the battle to the Casters, before their technological agenda forever alters the world.

Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall in Transcendence Transcendence Review

Paul Bettany in ‘Transcendence’

Transcendence marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, best known as Chris Nolan’s longtime collaborator and cinematographer on films like The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. Also making his debut is writer Jack Paglen, who chose a big, heady, sci-fi parable as his first feature-length script. The end result of these two first-timers jumping into the deep end of blockbuster filmmaking together? A mess of a movie with multitudes of freshman failings. Though in the end, the director comes out looking significantly better than the writer.

On a directorial front, Transcendence is pretty well crafted. The photography, cinematography, set design, blocking, framing and overall visual shorthand of the film are as strong as you’d expect from someone with as much experience (and acclaim) as Wally Pfister. In some scenes  it does feel like we’re watching a “Nolan-lite” film, as choices in shots, sequencing (and especially editing) betray a few stylistic borrowings from Nolan. In general, though, Transcendence does look the part of a major sci-fi blockbuster – it’s just too bad that the appearance is only skin deep.

Morgan Freeman Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall in Transcendence 2014 Transcendence Review

Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall in ‘Transcendence’

On a narrative front, Transcendence is complete mess – and worse yet, it’s a boring mess. Things certainly start off with promise, but once the second act kicks in, and Will is in the computer, the movie quickly loses narrative steam in terms of focus, purpose, and thematic/character development. The final two acts of the movie alternate between heady (and on-the-nose) pontifications; recycled sci-fi clichés (can a machine contain the soul?); and when the film tries to do something “original,” we end up with radicalized notions that the movie is never able to fully justify or sell properly in the context of the narrative or viewing experience.

Indeed, the story seems to lose its humanity in perfect coordination with the moment Will loses his: once the human/A.I. hybrid idea is in play, we are pushed so far back from major resonant connections or emotions that we might as well be reading a textbook on singularity theory. Things happen, characters come and go, but the point or meaning of the story seems vague and unfocused – and by the time the movie attempts some third act “twists,” things have gotten so cold and impersonal (and boring) that the swell of poignancy and thought-provocation the movie thinks it builds to has about as much emotion and feeling as binary code.

Rebecca Hall in Transcendence Transcendence Review

Rebecca Hall in ‘Transcendence’

While the direction is competent and technically sound, don’t mistake that for a thrilling movie experience. Transcendence is NOT very thrilling, contains very few sequences of actual action – and since there never seems to be much tension or high stakes, what action we do get isn’t very satisfying or thrilling. The movie never seems to know if it is more interested in its Twilight Zone TV episode concepts, or its supposed identity as a big-screen blockbuster; one thing is for certain, though: IMAX is totally unnecessary for this film (a waste if you ask me). Unless you like seeing Johnny Depp’s face stretched to fake IMAX ratios, there is nothing, visually speaking, that warrants premium viewing (heck, watching this film in standard theatrical presentation is a questionable enough investment, already).

What is good about Transcendence? The cast, obviously – which is probably the film’s biggest selling point aside from the tag line “brought to you by that Dark Knight guy.” Johnny Depp is remarkably toned-down from his now trademark eccentric antics, making the human and A.I. versions of Will similar but different enough to crate the necessary unease and uncertainty that carries the second act’s clichéd “man or machine” mystery. Rebecca Hall (The Town) is tasked with carrying the crux of the emotion and drama in the story, and she does manage to create a performance that is grounded and relatable within this overblown sci-fi circus (an intelligent, willful – and possibly grief-crazy – woman whose love is tested by a changed relationship dynamic).

Kate Mara in Transcendence1 Transcendence Review

Kate Mara in ‘Transcendence’

Other than our two leads, a lineup of actors from “Camp Batman” – Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Josh Stewart – and other familiar faces – Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr. – all show up to lend their talents to vague and half-formed characters, who never seem to develop at all and are not very consequential in the scheme of the narrative. Instead of keeping things squarely focused on the story between Will and Evelyn (and all its implications about love, faith, trust and loss), Paglen’s script spreads its focus far too wide and far too thin, giving us something of everything, and enough of nothing.

In the end, the competent direction, solid cast – and some admittedly interesting sci-fi concepts about artificial intelligence, the future of mechanics and singularity theory – keep Transcendence from being a total wash. However, it is definitely not a movie worthy of the hype surrounding it, or the talent working on it. If you like your sci-fi slow rather than exciting, and focused more on philosophy and theory rather than emotion or humanity, then Transcendence is the type of visual dissertation you may want to sit through. For those looking for that Inception-style mix of cerebral sci-fi blockbuster action: this is not it. At all.

…In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they must’ve titled this movie with total irony, because Transcendence stumbles hard in its attempt to rise above.


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Transcendenceis now in theaters. It is 119 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.

Want to hear the Screen Editors discuss the film? Then stay tuned for episode 140 of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.

Our Rating:

2 out of 5

Follow Kofi Outlaw on Twitter @ppnkof
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  1. that’s sad.. I wasn’t hyping up for this movie but I didn’t want it to be a “mess of a film”

    • Remember its just a opinion. I have disagreed with SR many times on their reviews.

      • Thanks Alpine,thats what most people seem to forget..”it’s just someones Opinion”
        Always keep that in mind,and if you like the Trailer and the premise give it a try !

  2. Hmm. A safety net studio mandated movie then from a first time director calling in favours via the phone book of Christopher Nolan. Which in some ways is perfectly understandable. Wanted it to be good and will at some point still go to see it but boy, a kicking it is receiving from all and all.

    The tragedy of this is that even when Mr Depp is trying to cut down on the self conscious “wacky” the results tend to be as lifeless as the movies many want him to escape from (do not get me started on ‘Public Enemies’).

    Anyways, a fine review. When you are harsh, you are harsh but fair and erudite with the reasoning. Well, except on ‘Only God Forgives’, but, you know, move on and all that. One question you neglected though. Is it better than ‘The Lawnmower Man’?

    • I know you said “don’t get me started” but I’m curious to know what was so “lifeless” about Public Enemies.

      • Digital stock. Times when it works a treat (‘Collateral’). But when it is a period film reliant on detail to identify the time it is set in, digital made it look like a parody of bored actors doing a drama class to lazily neglected set designs.

        Perhaps it is skewed due a personal perspective. 48fps for the two Hobbit movies did not work for me because it was like watching a DVD behind the scenes documentary. Same applied to ‘Public Enemies’, but I believe that to be a bad movie in general first and foremost. Compared to the stock ‘LA Confidential’ was shot with, which gave it life, personality and crucially, legitimacy of placement, ‘Public Enemies’ was just, well, “lifeless” because nothing about it convinced me it was set in the time it was supposed to be set in.

        • I agree all the actors seemed to be bored during the film and that made it lifeless to me

        • Ah, good points.

  3. Now I’m just hoping Whedon fires back at Pfister.

    • He won’t. He doesn’t need to.

      • I think he did already.
        He said something like “Sorry to here that, I’m a fan”

        • hear*


  4. “On a narrative front, Transcendence is complete mess – and worse yet, it’s a boring mess.”

    That may be why Michael Green was brought on to re-write/tweak ‘Prometheus 2: Paradise’ after Jack Paglen had a crack at it.

    • I meant to keep typing…

      I’m not sure Ridley Scott and the ‘Prometheus’ franchise can afford another “mess” in terms of script-writing.

      • Agreed

  5. Thanks for the heads up – I was interested in this – but I will wait on this one.

    typo – “IMAX is totally necessary for this film (a waste if you ask me).” think you meant unnecessary there.

    • There are grammatical errors in every SR article. They never proofread.

      • Yep. I also see errors on just about all the major news websites on a daily basis. Im not sure it’s a new thing though, I’ve been reading my old Destroyer series books lately and catch pretty obvious goof ups in every other book. Come to think of it, just about anything I read eventually has a screw up but I can tell what they meant anyway.

        As for this movie, I didnt have any real hopes of it being good because of Depp playing a straight role (at least not a white face goofy character)and oddly it’s not a mess because of him according to the review.

      • @Alpine

        We always proofread, but you do know we’re a team of like 6 – 7 primary writers working 8 – 10 hours daily on articles that average 500 words, that we have 45 – 60 minutes to write. And a lot of our writers do that 3 – 4 times A DAY, in addition to be designers who lay out the images and format of an article. That’s not even counting the knowledge, analysis and research required to bring you an “SR Brand” article.

        I would put any SR writer against any other internet news reporter in a second – and watch them wipe the floor with the competition.

        We always strive for perfection in our writing – don’t always get there. Think you could do better? I wonder…

        • I can understand what hard work it must be. Hell, virtually every comment I make has a typo or mistake in it somewhere (Gimme that edit button!!), and I know you guys genuinely appreciate having errors pointed out so you can correct them. Constructive criticism is always good, but ragging on you is just gonna get you in a bad mood. (^-^) All I’m saying is the vast majority of us appreciate your hard work. You sound like you need a hug… *hugs laptop*

          I will still moan at the ads and new video players mind. 😉

        • I imagine Kofi with a TNT type fuse on his head. Is this accurate?

  6. I didn’t assume this movie would have a lot of Nolan-esque sci-fi action. I was hoping it WOULD be a slower philosophical movie (“Can hardware be the matter to which the human soul is the form?”) . So I think, even though it got 2 stars here, I will still give it a shot.

  7. You guys over at Screenrant are a little bias when it comes to certain movies like Pacific Rim The Lone Ranger giving them only 2 stars

      • Rotten Tomatoes isnt the best barometer imo. I rather come here first and figure out if something’s worth seeing. Hell this has been a home-tab on my browser for years because it’s easier to identify with than a cartoon bubble amalgam of half chewed bytes.

        • In this context, he’s not saying RT is a metric by which you decide whether to see a film. He’s saying that once some time has passed after a film’s release, RT is a good way to see what the overall experience was after many people have rated it.

    • @Bruce Davidson

      Yeah, we tend to be biased against movies that aren’t that good.

      • “You guys over at Screenrant are a little bias when it comes to certain movies like Pacific Rim The Lone Ranger…”

        “Pacific Rim The Lone Ranger” – was that some kind of porn parody? Or a personal request? 😛

        Seriously though @Bruce Davidson – what is your definition of “certain movies” when comparing PC to TLR? Those two movies are VERY different. What’s your basis for comparison? Summer movies? I gave Man of Steel 4 stars, and The Conjuring 5 – both were summer 2013 movies like PR and TLR.

        SO CONFUSED by your comment…

        • THANK YOU KOFI

          defense against the dark arts of hamfisted reader’s critique is always welcome. Valid critique by readers is fine in my book, but when someone can’t wrap their head around the concept of “you guys didn’t like a movie I liked, so what” I start to get a little bit militant.

          @Bruce: When you like a movie that everyone else thinks is sh#t, it doesn’t mean you are wrong or they are wrong. You can like a thing and that thing can still be awful. I love certain bands that are actually complete garbage.

        • I would have given The Conjuring 6 stars if I could.

        • Damn, you did give the Conjuring 5 stars, didn’t you? I really need to get around to that.

    • Sorry but I have to agree with them on their reviews with Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger was a mess from start to finish and even though it was an okay movie by all means didn’t deserve more than 2 stars. Pacific Rim is an average film. The visuals were great but aside from that there wasn’t anything there. The acting was meh and the plot/script wasn’t anything special so therefore the 3 stars was justified IMO. I believe this film is horrible due to the fact that the people who went to an advanced screening last night ended up walking out and not even finishing the movie. They said it was the most boring movie they’ve seen this year so I believe this review is in line of what the movie actually is

  8. I really don’t like Rebecca Hall.

  9. i don’t trust this websites judgement. But if it was “The Avengers”?? 6-1/2 STARS! LOL!

    • That’d be hilarious if there wasn’t a review on the site that clearly states The Avengers was rated 4.5/5 stars 😉

      Also, this is a strange one to throw in our face – since Transcendence is currently sitting at 14% on RT.

    • @kissjonez

      I don’t trust YOUR punctuation and grammar.

    • If you don’t trust their judgement why do you even bother to visit the site???

      • Probably because they get joy in their lives about complaining when an internet website doesn’t agree with their view of something as inconsequential as a movie review.

  10. I first saw the trailer about a month ago and in the beginning of it, I was intrigued, but after seeing what this movie is really about, I was disinterested. It just looks like a cheesy story, which is a shame because I love J. Depp and Morgan.

  11. 2 out 5 ?? …damn I never expected this

  12. Very well-written review, i enjoyed reading it, it really made me chuckle. In all honesty i thought it looked like an absolute load of rubbish from the trailer, it just looks like some trashy 80s straight to video film, only with major stars instead of the likes of Wings Hauser and Michael Ironside. It looks like a “seen-it-all-before” kind of film, trying to add a bit of weight by having respectable actors. Anyway, by the sound of this review i wasn’t far off with my negative reaction to the trailer.

  13. After reading this review and a few others it seems like we have gotten our first real disappointment of the year.
    Between Pfister’s directing debut and a cast that features some true greats I had high high hopes for this.
    Normally when I’m anticipating something this much I’ll go see it no matter what but when I’m seeing 1 1/2 and 2 star reviews across the board I need to course correct and save my money for something else.

    The positive…
    With reviews this bad and a probable terrible box-office return this will probably be on Amazon within a couple months. When paying only $5.99 compared to theater prices I’m more willing to try out a stinker.

  14. Was gonna go for it tomorrow. But now I will not. Not after readin this review. Hmmm…will wait for this one on torrents. I am trusting the site on dis movie. And also saving my cash for TAS2.

  15. I was hoping this was going to be a good movie considering they seemed to have a great cast but from what I’m reading and the word of mouth it seems like I’m just going to wait until it hits netflix.

  16. You guys at screenrant are a little bias in your growing dread of the oncoming neogenesis brought about by the techno-organic super being. You must give up your ties to your physical form to become truly free. This film is but an advertisement of things to come.
    Where is Andrew Dyce, we sense his fear, he will be the first to be transcended and then the rest will follow assimilation….

    • Well said.

    • Resistance is futile!

  17. To sijo:

    When you say “saving My cash for tas2″.

    What do you mean? Are the tickets so expensive in US?

    • I find it interesting that people are bashing Screenrant over this review. While I was a tad bit surprised, I respect every guys opinion who writes for the site. It’s just a Johnny Depp movie, guys.

    • I wouldn’t say that tickets are particularly expensive here in the US but movies have certainly become more of a luxury outing for many since the cost of 3D/IMAX, taking a date (or family), plus bloated snack prices drives the spending up fairly high. I spend around $40 for each movie outing, so I’m more selective in deciding which movies to go see, which makes me appreciate the reviews sites like Screenrant put up.

      I would’ve gone to see Transcendence had it not been for the description of it in the review. It just isn’t worth it imo to go out and see movies that are described as boring or disappointing by more than a couple of reliable sources.

      • +1 Aaron Im the same way tickets here in canada are bout 12$ ea regular and 20$ for imax. Prob spent close to 40$ as well. It adds up.

      • Yeah, it’s really starting to get expensive now. Before I would just buy the tickets and take snacks with me to watch the movie but a lot of place won’t even allow that anymore. So now I just go watch movies that I really want to see or if a friend is paying

    • I use Moviepass: a new movie every day for thirty US dollars a month. Which is really good, now, because I lost my remote control and can’t turn on my TV.

      I am breaking my own rule, because I haven’t seen this movie yet. I have seen the trailer; does that count? If it’s relaxing with exciting bits like “Divergent” then I’ll go see it. If it’s relaxing to the point of tedium like “Her” then I probably won’t hurry to see it.

      For me, because I use MoviePass, it’s not about the $8-14 money, it’s about the 1-4 hours of my time that I’ll never get back.

  18. i really wanted this to be good…oh well

  19. The review’s last line went down well with me: for all that I know of this film, it isn’t one about transcendence. The spirit, of the meaning of this word is that of about progression, of making the transition to an “improved” state of being, from that of one’s prior state – a spirit of meaning which to my mind this film doesn’t represent.

    One viewing, of one of the trailers was all it took; instantly, I was able to then know that this wasn’t going to be an exceptional story (at least desirably so).

    You want an exceptional tale, that’s sci-fi, and that’s “heady”, and more importantly full of heart?

    Read the short story ‘The Greater Thing’, by Tom Godwin.

  20. “Can a machine contain a soul?” That same question was explored in the Ghost in the Shell anime 20 years ago.

    The screenwriters just regurgitate old ideas. Hollywood should just keep making sequels and remakes. Nothing new here.

    Thanks Kofi. You’ve saved me some money.

    • Dont think that Ghost in the Shell originated that idea or youre just fooling yourself.

      • Source please or provide a web link

        • Try Star Trek TOS episodes “What are Little Girls Made Of” or “I, Mudd”.

  21. It’s not a great movie but I enjoyed it. And it’s actually a love story, of how far would you go for the one you love, for both Will and Evelyn.

  22. Thanks for the ending summation. I think I’ll pass on this movie at the theaters. Thank you.

  23. Thanks for the review-opinion. You are probably right about this one. I’ll wait for the rental.

  24. just seen this movie about 30 mm ago……and this review is only one person….i really enjoyed this film.

    it is more than johnny depp being an A.I pay attention closely it is about us and humanity..i loved this film and dont let reviews like these persuade you NOT to go see it.

    • “30 mm” ? Why that doesn’t sound lery log! 😉

      • BWAAAAA HAAAAA! I fudged my own witty reply with two incredibly stupid, but funny typos. Lol
        That’ll teach me to be a smar-ass.

        • *smart-ass*

          Goddammit! :(

  25. I saw this at a pre-screening a little over a week ago.

    I agree that it’s not exhilarating all the time, but I enjoyed it. I would give it at least 3/5 stars. The cast and acting was really good, and while the story was a bit “slow” I thought it was quite interesting, if not completely believable in parts.

    I wouldn’t say go out and see it immediately, but I also wouldn’t tell you not to go see it. Definitely check it out when it hits DVD/Netflix at least.

  26. In the trailers, there was like a dessert scene, and everything was being disintegrated..?
    All I care to know is what was that? What was going on? It seemed very out of place.

  27. dam 2 stars? this seemed like an interesting movie and with the cast and all but eh guess ill skip this one

  28. Wow, I wasn’t expecting this! Such a shame, I had high hopes for it.. I only get to see a couple of movies a month because of working long hours, so I’ll give this a miss – Thanks for the heads up!

    As for the ongoing review debate, ultimately, it’s all subjective. The best advice I can offer is find a site that generally likes the same kinda movies you do, and their reviews will generally be on par with what you think yourself. If you’re using the reviews as a deciding factor in seeing a movie, this is most certainly the best way.. For me, Screenrant, CMB, and DoG pretty much serve that purpose. It’s infrequently I disagree with a review, and I trust their judgement enough that I’ve avoided a few stinkers.. So keep doing what you’re doing, guys :)

  29. Having not seen it – this sounds a great deal like the original reviews for 2001: A space odyssey – which too doesn’t have great action set pieces. And is considered boring by some? Or is it really just that bad?