Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action and Violence, some Bloody Images, brief Strong Language and Sensuality
Directed by: Wally Pfister
Written by: Jack Paglen
Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany & Clifton Collins Jr.
In the grand cinematic scheme, science fiction has been used to tell intelligent, creative stories with relevant social commentary at the center. TRANSCENDENCE frequently tries to get across how much society depends on technology (after all, you are reading this review on an electronic device of some kind). This point has been made in plenty of other films and is kind of overplayed. With an interesting story, the message could possibly be made worthwhile again. TRANSCENDENCE is not an interesting movie. This thriller of science gone very wrong is muddled, ridiculous, and doesn’t do a thing worth engaging the viewer’s interest. It’s a boring, stupid film that wastes a good cast. The real mystery is how first-time director Wally Pfister (who has only worked as a cinematographer) and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen got this stinker funded on a huge budget. Judging from the near-empty theater I saw this in (a Friday evening), TRANSCENDENCE has a good chance of deservedly flopping.
Will Caster, Evelyn Caster (his wife), and Max Waters are part of a research team designing the ultimate Artificial Intelligence. This self-aware system has the potential of being more powerful than the combined intellect of everyone in the entire world. The idea is a little creepy and one could see things easily going wrong with this creation. An anti-tech terrorist group (known as Rift) foresees the potential disaster and kills the staff of nearly every A.I. lab in the country. An assassination attempt is made on Will’s life and it leaves him poisoned with a month left to live. Desperate to keep her husband around, Evelyn uploads his consciousness to the A.I. they were constructing. After exhibiting some disturbing behavior, a few people decide there’s a definite possibility that this new sentient system isn’t actually Will.
TRANSCENDENCE is a film that tries too hard to have focus on deeper issues (including an ending that’s contradictory to everything that has come up to that point). The introduction to the story reveals where things wind up by the end of the story. Thus first-time director and first-time screenwriter pair both ruin the biggest possible surprise that might have come in the finale by showing it in the first five minutes. This is the first sign that Pfister might not be at the same level of skill directing-wise that he clearly demonstrates in cinematography.
The screenplay handles the supposed deeper message of the movie in a heavy-handed fashion. It’s all about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the groin. The twists the film takes along its way become more convoluted as the story trudges along. The movie runs for two hours and feels so much longer than that. There’s a good space in the middle where nothing much happens and it’s just exposition for the climax. Speaking of which, the ending almost feels like there was this ideology surrounding it that this conclusion would be profound and deeply emotional. I’ve seen people defending it online and one woman was actually crying in my theater during it. She may have been sobbing just because she realized she would never receive those two hours of endurance back into her life. TRANSCENDENCE is a poorly made failure of a film.
Despite the large budget that graces it, the production values feel very cheap. Most of the CGI is unconvincing. The cast of familiar A-listers are all phoning it in. With this dud, Johnny Depp seems to be in a bit of a cinematic rut. Here’s hoping that his next project boosts him out from this series of bad movies. Rebecca Hall doesn’t garner much sympathy as Evelyn Caster. Paul Bettany is no stranger to big-budgeted wasted opportunities (PRIEST, LEGION) and he isn’t given much to do in TRANSCENDENCE. His role isn’t of much importance, seeing as he disappears for a solid stretch of time. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy both are wasted too. If anyone shines out, it’s Depp (regulated to a computer monitor for most of the movie) and he’s playing an A.I. so not a whole lot of emotion was required, therefore not a whole lot was given.
If there’s any consolation to be given, it’s that TRANSCENDENCE might not have had the potential to be a winner from day one. It’s essentially a big-budget remake of THE LAWNMOWER MAN with a couple of preachy messages thrown in. It’s a silly, poorly acted, and boring mess. Thus far, it’s the worst film I’ve seen in 2014! TRANSCENDENCE doesn’t wind up transcending any of its problems and falls victim to being a shitty movie. It’s not worth your money, let alone your time! This is one project that needed to be shut down from day one!