Transcendence Review – System Error

Transendence Poster

When I first saw the trailer for Transcendence, I was intrigued. It had a great cast which include Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, and Morgan Freeman. The story seemed interesting. It was shot very well and looked like it was going to be an entertaining venture. Few of these features turned out to be true. While it was presented as a smart and engaging sci-fi thriller, it ended up a contrived and lackluster mess. You know it’s a bad sign when the movie hits its climax and you check your watch.

Without spoiling anything, one of Transcendence’s biggest problems presents itself within the opening five minutes; they tell you how it ends! Any surprises or suspense that could have been created is instantly swept away when the finale is given to you before the story even begins. I suppose you could blame this on bad writing—and trust me, we’ll get to that!—but this was something that the director could’ve easily taken out and saved until the end. Why Wally Pfister decided to go this route, I haven’t a clue.

Transendence Pfister
Transendence Pfister

Yes; this guy has an Oscar.

Pfister’s background is in cinematography, and if you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan, you should already be well aware of his work. And yes, when it comes to capturing a shot and making it look cinematic, he’s clearly a master of his craft. Yet none of that helped him with the skills needed to realize the aspects of a movie that matter the most: story, characters, pacing, etc.

Despite having a great pool of talent—Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy—no actor gives a good performance. I’ve never seen such apathy from such accomplished actors. Johnny Depp doesn’t seem to be interested in anything happening to him or anything he says. Rebecca Hall’s character is all over the place and has no consistent behavior or personality. Bettany, Freeman and Murphy seem to be trying to give something to the camera, but the way their characters are written, they have nothing work with. I’m not sure what’s going with Kate Mara. Maybe it’s Pfister’s direction, maybe it’s the script, or maybe it’s her. Whatever’s going on, I hated her performance and not even in the way you’re supposed to hate the “bad guy” of a movie.

Transcendence Kate Mara
Transcendence Kate Mara

The face of terrorism!

For me, the Achilles’ heel of Transcendence is its story. To give a quick rundown, Depp and Hall play husband and wife scientists doing research on artificial intelligence, and while attending a presentation to attract sponsors, Depp is shot by an anti-AI fanatic of a terrorist group led by Mara. Upon learning that the bullet was poisoned, his consciousness is uploaded into the AI program, he’s transferred to the Internet where the terrorist group cannot shut him down, and his mental power grows beyond anything imaginable which causes alarm, and all of his former friends and colleagues perceive him as a great threat.

Again, without spoiling anything, here are some of the details that ruin this story. There’s a switch half-way through in which the movie tries to portray Depp as the bad guy and the terrorist group as the good guys by having the other good guys join forces with them. However, nothing that Depp’s character does warrants this kind of reaction as a threat to humanity. Pretty much all he does is cure diseases and ailments by developing regenerative programs. But even if Depp became devilishly evil, that doesn’t make the protagonist switch to Mara’s terrorist clan a good one. Not only are they hypocritical for being anti-technology when they use cars, advanced weapons, cell phones and computers, but they’re MURDERERS, and they killed many of the friends and coworkers of our film’s heroes! The motivation for their actions makes no sense which only serves to make them come across as terrified maniacs, and they have no redeeming qualities, yet our heroes still side with them.

To take a more generalized look at the story, it raises a few interesting questions but never gives you anything else to think about it beyond that. Nothing is explained; things just kind of happen because of, uh…science! As an audience, we’re told a lot about these characters based on how the other characters talk about them, yet we never get to see these characteristics for ourselves. As a cinematographer, Pfister really should’ve known better.

And finally, as I mentioned earlier, Transcendence just isn’t very interesting or engaging. After a while, I simply didn’t care what happened to these people because I didn’t like any of them and thought their decisions were all pretty dumb. I could talk all day about every other problem with this movie, but that would make spoilers unavoidable. Then again, you could just watch the first five minutes of Transcendence and get all the information you need from there!

Movies like these disappoint me because while I understand that film making is a business, it’s also a performing art, and as such, there should be a responsibility on the shoulders of the cast and crew to give its audience something more than a phoned-in product. If the people involved are clearly only working on it for a paycheck and nothing else, that’s the brightest red flag of a movie that doesn’t deserve your money.

Try a little harder next time, guys.

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