REVIEW: “Transcendence”


On paper “Transcendence” sounded like a sure thing. It had an intriguing science fiction premise. It had a fabulous cast featuring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy. It was the directorial debut from one of my favorite cinematographers Wally Pfister. But as with anything you can have some great pieces but that does automatically equal a great whole. That’s certainly the case with “Transcendence”.

Without question “Transcendence” is a film with loads of ambition and some good things to say. It gets off to a good start and lays an interesting foundation. Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a renowned scientist working on the creation of a sentient artificial intelligence. His devoted wife Evelyn (Hall) is a strong supporter and organizes the funding for his research. His best friend Max (Bettany) is a fellow scientist and an important contributor to Will’s work.


After speaking at a science and technology convention Will is shot by an anti-technology extremist. The act is part of a series of attacks by a terrorist group known as R.I.F.T. That stands for “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” and if you need something else to make you laugh, one of their weapons of choice is a poisonous birthday cake. Oh, and the bullet used on Will is radioactive. It poisons his blood and with no cure available he is given a month to live.

Desperate to hang onto her husband, Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness to a super computer. He soon dies but is revived within the computer. Hunted down by R.I.F.T. and their dogged leader Bree (Kate Mara), Evelyn uploads Will to the internet giving him freedom and access to all the web’s information. As with any A.I. (or so we’re told) they survive by getting more information. With Evelyn’s help Will grows more powerful and soon crowds the line between helping the world and overtaking it.

This collision between mankind and technology does provide for some good conversation. There is also a compelling unconventional love story buried within this material. Unfortunately to get much of either you have to navigate through a litany of cavernous plot holes and inconceivable stretches of our imagination. As the movie moves forward we are constantly asked to overlook numerous gaps in logic and in the story itself. The film ends up smothering all of the interesting elements with one narrative blunder after another.


It also doesn’t help that some of the film’s plot machinations are so incredibly preposterous and implausible. This is frustrating because once again it overshadows the intriguing concepts that do have a lot of promise. We just can’t buy into it all and at times it looks like the cast doesn’t either. I wouldn’t say that they are phoning in their performances. There are moments where they are trying to salvage something from the ramshackle script, especially Hall and Bettany. But no one feels thoroughly engaged or convinced in the material.

Again, “Transcendence” looked good on paper but not in execution. It has so much going for it but it lacks one vital component – a competent script. There is a good story to be found here and I got just enough to be annoyed by the mishandling of it. It did engage me at first and I really liked what the film was going for with its ending. It’s the rocky road in between that makes this a tough movie to recommend. And that’s a shame because this should have and could have been better.


25 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Transcendence”

    • Thanks Marc. It’s baffling. Everything looked to be in place for something really good. Not sure how such a promising project could go so wrong.

  1. Heard it was terrible. At this point I’m beginning to wonder if Johnny Depp just got lucky for a few years? It’s been so long since he did something good.

    • Depp is a puzzle isn’t he? It’s amazing that the guy is still one of the highest paid actors in movies. I still think he has talent but his movie choices have been insanely bad.

  2. Wonder how much studio interference this had? Always felt it was convoluted. A mix of some intriguing ideas somehow reduced down to formula. Since it was someone like Pfister, first-time in the director’s chair, the studio heads weren’t about to let him have a freehand in a big effects production without some “adult supervision.” Would love to see a director’s cut, though I doubt they’ll ever let that happen. Too bad as I think Pfister’s past work has been outstanding. Good look at this, Keith.

    • You bring up some really good points and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is truth to the studio meddling. If that is the case it’s a real shame.

    • Same with me. It was high on my list of movies to see when it hit theaters. But it truly became a case of staying away because of the bad reviews.

  3. Yeah, this was a complete and total mess of a film! I hated it. So dumb. You’re right…it had so much seemingly in place and yet…that script was just all wrong. Plot hole after plot hole. Shame, really.

    • I hear you man. And some of the plot holes were just insane. Head scratching dumb. This should’ve been a heck of a lot better than it turned out.

  4. Well, there’s a reason I haven’t seen this yet, even though I do like Rebecca Hall. As I’m covering MSPIFF right now, it made me think how big-budget films like this kept getting made w/ half-arsed script y’know, when one can always tell a compelling story w/ shoestring budget. Speaking of which, I just reviewed a film w/ miss Binoche that I’m sure you want to see.

  5. Ugh! This movie was AWFUL and I am sorry you put yourself through it. As you say, on paper it looked like it had plenty potential. However, then you watch it and it all just falls flat. Not nice at all!

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