Review: Wally Pfister's 'Transcendence' Disappoints on Every Level

April 18, 2014


Cinematographer Wally Pfister's directorial debut, Transcendence, barely even registers. You can forget about it transcending anything. From the minute we're introduced to the wrap-around, and long before we even flash back, the stagnancy of the screenplay begins to dull everything down around it. It's playing on some interesting ideas, concepts that may well come across as far more mind-blowing when found in a science book. Too much is bland in Transcendence, and that goes for story, acting and direction. Not even the immaculate eye of Wally Pfister can escape the black hole of enjoyment that's at the heart of this film.

That wrap-around is set five years into the future, a future where all electronics have shorted out and keyboards are only kept around for door stops. We're introduced to Max Waters (Paul Bettany), at one time a scientist now left to roam the analog world providing narration and exposition to anyone who will listen. That "anyone" just happens to be us this time around.

Waters tells us about his friends Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall, respectively), two fellow scientists who are on the verge of cracking the code on a revolutionary type of Artificial Intelligence. They plan to create a sentient being that carries with it both the full, collective knowledge of the human race as well as the whole range of human emotion.


Sound like a bad idea? You wouldn't be alone in thinking that. A group of anti-technology extremists share your thoughts, and they make an attempt on Will's life, leaving him poisoned and near-death. A decision has to be made. Fully invested in his project and the potential it has on our future, Will decides to upload his own mind and consciousness into the computer, thus becoming the grand, technological creature he wanted to create. Let's just call him iWill.

Again, these are fascinating ideas told with all the excitement of a snail chase in Transcendence, the cause of which can be attributed to a number of issues this film has. Jack Paglen is credited with the screenplay. Though rumors have bounced around that Pfister did some major rewrites, Paglen is the only name credited. Regardless, it's a dull mess, creeping from one information dump to the next with periodic bouts of Summer blockbuster fever springing up.

While iWill builds an army of mindless, NanoTechSuperSoldiers - not the name given to them in the film, and, yes, their presence is explained somewhere in those info dumps - the subplots shuffle back and forth between the anti-tech extremists plotting their big assault and an FBI investigation led by Cillian Murphy, Agent Something-or-Other. The point is, he wears sunglasses, so you know he's FBI. Morgan Freeman, also playing a fellow scientist, fills the light-hearted gap in everything. Seriously, if Freeman weren't in this there wouldn't be a light moment in the thing.


Yet for all of its seriousness and grand ideas on how to fix the world, Transcendence is downright silly. That is, when it's not boring the audience to tears. The swarms of nanobots and super soldiers aside, the film's "big" moments only achieve unintentional laughter. Granted, a lot of this is a bi-product of the film's attempt in earnest. If Johnny Depp weren't trying so hard for dead seriousness when he's staring contemplatively at the camera, it wouldn't come off quite as laughable.

Let't talk about Depp and the rest of the cast in Transcendence, for that matter. The screenplay, while ludicrous and messy, aims high. The direction, as arid and dull - that word cannot be used enough to describe this film - as it is, looks professional at the very least. The cast, however, is simply lazy, everyone going through whatever motions are required of them. Depp, front and center, mumbles his way through heaps of dialogue, never raising the decibel level or the energy in any room. Then he becomes iWill and gets even more robotic.

No one is any more worthy of recommendation in Transcendence, a film so monotonous and spiritless that even the actors are bored while playing dress-up. Those sunglasses and that bullet-proof vest are standard issue. So is everything else in Transcendence. There was much build-up to see what Wally Pfister could come up with when he broke out on his own. Let's just say he hasn't transcended Christopher Nolan.

Jeremy's Rating: 4.5 out of 10
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk

Find more posts: Review, Sci-Fi




ziggy on Apr 18, 2014


That's what I feared. Shame tho, looked like a nice concept. Well I am sure Nolan will take you back...

Armitall on Apr 18, 2014


Kind of what I was expecting, honestly.

DavideCoppola on Apr 18, 2014


Was looking forward to this and was expecting at least a 7 out of 10, but man a 4.5!? that's disappointing. Usually most people would think Jeremy's reviews are too harsh, but this time it seems completely rational, good job! Probably won't be seeing this until it happens to pop up on HBO whilst channel surfing.

Zade_92 on Apr 18, 2014


Honestly figured it was bad but I am surprised that it scored this low. It just seemed like a recycled anime/manga plot with no real visual style.

Kyle A. Kiekintveld on Apr 18, 2014


WHATTTTT!??!?!! Lol called this flop months ago. Even got some flak for doing so. I do not get why people thought this would be good. Depp cannot act on any level.

Brian Sleider on Apr 18, 2014


Just saw it! It's really interesting and more important thought provoking movie. I do agree with the part where the actors looked bored and lazy. but as a whole this movie is a 7.

Ivan. tih on Apr 18, 2014


Saw this coming. The trailers looked uninteresting to say the least.

ListenToVinyl on Apr 18, 2014


This is so sad to hear.

DAVIDPD on Apr 18, 2014


The movie "Transcendence" starring Johnny Depp is a let-down, but bestselling novel "The Transhumanist Wager," another new story with futurist and transhumanism themes, is shocking people with its originality and revolutionary nerve. It's a much better story about the near future, and more controversial too.

Zoltan Istvan on Apr 18, 2014


it's amazing how subjective this medium is. I for one watched it and thought it was solid. I actually really enjoyed it. I'd give it 7/10.

Trey Wilson on Apr 18, 2014


After Depp had been playing so many goofy roles recently (Pirates, Alice, that vampire movie, etc.) I was curious to see how he was in a serious role, as it's been so long in his now late age. Being he's been rumored to play Dr. Strange, I was hoping to hear he'd do well in a more serious movie environment.... Now I'm just hoping the Strange casting choice is in fact a rumor. Please be a rumor!

JBrotsis on Apr 20, 2014


Meh, show me Pirates 5 instead.

cobrazombie on Apr 21, 2014


I'm a bit confused by all the bad reviews on this film. Perhaps people were expecting a Matrix/Inception type of film instead of a sci-fi drama were just disappointed. Personally this movie exceeded my expectations. I really liked the way it ended, despite being shown the ending in the beginning I liked the overall message that was presented at the end. I'd give it a 8 out of 10.

UrAllThumb on Apr 21, 2014


I am sick of science fiction movies that are about how scary progress must seem to stupid people.

Z4RQUON . on Jul 2, 2014

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