Transcendence: will it transcend your expectations?


And so the summer of sci-fi begins. Seriously, have you guys noticed the ridiculous amount of sci-fi stuff coming out soon? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out next Friday (or it’s already out if you’re in the U.K.), then Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Jupiter Ascending, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc. Seems to be the genre of the summer—which I’m cool with, since that stuff’s right up my alley. I guess you could say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier kicked things off, and now here’s Transcendence following right after.

This film definitely made me curious. In fact, it found its way into my 20 Films of 2014 list back at the beginning of the year. So a buddy and I took a trip to the movie theater on opening day, and lo and behold—we were the only ones in the theater. Should we have considered that a sign? Maybe. Should I have given more thought to the low Tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Maybe. But I had made plans, and I wanted to see a movie, gosh darn it! Really, Transcendence isn’t bad—the visuals are interesting and so is the premise. It’s just one of those movies that the more you think about it, the more you find to pick on. Did I dislike the film? No. Can I think of about a dozen things wrong with it? You bet.

Synopsis: “As Dr. Will Caster works toward his goal of creating an omniscient, sentient machine, a radical anti-technology organization fights to prevent him from establishing a world where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.” Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb.

transcendence 1

The Good: Like I said above, the premise is undoubtedly interesting. In some ways, it reminds me of Her (which I wrote a mini review for awhile back if you’d like to see), albeit a much more sci-fi-focused take on artificial intelligence as opposed to a drama/love story. In addition to the focus on a highly advanced scientific organization, there’s the stark contrast of an extreme anti-technology organization that you could even call a terrorist group. The latter I found to be a particularly interesting element. It seems like everyone is pushing for better technology in modern society; it’s not often that you come across a group opposing it. But in some ways, I could see why they’re reluctant to trust it. The technology that develops in this film is pretty amazing—so amazing that it seems more like magic than science (I’m looking at you, nanotechnology). It’s a treat to watch this technology go to work, leaving very little to complain about in the visuals department. As far as the actors go, this is definitely the kind of film where you pay more attention to the special effects than the performances, but there are a few standouts. Rebecca Hall as Will’s wife, Evelyn, for instance. She essentially becomes the main protagonist of the film, and though you may not always agree with some of her actions, Hall is very convincing and likeable in the role. I could say the same for Paul Bettany, who plays a somewhat conflicted scientist and a close friend to Will and Evelyn.

Favorite scene: Hard to say, but I guess the very last scene—there’s a close-up shot of water dripping off of a vibrant sunflower in slow motion. Purdy.


The Bad: There are just so many elements of the story to nitpick. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about many of them without delving into spoilers, but I’ll talk about what I can. First of all, the anti-technology organization is an interesting element, sure, but there’s not enough done with it. Unfortunately, it becomes a bland semi-terrorist group with unexplained origins, a nasty habit of destroying more human beings than the technology it hates so much, and a leader (Kate Mara) who is completely undeveloped and unsympathetic. Then, there’s the character of Will. Played by the brilliant Johnny Depp, you’d expect Will to sparkle, but here’s the thing about Depp: when it comes to straight characters (by which I mean “not eccentric,” not “heterosexual”), he’s really not at his best. Depp excels at the Jack Sparrows and Edward Scissorhands and Mad Hatters of the acting world. I find that when he has to tone it down for more normal guys, he often comes off as…boring. Such is the case here. And he’s even more boring when his mind is transferred into artificial intelligence. However, I partly blame the writers for that. Will’s motives as an artificial intelligence system are confusing—particularly by the end of the film. If you’ve seen it, I’m sure you understand what I mean. Likewise, Bettany’s character frustrated me because his loyalties shift so abruptly and with barely any pressure. Basically, the characters could be much stronger. Then there are actors like Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, who are in the film but hardly worth mentioning because their roles are so pitiful. Why cast big names if you aren’t going to use them? Other than that, I will simply say that this film becomes more generic as it progresses, which is a shame—it really does have some thought-provoking concepts.

Least favorite scene: The big, dramatic finale. Not the sunflower scene I mentioned above, but the conclusion of the tech vs. anti-tech war. It’s just…not satisfying.

To Sum It Up: I was hard on this film, but I really didn’t have a huge problem with it. Transcendence is a fair bit of sci-fi fun—imperfect, but with interesting ideas at its core for the intellectual lot and impressive visuals for the more aesthetically inclined. If you’re a fan of this genre, I might not recommend paying full price at a movie theater, but I’d say give it a rental once it’s out on DVD.

My Grade: B-

39 thoughts on “Transcendence: will it transcend your expectations?

  1. Nice review. When I heard about it last year, it sounded interesting. Then I saw a trailer the other week and, well, I actually laughed. I’ll definitely watch it when it comes out on DVD, I love to nit pick!

    • Thanks, Laura! Yeah it wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped. Can’t wait to see what you have to say when it comes out on DVD. If you love to nitpick, you will have SO MUCH material. Hahaha.

    • It’s a shame that Depp couldn’t have been better in this. The film’s not a disaster, but…meh. I’d say waiting for this one is not a bad idea, Cindy.

  2. I predicted this for film of the year, but I have seen so many disappointed reviews (not bad, but as you say: disappointing), that I feel I might have missed the mark completely.

  3. If you thought you were hard on this film, oh boy!!! 🙂 I thought this to be a very fair and quite accurate review that reflected a lot of my problems with it. I think I had a much worse time with it, sadly.

    I actually was trying not to crash down on it too bad so I shortened up my review a bit. I couldn’t believe just how. . .weird this film was. I definitely think I should have mentioned how underused both Freeman and Murphy were, that was very disappointing.

    I also thought the visuals were great, prob the best aspect of Transcendence. A bunch of ideas were thrown in here, but none came to any effect (at least for me). Maybe next time, Wally.

  4. Aww man, I had really lofty expectations for this (and Nolan’s upcoming Intersteller, which still looks… stellar) – the premise is interesting, it has a tremendous cast, Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. This is actually one of the more positive reviews I’ve read regarding Transcendence, but I’m really wary about seeing it! Sounds like a DVD job as you alluded to. Great work Cara.


    • Thanks, Adam! Yes, DVD job for sure. Isn’t it a shame? I really thought this one would be good, too. Let’s hope Interstellar is awesome enough to make up for it! 🙂

  5. Good review Cara. I really do wish that I could give this one more of a benefit of the doubt, but I just can’t. Not only does it never have an idea of what it’s trying to say, but it’s not really all that thrilling to begin with. Just sort of lags from one scene to the next, without any palpable tension carrying it along.

  6. The trailer never excited me though I find the high concept to be intriguing. I’ll take your advice and wait for the DVD. Looking at the weekend box office, this really bombed big time. Great review!

    • Many thanks! Yeah DVD is your best option for sure. The ideas are there, but the execution is lacking. Didn’t Cap top the box office again? Go, Cap, go! 🙂

  7. This is a bummer. I was looking forward to Depp’s new flick, but oh well. Will watch it on DVD or something 🙂

  8. Hi Cara!!! I don’t think this looks very good and now it doesn’t sound very good and I hate Johnny Depp so I’ll probably never watch this one.



  9. Great review. I’m having a pretty hard time getting excited about this one. I’ve seen two pretty long trailers for it now and I feel like I’ve seen the whole thing – very disappointing when marketing goes this way. I will reserve judgement though until I see it next week.

  10. I was interested in this movie too, so I am glad you posted this. Seriously, Morgan Freeman seems to lend his hand on every random ass movie out there, it’s like hey we need someone with a deep, smart sounding voice, then Morgan Freeman signs up without even looking at the damn script. Did you see him in that magician movie? Ugh horrible too. I was hoping Cillian Murphy was going to be a good character in the film. Win some, lose some right…

  11. See, now I didn’t even know Cillian Murphy was in here, and it disappoints me to know that he and Morgan Freeman were so criminally underused. That is so not on man. This movie just looks… meh. And Depp is highly talented, but he has become typecast to play the crazy. He used to have to much more going for him. This is sad. Just sad.

      • I hope he does, he has a lot of talent. Meh.

        Of course they will. I must say, the first time I recall having seen Murphy was in Red Eye when I was younger, and from then on he has been someone worth keeping your eyes open for! And Freeman… well, that goes without say.

  12. Great review, Cara! I DO still KIND of want to see this although it’s had some horrible reviews. :-/ Your review seems more balanced, though. People get a little TOO bitchy about films sometimes. Chill, people! Sci-fi is my favorite genre by far so I’ll still check this out at some point no matter what. : )

    • Haha well it’s generally pretty chill over here at my blog. 🙂 You might like this one ok! I mean, it’s definitely nothing worth getting excited about, but it’d be decent enough to while away an afternoon.

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