Review: Transcendence (2014)

Transcendence (dir. Wally Pfister, 2014) – A radical anti-technology group fights to prevent Dr. Will Caster from successfully creating his omniscient, sentient machine.

Verdict

A good eye for the aesthetics barely saves a potentially brilliant cerebral premise, mangled by script weaknesses.

3/5

Review

Evolution has been kind, and Man has come a very long way since hominids wielded a bone and tilted their heads. Where do we head from here? To futurists, machines seem to be the logical answer. Precise accuracy, collective memory, and a tireless objectivity put them in a better place to push limits beyond human capacity.

The field of science has long been working towards the coveted breakthrough – to have a machine pass the Turing test. We are not far from that possibility, and that should unsettle us.

Johnny Depp in Transcendence
“Do, not, call, me, an adorable lab rat.”

How can we entrust sentience to one with a mind powerful enough to outsmart its creators, an ability to be omnipresent in the densely-networked world, and a deific immortality that will make it virtually unstoppable? What then, when it he, too, learns to thirst for advancement?

Scientific minds must wrestle with the dilemma of a desire for humanity’s betterment, and the eventuality of giving up control over something that none of us fully understand. The impasse comes to an end for Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), when she makes the decision to save her husband Will (Johnny Depp) from certain death.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in Transcendence
Watching The Lone Ranger for the first time.

Racing against time, her only choice is to preserve his mind in the digital realm, with the help of fellow A.I. researcher Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Once she successfully uploaded Will’s knowledge and memories into an existing model of artificial intelligence, the lines between man and machine begin to blur.

What defines consciousness? What is a soul? Transcendence surfaces these difficult questions in its themes, yet disappointingly oversimplifies its answer, as it all comes down to a battle between good and evil. Keen on taking strides, the story misses the subtlety and sophistication that classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey cemented their reputation with. Writer Jack Paglen’s eagerness to push for the explosive finale never leaves enough time to fully realise his interesting ideas.

Impatience shows through a lack of interest in developing characters past bland and purely functional plot devices, built for specific purposes. Deficiency in the portrayal of humanity, in a probe of the complex question of ‘What makes a man, a man’, is especially bugging.

Kate Mara plays the leader of intense staring a Resistance group with murky radical ideals. Cillian Murphy takes on the role of the obligatory FBI guy, whose first name might just be Agent. Morgan Freeman is… well, probably just there because he’s cool.

Johnny Depp Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall in Transcendence Still
“There can only be one God, Depp,” Freeman said.

Half-raw character motivations lead to a trail of questionable decisions and excessive exposition. Depending on whether you enjoy dramatics, you may or may not love lines like these:

“We’re not going to fight them… We’re going to transcend them.”

Director Wally Pfister’s sleek visual style mitigates the script’s weaknesses, as best as he possibly can. Though slightly less impressive than his past outings as a cinematographer (to be fair, Inception is hard to match), Transcendence still holds a hint of his usual keen eye for aesthetic wonderment in futuristic imagery.

Visual lustre and intriguing concepts make for sufficiently engaging entertainment, with unfulfilled potential in its execution. Here’s to hoping the Battlestar Galactica reboot, should Jack Paglen get the gig, will prove that Transcendence was only a slight misstep.

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9 thoughts on “Review: Transcendence (2014)

  1. Hey Jade, great review again.

    Regarding the Galactica reboot — I am a big fan of the recent television series and I personally think it’s too soon. What do you think?

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    1. Thanks Mike. I’m with you on that; the Galactica reboot is too soon for sure. Seems like every other series – Stargate, The Stand, Friday the 13th, even Lost – is getting the unnecessary ‘reboot’ treatment. Eek.

      I would much rather see show runners and film-makers venture beyond the safety of extant, popular franchises. There are tons of fresh, untouched material out there like Good Omens, or Artemis Fowl, that I’d love to see on screens!

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      1. Don’t forget Heroes!

        Seems we’re in agreement on this. I too crave more Galactica, and they did try with the Caprica series. It took a while but I eventually became absorbed with Caprica.

        Ahh well. If it makes money, they’ll reboot it.

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        1. I’m leaning towards skepticism. Then again, I should probably reserve my judgement since I said the same thing about Hannibal and it’s now my favourite show, hahaha.

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          1. I didn’t think I would like Galactica at all. The first clip I saw was from the pilot — when Starbuck punches Tigh. I thought, “This is lame.” Boy I was wrong!

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  2. You were more generous than most on this and I hope that I feel the same when I finally watch it. You know? Like I know it isn’t going to be excellent but hopefully I can a thing or two to really like! I remember the first time seeing the trailer for this…..I actually said, “This is going to suck”.

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    1. I thought the negative reviews were way too harsh, especially given that this is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, and Jack Paglen’s first major screenplay too.

      Though the ideas are not well fleshed out, Transcendence is still more thought-provoking than the average Hollywood fare. Keep your expectations low, and I’m sure you’ll have fun!

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