Mania Review: Transcendence -

Mania Review

Mania Grade: C

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  • Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman
  • Written by: Jack Paglen
  • Directed by: Wally Pfister
  • Studio: Warner Bros
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Run Time: 119 minutes
  • Series:

Mania Review: Transcendence

Deus ex machina. Literally.

By Rob Vaux     April 18, 2014

© Warner Bros/Robert Trate

 There’s an apt line that applies to Transcendence: bad, but not uninteresting. It marks the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s favorite cinematographer Wally Pfister, the man who brought Gotham City to life and put the surreal reality into the dreamscapes of Inception. He has the skills to create a good looking movie and the intelligence to tackle a worthwhile subject. But he still has a lot to learn about telling a story, a fact that Transcendence reveals to our eternal disappointment.

Its Frankenstein-style premise won’t win huge marks for originality, but still shows plenty of life, especially with some real thoughtfulness behind it. As we hurdle towards ever more astonishing advancements in artificial intelligence, what happens when our creations start outpacing our ability to keep up? That’s the dilemma posed by Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), hard at work on a sentient machine until a gang of Luddite terrorists put an irradiated bullet in his gut. Rapidly fading and with the prospect of losing his life’s work, he and his colleagues hit upon the notion of uploading his consciousness into a set of computer banks. He reawakens as the ultimate fusion of human and computer. But is it really him in there? And even more troubling, what happens when he gets out?

Plenty of movies, both good and bad have tackled similar subject matter. Transcendence deserves credit for doing so in a serious manner, and for including a ridiculously talented roster of actors (including Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman) to bring it to life. Add to that some gorgeous cinematography, and the technical merits of the film stretch beyond reproach. When combined with such an intriguing storyline, it should have been a can’t miss.

But Pfister can’t sustain enough dramatic tension to keep us occupied, and lacks the storytelling skills to thrill us the way he should. What begins as an intriguing variation of time-tested sci-fi concepts soon shambles its way into a total quagmire, as the questions posed by the first few scenes stumble around in search of interesting answers. None arrive. Instead Pfister’s lack of appreciative tone creates a tension-free shaggy dog, wandering from one vaguely connected scene to the next and bolstered by the empty promise of better things just around the corner. We’re three quarters of the way through before we realize that nothing of importance is coming.

Instead, we get a lot of keen visuals, a few vaguely apocalyptic warnings and a dire fate for the planet that never feels quite real. Transcendnece was smart to cast so many talented actors who can find the humanity of their characters without a lot of help. Unfortunately, the script leaves them with nowhere to go, and though they have the collective chops to hold our attention, they can’t take things any further on their own. Depp displays an emotional blandness intended to convey cool detachment, but which never extends past boredom, while Hall and Bettany flourish big emotional payoffs in scenes that never quite merit them. The longer the film goes, the worse things get, until an emotionally neutered finale arrives solely because Transcendence couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to stop.

Pfsiter has been a key part of some significant movies, and I have no doubt that he can mature into a fine director in his own right. But we already have far too many filmmakers focusing on pretty pictures at the expense of story, and Transcendence fails to overcome that all-important hurdle.  Its glistening surface carries real substance beneath it, but without the spark to humanize it, nothing worthwhile emerges. Its protagonists seem to know all about that dilemma. Pity the movie they’re trapped in can’t do the same.


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monkeyfoot 4/18/2014 7:17:55 AM

I'm on the fence on whether I want to see this in the theater. It's one of those great sci-fi ideas being done for a major film with top talent in it but the commercials and trailers don't overwhelm me. There have been other middling reviews of this as well so its not wowing anybody. I'll have to see what I end up doing. 

blankczech 4/18/2014 8:03:02 AM

 I rarely go to the movie theater anymore...with a big HD TV, surround sound, a bunch of other devices, every cable channel out there, streaming amazon instant video, vudu, netflix etc, through my chromecast and smart blu-ray player, and redbox,  why should I.  Got better things to do then sit in a theater with a bunch of people talking, texting, eating and farting (whatever).

I know it's still one of the cheapest dates / nights out (which may explain the audience it attracts) but In order for me to go to a movie theater I've got to think the movie in question absolutely has to be seen on the big screen (preferably in IMAX, 3-D) because a TV just won't do it justice.  

No way...Transcendence qualifies for that type of treatment (Godzilla yes, maybe X-men Days of Future Past, or Guardians of the Galaxy ...but definately not Transcendence).  Monkeyfoot says this got middling reviews don't know where he's looking but every review I've read other than Vaux's, says this movie sucks.


alienstatue 4/18/2014 10:01:22 AM

I wouldn't say this movie sucked, but yea I wouldn't recommend it for viewing in the theatre. The actors were all on point. The best performance was definitely Paul Bettany. There's an opening scene with Paul, and I could watch a whole film based off of that opening sequence, rather than the story of Transcendance.

Like I said it's not horrible in my eyes, but I felt like the story didn't have an overall message. Yes I get that we depend on technology, and that was shown over and over in this movie, but what Depp's character did and the anti techonolgy group, I felt didn't bring the message home. There was something else that didn't connect all the dots. Not that I need ALL the dots connected - but story wise they should be.

violator14 4/18/2014 10:52:19 AM

 Did Rob Vaux bully Blankcheck when they were kids or something? LoL

VTGamehendge 4/18/2014 12:23:57 PM

I'm still kinda on the fence about seeing this now or waiting for Netflix or Red Box.  In the end I'll probably end up going to see it just because I've been quite the cinema junkie as of late.  Last week alone I hit the theater three times in consecutive nights.  I dunno what it is, but I just enjoy the theater experience.  But I only go Sunday, Monday or Tuesday.  Wednesday is bowling league and I stay away from the theaters on the weekends because of all the annoying people.  I really love the deal that Bow Tie Cinema's Movieland does with the $6 Tuesday nights.

Anyhoo, I haven't really been impressed with the trailers and TV spots for this one.  But again, I'm guessing I'll end up planting my ass in a theater seat for it one night when I'm bored or just feel like getting out of the house.

HomestarRunner 4/18/2014 12:36:33 PM

I honestly can't stop thinking Max Headroom whenever I see TV commercials for this. I'm positive that's an unfair comparison, but I can't help it.

I don't see any incentive to seeing it in the theater.

Miner49er 4/19/2014 10:18:48 AM

@ HomestarRunner: same with me, Max Headroom or Lawnmower Man.

redvector 4/19/2014 12:03:24 PM

I'll probably catch this on cable, from what I've seen in the trailer it doesn't even qualify for rental status. 

Dazzler 4/19/2014 1:23:50 PM

Not a virus site again?  Good.  What's up with that?  Say hi to your mother for me....


I will see this weekend.  Seems interesting to me given the topic. 

Dazzler 4/20/2014 3:58:03 PM

I saw it today, it was a great movie! 

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