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April 23, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


In recent years the sci-fi genre feels like it has become overcrowded with a plethora of films that convey style over any kind of substance. With the incredible progression of technology in the area of visual effects, filmmakers now find it easier than ever to construct entire worlds set in a distant future where cars fly, buildings are constructed largely of glass and most of the population have a personal robot cleaning out the litter box. Whilst these computer generated worlds are fascinating to look at on-screen, too few of them have offered stories or characters equally as fascinating. Don’t go into Transcendence expecting it to buck this trend.

The story is relatively basic, as Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) works with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best-friend, Max (Paul Bettany) as an artificial intelligence researcher trying to create a machine that has sentience and collective intelligence, described by Will as “transcendence”. Before he can complete his work Will is shot by an anti-AI extremist at a sponsorship event. He survives the initial shooting but the bullet is found to be laced with radioactive components that will eventually destroy all of his vital organs. Evelyn quickly comes up with a plan to upload Will’s consciousness using the technology she, Will, Max and their team had been working on. Despite misgivings from Max, Evelyn’s plan succeeds but Will soon needs more power to grow in his new form, which requires being connected to the Internet. Cue moral dilemma.

Granted Transcendence doesn’t take place so far in the future that it requires a whole new CGI world to be built, but it is certainly very well shot, something not remotely surprising given the fact it’s the directorial debut of longtime Christopher Nolan director of photography, Wally Pfister. There are lots of lovely shots of raindrops and sunlight and arty things like that and it all helps give the film a certain sheen on the surface. Unfortunately we never see beyond the surface as the film pans out in a dull, predictable and downright boring manner.

The story of man eventually being undone and taken over by technology is probably the most overused plotline in the entirety of the sci-fi genre, from Terminator to I, Robot, the list of examples runs through a majority of the last 4 decades. Some of these films have been truly captivating, for either incredible action scenes or acutely interesting moral tales. The fundamental problem with Transcendence is that the script has absolutely no idea what story it is trying to tell or what moral lesson we should all be gleaning from this feature. The trailer suggested it was something along the lines of “don’t mix man with a computer”, but after seeing the film I can’t be completely sure.


The actors deserve some sympathy, given little to work with outside the stock archetypes of their characters. Unfortunately the script gives me little reason to care about what happens to them at the end of the film, even if that means the computerized, overlord Johnny Depp takes over the world with his army of synthetic beings. The film does however emphasize just how much Johnny Depp has been skating by since Pirates of the Caribbean, as his Will Caster (both human and digital) is desperately dull and unimaginative, sporting an accent that sounds like an amalgamation of every character he’s ever played on-screen.

Unfortunately Pfister fails to get the best out of a very talented cast, but he’s certainly not aided by a poor and uncertain story. Like a lot of sci-fi films, Transcendence feels like it’s trying to say something deeply profound about our moral compass…sadly, it’s just not.

Transcendence is out in UK cinemas on April 25th

Thomas Eldred