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'Transcendence' Review Roundup: Mind-Blowing, or Just Brain-Dead?

Reviews
by Ryan Lattanzio
April 16, 2014 12:56 PM
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'Transcendence'
'Transcendence'

Reviews are in for Wally Pfister's directorial debut "Transcendence," the ambitious sci-fi film starring Johnny Depp as a scientist whose efforts to create the ultimate artificial intelligence machine land him square in the middle of an ideological war. Hopes were high for this one because Pfister, though a first-time director, has worked as cinematographer on all of Christopher Nolan's films (and he won an Oscar in 2011 for "Inception").

Consensus is far off, but with 12 reviews and 25% on the Tomatometer -- and a Metacritic score of 40 with seven reviews -- in general, critics haven't been too kind to the costly film. Costarring Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman, "Transcendence" hits theaters this Friday, April 18 via Warner Bros. Here are a few snippets from the reviews so far. (Trailer below.)

Indiewire's Eric Kohn admires the film, but with reservations:

At its worst, "Transcendence" is a messy, confused melodrama. It has the atmosphere of a film noir but the tempo of an espionage movie without doing justice to either tradition...Nevertheless, in the context of its plot, the routine aspects of "Transcendance" -- from the cliched shots of fuzzy code scrolling across various screens to the thundering soundtrack at every turn -- imply a wry statement on the mechanization of storytelling. 

Variety's Scott Foundas is intrigued, but not impressed:

There are intriguing, half-formed ideas afoot in "Transcendence," but the script and Pfister's heavy, humorless direction tend to reduce everything to simplistic standoffs between good and evil -- or, in this case, heartless technocrats and crunchy-granola resistance fighters known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) and led by plucky martyr-in-training Bree (Kate Mara). Take that, PINN. The bigger problem is that all the characters on both sides are so uniformly bland and lifeless that one can hardly tell the flesh-and-blood humans from the army of man/machine "hybrids" Will begins assembling with his suddenly infinite powers (including, for murkily defined reasons, the ability to manipulate real-world organic matter).

Over at HitFix, Drew McWeeny is disappointed: 

Johnny Depp looks powerfully bored in every single moment he's onscreen, and Rebecca Hall has an unfortunate role. She has to play most of the film against a viewscreen where a digital Depp talks to her. For a little while, she is happy with the breakthroughs they're making, and they build an amazing facility in the desert below a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. The more powerful Will gets, the more ridiculous the film becomes. Right around the time he cures all disease and also figures out how to take over every human he helps by networking all of them to his control, the film shifts from silly to aggressively unpleasant.

Screen Daily's Tim Grierson is more warm to the film:

"Transcendence" comes packaged as a cautionary sci-fi drama, warning us about the dangers of unchecked technological advancement. But for all its chilly, blatant declarations of doom, the directorial debut of long-time Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister works better as a subtly mournful love story between co-stars Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall. As a result, "Transcendence" is one of those rare cases where a film's big, marketable hook isn't really its selling point, the story's grand themes not nearly as resonant as its more modest exploration of intimate emotional terrain.

Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter is mixed:

Alas, amidst the struggle between the script's compelling high-mindedness and the package's conventional commercial requirements, there is a blurring of intent and, with that, a loss of a vital emotional connection to any of the three characters, as Will morphs into a digital phantom, Evelyn becomes unhinged and Max is long sidelined by his captors. The residual poignance of momentous opportunities achieved and lost is minimized to such an extent that one is forced to conclude that, to make a film as intellectually adventurous as "Transcendence" wants to be, a filmmaker is almost obliged to work as independently -- and cheaply -- as, say, Shane Carruth did on "Upstream Color."

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