Daily | Wally Pfister’s TRANSCENDENCE


Johnny Depp in ‘Transcendence’

Transcendence comes packaged as a cautionary sci-fi drama, warning us about the dangers of unchecked technological advancement,” begins Tim Grierson, writing for Screen Daily. “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.”

Variety‘s Scott Foundas finds Transcendence to be “overplotted, dramatically undernourished… One of the manifold pleasures of Spike Jonze’s Her was how elegantly it shrugged off decades of speculative fiction in which technological progress correlated to a loss of human individualism. In its place was the delightful suggestion that, rather than battling us for domination, artificial intelligence might join us in romantic bliss, and then, having had its fill, journey off in search of some more fulfilling destiny in the cosmos. But in Transcendence, which might have been titled Him, it’s very much back to square one: the culture of technophobia that gave us the predatory mainframes and cyborgs of 2001, Demon Seed and Alien, and that early ’90s wave of cyber-paranoia thrillers (The Net, The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity) that now seem as quaint as dial-up Internet.”

“A polished, serious-minded alternative to the action-packed momentum of most contemporary blockbusters, Transcendence offers a keen look at the dangers of relying too heavily on computers for interacting with society,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “But Pfister struggles to make Jack Paglen’s moody screenplay as engaging as the ideas provoked by its premise.”

Which is, as Charlie Schmidlin explains at the Playlist, that “a scientist (Rebecca Hall) questioning her marriage once she successfully uploads the brain of her husband Will (Johnny Depp) to a computer—and fair enough, it’s a worthy concern. But as we gaze upon Hall’s Evelyn weighing her relationship with an online Depp, we then cut away to endless board rooms, base camps, and labs, where end times are discussed by R.I.F.T., an anti-technology outfit led by Kate Mara, and [Morgan] Freeman and [Cillian] Murphy as a A.I. expert/FBI team. A sense of dread could work wonders with that set-up, but dread and wonder are what the film simply lacks.”

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy agrees that this is “a story so ripe with dramatic, thematic, ethical, scientific, political and romantic angles that the feeling of possibilities missed inevitably seems greater than the sense of potential achieved…. 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.”

“But by the time Transcendence wraps up, the movie has clearly chickened out of grappling with any of its deeper issues and instead provides a cowardly quick fix,” writes TheWrap‘s Alonso Duralde. “If there’s one solid take-away from Transcendence, it’s Rebecca Hall’s performance as a computer genius (she’s not just Will’s wife, she’s his collaborator) so blinded by grief and by the possibilities of pushing science to the next level, that she aids and abets Will’s ambitious, terrifying agenda. She remains committed to the character even when the plot’s logic goes 404 – Not Found.”

And there’s worse from HitFix‘s Drew McWeeney, who finds that “as dumb as Paglen’s script is, Pfister seems to have no feeling whatsoever for the staging of sequences or for any sort of dramatic narrative momentum. Make no mistake… Transcendence is a stiff, but one that is produced with enough polish that it almost successfully disguises its true nature.”

Interviews with Pfister: Mark Kermode, parts 1 (6’50”) and 2 (7’37”), and Brent Lang (TheWrap). And the Playlist‘s Charlie Schmidlin talks with the cast.

Update, 4/17: “Pfister attempts to fuse ideas and studio spectacle like Nolan’s Inception,” writes the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias. “But Transcendence is weak in both areas, advancing a take on technology that’s more confused than ambiguous.”

“The most galling thing about Transcendence, though,” finds Matt Zoller Seitz, writing at, “isn’t its inability to get a handle on what, if anything, it wants to say about the enormous changes happening to the human race, it’s the movie’s ending, which seems calculated to reassure us that everything’s going to be fine as long as the right people are in charge, especially if they’re good-looking. It’s precisely that sort of blind acceptance of authority that got the world of Transcendence into a big mess in the first place, and that could bring this world, this ‘real’ world, to ruin as well.”

More from Richard Corliss (Time), Kate Erbland (, 4.2), Eric Henderson (Slant, 1.5/4) and Linda Holmes (NPR). And here’s a nice observation from Tom Shone in the Guardian: “One of the things that tell us that Johnny Depp has ascended to the first rank of movie stars is that he gets to speak in his own peculiar, hybridised accent.”

Meantime, Amy Nicholson interviews Pfister for the Voice.

Updates, 4/19:Transcendence is at heart an old-fashioned monster movie,” argues Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to know it…. Pfister’s film tries to blend action epic, intimate drama, and scientific thriller all into one. But it’s really a film like The Fly or Colossus of New York, in which scientists flaunt the rules of nature and wind up turning themselves (or their loved ones) into horrific, awesome beasts, always with tragic results.”

Pfister and Paglen “grapple ponderously, sometimes oafishly, with the ethical and philosophical issues at stake in the film’s premise,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “But they grapple with them, and that earnest investment in the speculative part of ‘speculative science fiction’ is what makes Transcendence worth watching, at least until it falls apart in a last-act barrage of nonsensical plot developments and soothing TED-talk wisdom.”

“The lasting mystery of Transcendence is why it fails so completely,” writes Ray Pride at Newcity Film. “Eight, ten minutes in the only hope was for the movie to gain a pulse and become deliciously bad. I slouched further in my seat.”

David Thomson in the New Republic: “Maybe the kindest thing to wonder about Transcendence is if Depp ever read the script.” And at Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell gives it one out of five stars.

Updates, 4/20: “There’s an Occam’s Razor approach to the question of why Transcendence is such a terrible movie, one that doesn’t even require engaging the larger question of why Hollywood movies never seem to get technology right, let alone capture its moral or philosophical consequences,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “[M]ovies about information technology often seem embarrassing because they cannot capture or convincingly fake the ever-changing “interactive” flow of the thing itself, the very spirit or Geist, as the Frankfurt boys would have said, that makes us feel like participants in the online universe rather than consumers. They remind us that we are sitting in front of a manufactured narrative that may have its own agenda, as the Internet appears not to do. The Hollywood film’s agenda of ideological reassurance and thought-free entertainment, its insistence on a mode of pleasure that ‘must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association’ (Horkheimer and Adorno again), then becomes thunderingly obvious, and we thrust it away.”

“This should be a movie about marital obsession, how a wife can’t bear to go on without her husband,” suggests Wesley Morris at Grantland. “It should be a movie about moral-philosophical fanaticism, how the radicals won’t tolerate a world run by technology. You’re permitted to free-associate about what it means for a man to turn not into RoboCop, but Siri. You can think about the perils of government surveillance and maybe experience paranoia about your relationship to your devices. But Transcendence doesn’t induce paranoia, wonder, or suspense. It’s the most incurious film you could make about something as simultaneously preposterous and promising as Johnny Depp the Internet.”

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