Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

April 24, 2014

'Transcendence' big on concept, poor on execution

By Ryan Maddux and Andy Stuckey
Greensburg Daily News

---- — Wally Pfister’s directorial debut is the cybernetic thriller “Transcendence” (PG-13). Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Castor, a leading authority in the realm of artificial intelligence. When Depp’s well-being is threatened, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and he go to extreme measures to keep him alive. Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kata Mara and Morgan Freeman costar.

Ryan: On paper “Transcendence” seems like a great idea for a movie. People claim they want original movies and “Transcendence” is not a sequel, remake or movie based on a preexisting commodity. The cast is great and Pfister has certainly shown the ability to make movies with a distinct and interesting film aesthetic (after all he’s been the director of photography on all of Christopher Nolan’s films). The ingredients were definitely in place for an interesting film. But regrettably, while the film has lofty ideas, the narrative execution is a complete mess. The interesting initial premise of a singularity – that Depp’s consciousness is combined with an artificial intelligence – explored in the film is engaging at first. But by the third act, the film’s cerebralness is replaced with a by-the-numbers action sequence that doesn’t work.

Andy: As Ryan says, “Transcendence” is a really compelling idea for a movie. One of the more interesting, but little explored aspects of 2013’s “Her” was the repercussions of unleashing artificial intelligences with overwhelming processing capabilities online with access to virtually unlimited data. “Transcendence” attempts to be the film that explores those ideas, and at first it seems great. Unfortunately, the film gets progressively more ridiculous and unbelievable, ultimately collapsing into a pile of self-righteousness and pseudo-science.

Ryan: The other big issue in the film is the completely lifeless performance by Depp. There was a time when it seemed like he could do no wrong. Now, I feel like he’s in a 0-20 slump. I get that in most of this film he’s playing a “machine” (for lack of a better word), but there’s no personality to his character in real life or in cyberspace. His performance is dead on arrival.

Andy: Depp hasn’t been the can’t-miss talent we once came to love for a decade. While Depp’s muted performance here DOES make sense, it’s not very fun to watch. The problem lies in the script, as much as in Depp’s choices. This film’s structure requires the female lead to carry most of the action. Depp becomes an AI about 30 minutes in, so it’s incumbent upon Hall to carry the movie while Depp is locked on a computer screen. Hall is usually great, but something falls flat here, both in her character’s development and in the performance. With Depp trapped in a computer, Hall isn’t able to overcome a dimly-imagined character. Meanwhile, the fake science runs rampant (nano-byte technology changes everything!), with the movie diverging into tedium the longer it goes on.

Ryan: I do think part of the problem with “Transcendence” and why it basically bombed at the box-office is that the movie’s marketing left much to be desired. The movie does have an apocalyptic bend, but the film is being strongly marketed as man vs. machine, when, in actuality, the story takes a more nuanced view regarding the next step of human/technological evolution (clearly it’s not as nuanced as last year’s “Her,” which is a vastly superior film). But unfortunately “Transcendence” takes a very convoluted path telling its story, which detracts from its more lofty ambitions.

“Transcendence” has some very compelling concepts, but ultimately leaves the audience wishing for something a little more fully formed. Final grade: C-.