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When Transcendence was released in 2014 I saw Johnny Depp, and what looked like a cheap silly sci-fi horror plot. I immediately dismissed the film. That’s a shame because it’s a lot better than I imagined.

Transcendence is a movie that’s not really easy to explain, and that’s part of the reason it failed so miserably at the box office. There’s another reason it failed, and I’ll go into that in a minute.

So, to try and boil this movie down to its most basic elements, without giving anything away (because I hate that), here’s my best shot.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) are working on a project to bring a computer to sentience. Their solution to solve this problem is rather unorthodox, and it challenges them to go further when a terrorist attack forces them to cross a line to save a life.

This is the first film directed by frequent Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento). In fact, Nolan was one of the producers of this film. As you would imagine Transcendence was shot well, but it’s important to note that much of his shot selection is somewhat mundane. Being a great cinematographer doesn’t always translate to being a great director.

First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen penned this original story and it’s a good script. This movie does not play out like a thriller, or a horror movie, or a SyFy Saturday night movie. It’s real science fiction and there’s a lot of interesting things that are explored herein.

One of the reasons I believe this movie failed is firmly due to its lead actor. I mentioned that I saw the trailer for this film and immediately dismissed it because of Johnny Depp. I’m certain that I’m not alone. There’s some fatigue for seeing him onscreen (and hearing about him offscreen). The opening box office numbers for this movie back that up soundly.[1]

But there’s another reason that Depp hurt this movie—his performance is terrible. He’s got this oddly detached delivery throughout the film. Even though he’s underplaying his role, he still comes off as affected and unreal. Every scene he’s in is tainted with his presence.

And that’s a shame. The rest of this cast is great. Rebecca Hall has her hands full in this role and has a full character arc and a wide range of emotions that she pulls off well. Paul Bettany is good as Will’s best friend. Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman are fine.

Cillian Murphy is almost completely forgotten here. I’m not sure why he doesn’t get better roles. Actually, he would have been a much better choice as the lead. He’s perfectly capable of being weird and detached, while also remaining magnetic. And bonus… no movie fatigue.

Yes, I know Cillian Murphy is not a big name, and probably can’t open a $100 million film, but that’s one of the problems with Transcendence. It should have been made for less, which would have allowed it to be bolder.

The Singularity and its effect on humans is an incredibly fascinating concept. Much of the promises (and complications) of advances in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence are discussed in Transcendence and that’s wonderful. Most movies that have these elements would break down into an action film, or be the basis for a horror movie, but that’s not what happens here. Transcendence stays firmly in the realm of science fiction.

That’s exceptionally rare, and I’m giving the creators credit for that. It’s what elevates this movie in my opinion.

Unfortunately, due to Depp, and an unsatisfying third act, Transcendence doesn’t quite reach the heights that it could have. They were close to really saying something here, but it missed the mark.

I think a lot of people are going to nod off midway through this film. As much as I enjoyed all this talk about science and ethics, I doubt most people will share my views.

If they had gone a little further with the science and weren’t afraid to embrace the darkness, this could have been brilliant. By wrapping this film up in typical Hollywood fashion it chases mediocrity.

Still, for those of you who do like films that will give you a little to talk about at the end, and might serve to herald a coming age, Transcendence could be worth your time.


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