Movie Review: 'Transcendence' (2014)

Warner Bros. / Summit Entertainment

When you boil most films down to their most basic form, what one will discover is that the vast majority are love stories. Underneath the science-fiction surface, “Transcendence” is the same, a story about love and devotion. This proves to be both its greatest strength and ultimate hindrance to reaching its full potential.

A sci-fi computerized Frankenstein film, this certainly is not. The questions that “Transcendence” begs to exist in the realm oftechnology and whether the sterility it offers can mesh with the emotional heart at the core of humanity.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a kind-hearted scientist determined to see technology better in the world. His other half and fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) work with him to achieve these goals. After a speech, Will is senselessly gunned down with a poison bullet by an anti-tech activist.

Now dying, Evelyn, along with her and Will’s friend Max (Paul Bettany), upload Will’s consciousness to a super-computer. The question becomes if Will, having now transcended the abilities of being solely human, is, in fact, human anymore.

The moral implications and resulting outcome of Will’s transcendence are banter for the characters to run around in fear of an occurrence that has not even come to fruition, and without indications, it will. They pre-judge him instantaneously. “Transcendence” consistently harkens back to the sentiment of people fearing what they do not know, and yet the esteemed minds espousing this wisdom do not take their own advice.

The script faces its biggest challenges in how it shapes the opposing view to transcendence. It is quietly, frankly, not fleshed out at all. Their reasoning is farcical, and at no point does anyone express much outrage over the radical group murdering Will.

It is beyond frustrating to see a lack of justice whatsoever. Bree (Kate Mara), the extremist responsible for arranging a mass killing and the murder of the protagonist, shows no remorse whatsoever. Sadly, no one ever confronts Bree with the blunt fact that she is a murderer. 

The script takes a rather blasé approach to this entire setup. While the ensemble busies itself with taking down a character that inflicts no harm on anyone, a character they know is responsible for hundreds of deaths is allowed to walk around free and with government assistance. This part of the story is remarkably weak, maddening, and counter-productive to the core premise.

“Transcendence” often muddies the waters of its intended meaning. It is powerful as a meditation on loss, grief, and the desperation to bring a loved one back from the dead. The notion of getting a lost loved one back to life is alluring, and the film acknowledges that.

Unfortunately, Evelyn comes across as disenchanted with the notion rather quickly. It’s hard to fathom that the love which would possess someone to go to the lengths she does would disintegrate over the depicted skirmishes. From the onset, she seems to be looking for an excuse to end it.

Johnny Depp strips down his performance to the essentials, a far cry from the flamboyant characters that have composed his filmography over the last few years. He plays with many subtle layers as Will, portraying a man who realizes that he is all-too-human before transforming into a man willing to do something about it. 

Rebecca Hall remains emotionally elusive throughout most of the film’s duration as his on-screen counterpart. It is the most pivotal role, and it falls short of being realized. Making matters worse is that the romantic chemistry between her and Depp never materializes. There was so much potential in the scripted love story, and it never comes to fruition because of this. 

Elsewhere, Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are given practically nothing to do. First-time director and acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister keeps the film moving while missing opportunities of crucial emotion. The cinematography is pristine and, as a result, devoid of much warmth. The special effects are extravagant eye candy.

There is a magnificent movie hidden underneath its clunky mishaps. While acknowledging it’s far from perfect, amongst a sea of forgettable films, “Transcendence” is memorable enough to leave a sense of thought-provoking passion in its wake. Rating: 6.7/10