I really wanted to like this movie. Transcendence boasts an interesting sci-fi premise, a dream cast (for me at least), and was directed by Wally Pfister, who was the cinematographer for The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. Fool-proof formula, right? Well, for most of the movie, everything seemed to work together decently. However, an awkward shift in tone and theme during the latter half of the film, coupled with some other (smaller) issues, proves to be a virus that this movie just can’t handle (badum-tss). First, let’s get this out of the way- Johnny Depp is a phenomenal actor, but he’s grossly misused in this role. “Robotic” should never describe a Depp character, but here he’s intentionally monotone and unfeelingly hollow the entire film. I don’t remember one time he ever broke his distant demeanor, which ultimately made him unrelatable as a character. Instead, his performance goes from detached to creepy to boring to creepy boring. It simply wasn’t a good fit (I kept wanting him to start yelling, “I’ve got a jar of dirt!” or “Where’s the RAM gone?!”)
The rest of the cast is comprised of very capable actors who needed more meat in their character’s screenplay. I’m not sure if Cillian Murphy was supposed to be a hero or villain (more on that later), but it was the blandest 2D role I’ve seen him in. The kicker is he usually delivers a super creepy bad guy (Scarecrow in Batman Begins, also RedEye) or at least a good everyman (Inception). In this film, he plays a very low key Federal agent who tries to shut down Depp’s machine. Morgan Freeman must love doing sci-fi movies, because his only role here is to walk around scenes looking worried. Rebecca Hall stands out, not only because I heart her acting, but because the writers thought at least one character should have a range of emotions. We sympathize her in her loss, and want her to escape the dangers even though they’re ultimately of her own making. However, ultimately we aren’t really shown if her sacrifice at the end was a good choice or bad, and that sort of cheapened her development for me. But hey, it was fun to see all these actors/actresses in the same shot together.
Unfortunately all the star power combined won’t draw in crowds if the writing falls flat. Why would the movie build up just how eerie and menacing a human/computer AI hybrid could be, only to change tones at the end with a line like “People fear what they don’t understand’? What, were we supposed to decide that maybe changing all of humanity into robots with a hive mind would be the greatest thing since Wi-Fi? Yeah, people can be so close-minded. I guess I was just confused as to what the movie was trying to say, or maybe it was just trying to be too smart by being ambiguous. Anyway I would have also preferred more a of climax as well. Instead, it got all hyped up, and then…just sort of ended on a note of melancholy. That sentence could also describe the movie’s gross income so far.
So is it worth a watch? Yes, especially if you enjoy some science fiction and the listed actors, but this is easily a better RedBox rental than a $10 theater outing. And make sure to unplug your local network first.