Transcendence is trying to do a lot of things at the same time. And most of things have been tried by numerous other sci-fi films in the past.
The critics have a bone to pick up with this debut film by renowned cinematographer Wally Pfister who has worked for a long time with Christopher Nolan. Those Inception and Dark Knight touches are there in Transcendence too, but only just.
"Transcendence is a most curious name for a movie that never shakes free from those hoary old cliches about the evils of technology and the danger by which man plays at becoming a god. The man in question here is Johnny Depp, whose listless lead performance as a brilliant scientist in the field of artificial intelligence does little to aid this overplotted, dramatically undernourished debut feature," writes Scott Fernandes of Variety.
The film, set in a time not too far off, is about a futurist Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). Will is the foremost researcher in the field of artificial intelligence and that lands him on the cover of Wired (yay, print media survives).
Will's work scares terrorists from RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology - if you must know) shoot Will with a radiation-laced bullet. He has only a few days to live and the couple decides to digitally recreate him on a supercomputer by uploading his consciousness.
"But is the computerized result actually Will? For Evelyn, it hardly matters: She's so in love that any tenuous link sustains her. Apparently, Will's ultra-evolved consciousness has been blinded by science… He begins amassing an army of human/machine hybrids and inexplicably develops superpowers. The specifics of the digitized nonsense are delivered in the disembodied voice and computerised likeness of Depp, emanating from beyond the grave and via the cloud," writes Claudia Puig of USA Today.
Johnny Depp as an image on a cloud -- that's the peril this film fails to transcend. "Ordinarily a gifted actor who fully invests himself in diverse roles, Depp is uncharacteristically listless, as if he realised too late that what he'd signed on to was hardly worth the effort," adds Puig.
Hall, meanwhile, is the one who brings the pathos of her role beautifully to you. "In Evelyn, Pfister is bringing you close to a woman who, as Will's power expands, is becoming progressively more isolated. One of those actresses who always seem smart even in dumb roles, Hall is very sympathetic as a woman in love and then in fear who, scene by scene and with palpable tenderness, takes over the film as Will gobbles up the world," writes Manohla Dargis of New York Times.
Pfister brings the master touches in the photography department (some of the sets are straight out of Batman's lair) but fails to lift the plot from the dreariness it falls into. "Though Pfister is well-known as Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer (nominated for four Oscars, a winner for Inception), both he and screenwriter Paglen are first-timers in their respective chairs, and there are times when that shows. Transcendence's exposition is not always sharp and emotional connections are not its strength," writes Kenneth Turan of LA Times.
While last year's Her brought a gentle romance into the man-machine debate, Transcendence has nothing new to offer. "There are intriguing, half-formed ideas afoot in Transcendence, but the script and Pfister's heavy, humorless direction tend to reduce everything to simplistic standoffs between good and evil - or, in this case, heartless technocrats and crunchy-granola resistance fighters led by plucky martyr-in-training Bree (Kate Mara)… The bigger problem is that all the characters on both sides are so uniformly bland and lifeless that one can hardly tell the flesh-and-blood humans from the army of man/machine hybrids," Foundas sums up.