Transcendence Review

poster from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

I wasn’t eager to see another movie about artificial intelligence, because who in their right mind still expects an audience to be surprised when the thing turns evil? But the only other movies that came to my theater this week were a children’s documentary about bears and another stupid Trailer Park Boys movie.

A scientist transfers his consciousness to a computer as he dies, but some worry that the resulting hyperintelligent AI marks the end of humanity.

I was expecting SkyNet: The Movie, but that wasn’t exactly what I got. Transcendence is more like a giant Outer Limits episode than a Hollywood movie. The story was interesting and a little different than the pantheon of AI movies led me to expect. Unfortunately, it’s also a lot more boring.


Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a scientist or mathematician (or something) who’s trying to create a God-like artificial intelligence. He’s an absent-minded professor type. He’d forget to feed himself if his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) didn’t lead him around by the nose, and his work would exist only in a basement if Evelyn didn’t put it to use in practical applications.

Will makes a garden

Look, honey, I made the backyard ugly!

Will and Evelyn and their friends Max (Paul Bettany) and Joseph (Morgan Freeman) are all targeted by Bree (Kate Mara), leader of a group called RIFT – an anti-technology terror cell composed (I assume) of the only people in this universe who have ever watched a science fiction movie.

RIFT corners Max Waters in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

No, seriously, am I the only one around here who’s seen The Terminator?!

After a RIFT-led terror attack, Will is dying and Evelyn’s idea is to use a (dead) colleague’s plans to upload Will’s consciousness into a computer. After a lot of head shaving and electrodes and brain scanning and typing and whatever else the director thought would look science-y, it works. Will’s in the computer. Or is he?

Uploading Will to the computer in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

Numbers numbers. Science. Is it working?

Max worries that whatever entity is living in their computers now isn’t really Will, but since Will was pretty blank and robotic even when he was alive, it’s hard to tell. Evelyn believes, of course, so when RIFT shows up to destroy their work she lets Will-Not-Will loose on the internet and escapes out a window.

Max and Evelyn download Will in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

EVELYN: It’s him! It’s him!
MAX: He sounds like Cleverbot.

If Transcendence was an exciting movie, this is the point at which Will-Not-Will would rampage across the earth wreaking havoc and trampling civil liberties, forcing his old friends to use their mad science skills to load an alien spaceship with a computer virus and ram it down his throat (or something). But this is not an exciting movie, so everything that Will-Not-Will does is in a weird grey area between awesome and disturbing.

Computer Will and his AI cores in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

Hi, guys. What can I get you? A cure for cancer? A superpower? How about a nanobot protein shake?

Max, Joseph, and the FBI’s Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) think that this whole thing is super squiffy and that everyone should be scared, but since the pace of the movie is so laconic, there was never any sense of danger. Well, that’s a lie. There was a danger – of me falling asleep before the movie was over.

Joseph tells Evelyn to run in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

Evelyn, this is creepy. You should run… in two years, when you’re finished thinking about it.

It’s not that there was nothing going on. Will-Not-Will builds himself a science lab and starts creating everything from robot arms to nanobots that float around on the wind like balloon spiders.

Nanobots that float in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

Let us fix yooooooou….

Meanwhile Evelyn is… thinking about things. Max is living with RIFT and occasionally talking about maybe doing something to stop Will-Not-Will. Joseph and Agent Buchanan are… I don’t know. Visiting? Watching YouTube videos? Okay, never mind, I think I found the movie’s problem. Everybody’s just sitting there waiting for Will-Not-Will to do something scary so they can attack him.

FBI spying on the data center in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

I think I see a T-1000! …no, wait. It’s a fridge. False alarm, everyone.

And we know there’s an attack, because the movie begins with the end and shows Max wandering around on the set of NBC’s Revolution, where there’s no power and everyone uses their useless electronics as doorstops.

Paul Bettany in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

You’re coming with us. General Monroe wants to see you.

As to the end of the movie, it was, like I said, a little different. Different enough that it didn’t make me wonder why the hell they’d bothered to make this movie in the first place. But because I was mostly asleep, I didn’t have that ‘oh wow’ moment that I usually get when a movie subverts my expectations.

Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall in the Warner Bros. Pictures film Transcendence

MAX: Whaaat!
EVELYN: Whaaat?
ME: Zzzzzzzzz

So would I recommend Transcendence? Sure, if you like The Outer Limits, Masters of Science Fiction, or Golden Age sci-fi short stories, because that’s what this movie feels like. If your idea of science fiction is more along the lines of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and the Terminator series, you should sit this one out.

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