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Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him. However, in their attempt to destroy Will, they inadvertently become the catalyst for him to succeed – to be a participant in his own transcendence. For his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, the question is not if they can...but if they should. Their worst fears are realized as Will's thirst for knowledge evolves into a seemingly omnipresent quest for power, to what end is unknown. The only thing that is becoming terrifyingly clear is there may be no way to stop him. (From Warner Bros’. official synopsis)

When a movie flops at the box office in a particularly spectacular fashion it usually develops a negative reputation, which is perpetuated by a parade of negative opinions on the project. This is a particularly vicious circle, because the fact that no one saw a film becomes the reason it is bad. Quite often good movies, like John Carter (2012), Speed Racer (2008), and Peter Pan (2003), are swept up in a wave of disastrous word of mouth and maintained bad reputations for years on end. The antidote to this depressing prospect is that, more often than not, audiences successfully recognize crummy advertising and lame concepts and deservingly ignore them. Star cinematographer Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, Transcendence, is a perfect example of a film that audiences were wise to ingore.

Jack Paglen’s Transcendence screenplayslanguished for some time on the legendary Black List – a group of film scripts that are reportedly so fantastic that no one in the industry can believe they haven’t been made into multi-million dollar feature hits yet. Paglen’s ideas are, indeed, cool. They should serve as the groundwork for a good sci-fi movie – just not this sci-fi movie. At its base, Transcendence is an old-fashioned scare movie that attempts to play into an audience’s fears of technology running rampant, just like a number of ‘50s sci-films exploited fears of nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, the ‘singularity’ – the hypothetical moment when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, rendering humanity in its current form obsolete – isn’t something that keeps most people up at night. It’s an understandable concept and one with lots of dramatic potential, but it’s not exactly mainstream blockbuster material until you add a Terminator or martial arts fighting computer program into the mix (I guess nano-machines are cool, but not particularly dynamic). Paglen’s ambitions here are commendable, while his achievements are dull – driven by predictable narrative devices, dopey coincidences, and boring characters with overly straight faces who speak to each other as if they’re giving a never-ending series of keynote speeches. The all-star cast is paralyzed by mundanity of it all.

Pfister, who found success with Christopher Nolan as the cinematographer for all but one of his movies, used his Dark Knight goodwill with Warner Bros. to makes his debut on a sizable budget with an established cast of stars. It’s unfair to claim he doesn’t know what he’s doing, because he clearly has a vision for the look of the film and an idea of how to put a story together, but he has no clue what to do with the film’s tone. Ideally, he would’ve embraced some of the camp appeal that defines earlier sci-fi scare films. Instead, it’s dead serious and terminally self-important. I assumed Pfister was merely laying track and establishing normality as he built up to something more gonzo, but he never delivers anything fun, exciting, or frightening during the film’s interminable two-hour runtime. He tries to soften the broad and didactic dialogue with perfume ad photography and mournful musical cues, yet the emotional core of the story – the desire to keep a loved one alive via technological means – is lost in robotic sentimentality and a complete lack of levity. The conspiracy of anti-tech terrorists that shoot Johnny Depp with a radiation-laced bullet (why they don’t just, you know, kill him with a regular bullet is never explained), kidnap Paul Bettany, and chase after Rebecca Hall are also boring and driven, it seems, by making expository speeches. Their presence in the film feels like an afterthought – as if they were taken from a different script to stretch out the narrative.



Anyone that saw Christopher Kenneally’s digital vs. film documentary, Side by Side, or who read any recent interviews with Pfister concerning cinematography knows that he is a staunch (some might say obnoxious) supporter of traditional film. It comes as no surprise that he and cinematographer Jess Hall shot Transcendence on 35mm. This 1080p, 2.40:1 is very, very pretty. The imagery is subtly divided between the warm and organic natural world, which appears to have been shot during a perpetual sunset, and the sterile, fluorescently-lit technological world. The warmer scenes are a bit overwhelming in their red and orange elements and contrast-heavy blacks. These, along with the artfully shallow focus, limit the more intricate textures and lead to some minor edge haloes, but do not dampen the tight elemental separations. The techy scenes are also pretty dark, but feature livelier highlights and busier patterns. Gradations are about as smooth as we can expect from film-based footage, especially on big facial close-ups. The colours are eclectic, strong and softly blended without appearing overtly digitally graded. Black levels are deep and grain levels are minimal without disappearing altogether.



Transcendence is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The subject matter gives the sound designers the excuse to blend abstract and organic sound effects into a directionally aggressive stew. The drier, dialogue-driven scenes have plenty of warm, realistic ambience, while the words themselves sound round and consistent. Depp’s robotic voice and whirring computer parts feature some directionally enhanced clicks and clacks, but the liveliest audio design is the sound of Depp’s consciousness as it navigates the Internet, which fills the stereo and surround speakers with a swirl of boops, beeps, and buzzes. The soundtrack is also punched up by a number of gunshots, explosions, and the staticy crackle of nano-machines. Composer Mychael Danna does his best Hans Zimmer by mixing symphonic and electronic elements into an impressionistic, mournful, driving score that isn’t particularly memorable, but works very well with the material. The music covers the silence beneath the chattier sequences with a mix of subtle and punchy melodies, and a nice LFE rumble.



  • What Is Transcendence? (5:20, HD) – A brief EPK that covers the film’s themes.
  • Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision (2:50, HD) – An even shorter and puffier EPK concerning the director’s talents.
  • Guarding the Threat (2:20, HD) – More of the same – this time looking at the technological dangers discussed in the film.
  • The Promise of A.I. (2:30, HD) – A repetitive glance at the film’s themes.
  • Viral Videos – A collection of creative promos for the movie.
    • It’s Me (1:00, HD)
    • Singularity (1:10, HD)
    • R.I.F.T (1:00, HD)
  • Two trailers and trailers for other WB releases



I’m guessing Wally Pfister thought Transcendence was too smart of a thriller to be saddled with silly sci-fi trappings. Ultimately, it’s really dumb and by saddling it with an overly serious tone he has cursed it to be boring and stupid. The climax threatens to be cool and apocalyptic, but is flattened by empty pretension. Warner Bros. has done a fine job with this Blu-ray, however, including a gorgeous HD picture and a subtly strong DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Too bad the extras are just a brief set of extended advertisements.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.