'Transcendence': What the Critics Are Saying

6:00 AM PST 04/18/2014 by Ashley Lee

Wally Pfister's directorial debut stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman.

Johnny Depp stars as a brilliant scientist whose mind is uploaded into a computer after he is gunned down in Transcendence, cinematographer Wally Pfister's directorial debut, out on Friday.

Also featuring Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman, the sci-fi epic is also getting a coveted day-and-date release in China, where Depp recently visited for the first time to promote the film.

PHOTOS: Johnny Depp's First Trip to China

Still, Transcendence -- marking Depp's first return to theaters since last summer's ill-fated The Lone Ranger -- may only cross $20 million in its North American debut, a soft start for the $100 million film.

Read what top critics are saying about Transcendence:

The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic, Todd McCarthy, noted in his review that "immaculately outfitted in every respect," though the story is "so ripe with dramatic, thematic, ethical, scientific, political and romantic angles that the feeling of possibilities missed inevitably seems greater than the sense of potential achieved." Even more so, the plot is drenched in obligatory violence, action and special effects that "seem like crumbs thrown to sensation-hungry viewers." Of the actors, Hall's "intelligent, alert and unpredictable bearing is very welcome," "Depp has the right studious, distracted air as the smartest man in the world, and it's good to see Bettany, for once, as a real guy instead of the generic baddie he's mostly played of late." Pfister's cinematography is also of note, as he "shows a sure hand at staging scenes, creating visuals and setting a tone."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis called the film "an inelegant, no doubt implausible (maybe not) science-fiction film" with direction that "moves fast enough that you don’t have time to puzzle over niceties like logic." The review also noted Pfister's familiar Christopher Nolan-like aesthetic (Pfister and Nolan collaborated on the Dark Knight trilogy, and Nolan is an executive producer on Transcendence), but admitted that the efforts "recede amid the escalating narrative noise." Still, "however predictable and ridiculous, the film raises the question of what -- as the machines rise -- makes us human and why, which certainly gives you more to chew on at the multiplex than is customary these days."

STORY: 'Transcendence' Premiere: Johnny Depp Celebrates Sci-Fi Epic

Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan wrote that the film "goes pleasingly against the genre grain" because of those big questions and conflicting ideas. "A story of the possible perils and pleasures of artificial intelligence" -- with a few bumps along the way, as the inexperience of director Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen occasionally show -- he still noted Transcendence as "an ambitious and provocative piece of work that is intriguingly balanced between being a warning and a celebration."

The Washington Post's Michael O’Sullivan gave the film one-and-a-half stars, categorizing Transcendence as a "high-tech horror story" that requires a certain amount of disbelief, as the script "wastes no time with such details as logic or credibility." While it isn't "an utter crock" -- "even the love story sort of works" -- altogether, "the real trouble with Transcendence is that it just isn’t all that scary -- at least not in the way that it wants to be."

Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips gave the film two stars, as its story "struggles to make the human square-offs and factions interesting." While Pfister's cinematic direction is undeniable, the film's second half falls flat: "Too often the actors mill around waiting for some momentum to build, or for some visual dynamism to emerge in the staging of the copious and awkward dialogue."

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee

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