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'Transcendence': Techno-thriller doesn't compute, critics say

Longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister chose an ambitious film for his directing debut in "Transcendence," a sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp as a brilliant AI researcher who uploads his consciousness to a computer after being mortally wounded. While some film critics appreciate Pfister's initiative, most have found "Transcendence" to be plagued by lapses in logic and ponderous storytelling.

In one of the more positive reviews of the film, the Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "'Transcendence' goes pleasingly against the grain." Pfister and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen don't get everything right: "exposition is not always sharp, emotional connections (with the exception of Depp's outstanding costar, Rebecca Hall) are not its strength, and it does not make memorable use of its Imax format."

But, Turan says, "because the underlying ideas are involving, those problems fade from view, leaving us with an ambitious and provocative piece of work that is intriguingly balanced between being a warning and a celebration." 

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Most other critics see things differently. USA Today's Claudia Puig writes, "Though it purports to question our reliance on technology and incite some rage against the machine, 'Transcendence' is really just a heavy-handed story of a mad scientist." She adds, "While the first 20 minutes convey an eerie tension, the story soon devolves into a far-fetched, futuristic snooze-fest that often defies its own logic. Characters' motivations are rarely clear, and allegiances shift with no explanation."

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips similarly says that "After an intriguing start, 'Transcendence' — aka 'The Computer Wore Johnny Depp's Tennis Shoes' — offers roughly the same level of excitement as listening to hold music during a call to tech support." Ultimately, Phillips says, it "has everything except a sense of urgency and visual magic. And those are two pretty big things."

Jake Coyle of the Associated Press finds the film "clunky and lifeless. It's like the movie version of a paranoid TED talk." Pfister "doesn't exhibit a sure hand with dialogue or a feel for the rhythm of his narrative," and "Neither does the film have the distinctive form of his prior photography work, most notably 'The Dark Knight.'"

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Ty Burr of the Boston Globe writes: "How can you tell a movie is the directorial debut of a renowned cinematographer? When everything's interesting to look at except the performances. Since the new future-shock thriller 'Transcendence' wastes the talents of our most mercurial movie star (Johnny Depp), two of England's finest (Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany), and God himself (Morgan Freeman), the missed opportunities are bizarrely impressive."

The San Francisco Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub says, "'Transcendence' presents itself as a smart movie, while it bombards the viewer with confusing plot turns, huge lapses in logic, protagonists who act against their own interest and smart characters who are slow to realize the obvious. For every really good story idea, there are two more problems that will make you shake your head."

On the plus side, Hartlaub adds, "It's never boring. The film has the fascinating vibe that happens when very talented people with a large amount of resources are making something unique. … The finished product may be messy with 'Transcendence,' but at least it's not like everything else."

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