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Transcendence Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

Transcendence (2014) movie poster Transcendence

Theatrical Release: April 18, 2014 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Wally Pfister / Writer: Jack Paglen

Cast: Johnny Depp (Will Caster), Rebecca Hall (Evelyn Caster), Paul Bettany (Max Waters), Cillian Murphy (Agent Donald Buchanan), Kate Mara (Bree Nevil), Cole Hauser (Colonel Stevens), Morgan Freeman (Joseph Tagger), Clifton Collins Jr. (Martin), Cory Hardrict (Joel Edmund), Falk Hentschel (Bob), Josh Stewart (Paul), Luce Rains (Roger), Fernando Chien (Heng), Steven Liu (Chiu), Xander Berkeley (Dr. Thomas Casey), Lukas Haas (James Thomas), Wallace Langham (Dr. Strauss), James Burnett (Meth Head #1), Sam Quinn (Meth Head #2), Sam Webb (Red Hooded Teenager)

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After more than twenty years in cinematography, most notably on the films of Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister made the jump to directing on Transcendence.
The heady, expensive science fiction film is something you could imagine Nolan directing instead of merely executive-producing, especially since the cast is rich with alums from his past movies. The reception, however, couldn't be much further from what Nolan's dark, creative PG-13 thrillers always seem to meet.

We open in post-apocalyptic California, where poverty abounds, computer keyboards are used as doorstops, and electricity is non-existent. To understand why, we jump back five years to a time when brilliant scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is touting the revolutionary artificial superintelligence he is developing that he calls Transcendence. Many are excited about the new technology Caster promises and its innumerable applications. But not everyone is a fan. A group of Neo-Luddite terrorists has coordinated an attack on artificial intelligence labs throughout the world.

In "Transcendence", Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) lives on after death in virtual form.

Following a lavish presentation, one of them shoots Caster at close range and though the wound is not fatal, the isotope with which the bullet has been laced is. Caster will die from radiation poisoning in 4-5 weeks. He is determined to use his limited time to put more work into PINN, an artificial consciousness program that is sure to be his life's greatest work. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) decides his final days might be better spent having his brain copied and uploaded into PINN so that he can live on virtually.

Will gets hooked up Lawnmower Man-style to read words and have his face recorded. When he dies as forecast, he doesn't really, since he now occupies the computer system that his mind debugs to a working state. Almost immediately, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), starts doubting that his longtime friend and colleague is truly the one powering the system, as "Will" demands more power and connections to Wall Street. Evelyn is convinced, though, her husband is the one calling the shots and soon follows his orders to build an underground data center in the remote desert ghost town Brightwood. There, Caster begins putting his nanotechnology into practice, exploring the possibilities of regeneration and other medical miracles, like giving sight to the blind and not only restoring a dying worker (Clifton Collins Jr.) but giving him super strength to boot.

At the advice of the FBI (led by Cillian Murphy) and another of Will's most trusted colleagues (Morgan Freeman), Max aligns with the techno terrorists to try to infiltrate Caster's posthumous kingdom and to prevent this small but seemingly invincible army of computer-human hybrids from taking over the world.

Through the magic of technology, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) reconnects with her deceased husband. Kate Mara plays Bree Nevil, a Neo-Luddite terrorist who recruits Max Waters (Paul Bettany).

Christopher Nolan doesn't direct screenplays he doesn't have a hand in, but if he did, they might look something like this. The debut screenplay of Jack Paglen, who has since had his name attached to a Prometheus sequel and a theatrical Battlestar Galactica reboot,
is the star of Transcendence. It's complex and intelligent, but also overthought and pessimistic. Full of technobabble and doom and gloom, the story is so far-fetched as to not even need its plausibility judged. Call it Him; it's Her as a conventional sci-fi action adventure. And for all its big words and ideas, it's got some B-movie stupidity in its execution and lacks the maturity of Nolan's own genre thrills.

Whereas Nolan always finds the humanity, in masked vigilantes, amnesiac widowers, Victorian magicians, and sharply-dressed dream thieves, Paglen and Pfister are less successful in this regard. Ideas, theories, and a setting, all of which describe the lead character for most of the film, assume greater importance than any individual personality.

Depp absolutely sleepwalks through the film. He's cashed in his status as a talented actor to get private island-owning rich as a funny-voiced children's entertainer. If his gifts are the kind that can be summoned any time (and that's doubtful, considering how long it's been since he's genuinely wowed us with original craft), he makes no effort to do so here. In his defense, he is limited to just 30 minutes on camera before taking on a digital state.

Depp's supporting cast shows more enthusiasm. Hall seems to be at the point where her dreams of Hollywood stardom may be slipping from her, even though between The Town and Iron Man 3 she's tasted more commercial success than most English actors not involved with Harry Potter. Her American accent is fine, but despite a wealth of screentime here, she doesn't do anything too memorable with her part. Bettany, another Brit involved in American blockbusters without the recognition or lead roles one expects, does a decent job as the leader of the plot-serving secondary cast. The rest of it -- accomplished actors like Freeman, Murphy, and Collins -- also performs without standing out or turning over new leaves.

Technically, Transcendence is exquisite. Engaging sound design grabs your notice from the opening credits. But, not surprisingly given Pfister's background, the film finds its greatest impact visually. When answering to a decorated alumnus of your profession, a director of photography has got to bring his A-game and that is just what Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz) does. Transcendence is beautifully shot, and full of appealing, seamless effects realized either in camera or in post-production. This looks and sounds every bit as good as something carrying a $100 million price tag should. In fact, you may be surprised that the cost was that low, compared to the $160 M to $250 M spent on each of Nolan's three most recent films.

Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) shows Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) the data supercenter her late husband presides over.

Nolan's grateful home base, Warner Bros. Pictures, must be relieved they didn't allot as much to Pfister as they do his regular director, because commercially Transcendence was nothing short of a disaster. Earning just $23 M from around 3,500 domestic theaters, this film will undoubtedly go down as one of the biggest flops of 2014 and in fact the entire decade. Even international markets, where disappointing effects-driven genre fare like Battleship and John Carter tends to be redeemed, only chipped in $80 M for a far from profitable worldwide gross just slightly greater than the budget. The overwhelmingly negative reviews (only 14-19% critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes) could not have helped.
But most sci-fi movies are critic-proof to some degree; just look at Transformers consistently overcoming terrible notices.

Transcendence's failure forces us to reconsider the long-held view that Johnny Depp is one of the industry's biggest draws. Certainly, Captain Jack Sparrow was a huge draw in the middle of last decade (Disney and international audiences have yet to get the memo that that ship has sailed). And Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were both behemoths largely on Depp's broad, eccentric appeal. But excluding the animated Rango and the last Pirates, Depp's box office performances over the last four years call into question his A-list status and, in light of the lack of actors we can easily place above him, the importance of movie stars.

With the stink of its failure making it more likely to contend for Razzies than technical Oscars, Transcendence hits home video on Tuesday, only three months removed from its lowly fourth place theatrical opening, in Warner's standard DVD and Blu-ray combo pack offerings.

Transcendence Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS HD-MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: July 22, 2014
Two single-sided discs (BD-25 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $35.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($28.98 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

With its often striking and arresting compositions, Transcendence looks very good on Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 picture is inexplicably a smidge less sharp and detailed than you'd like (maybe because it's compressed to fit on a single-layered disc), but as clean and vibrant as modern cinema should be in 1080p. The quality of the 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is more unequivocally terrific, as it consistently immerses you in a technology-driven universe of compelling sounds.

Cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister enjoys the company of his cast in "Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision." The frightening face of a dying Will Caster (Johnny Depp) takes shape from gibberish code in one of the numerous trailers included.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

For such a flop, Transcendence's Blu-ray looks surprisingly full of bonus features.
Looks can be deceiving, though, and all of the extras are of the short, promotional, superficial variety.

The all-HD video begins with "What is Transcendence?" (5:20), which discusses the film's science and how close it is to becoming reality.

"Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision" (2:52) celebrates the first-time director with the cast all testifying to his preparedness.

"Guarding the Threat" (2:18) and "The Promise of A.I." (2:34) are basically glorified trailers, with a few cast and crew comments snuck in.

"It's Me" (1:02), "Singularity" (1:09), and "R.I.F.T." (0:58) don't even take that step, simply teasing the film with characters' technology talk and graphics.

Finally, we get two more conventional trailers for the film, numbered 1 (2:34) and 2 (2:34).

Though utterly failing to attract audiences, these previews did elicit three nominations and one win from the 2014 Golden Trailer Awards, quite possibly the only favorable honors the film will earn. And it's nice to have trailers preserved, something Warner typically does not do for new films.

The combo pack's second disc is the same DVD sold on its own separately. It includes "What is Transcendence?" and "Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision", but none of the other trailers and trailer-like videos. At least the disc is filled sort of close to dual-layer capacity.

The Blu-ray opens with a promo for UltraViolet and a Dolphin Tale 2 trailer. The DVD starts with those, then adds trailers for Jupiter Ascending and Edge of Tomorrow.

The basic menu plays score over the retooled poster/cover art. The Blu-ray resumes playback, but does not let you set bookmarks.

An insert providing your Digital HD UltraViolet redemption code and directions is all that joins the two plainly-labeled discs inside the slipcovered eco keepcase.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) talks up the new technology he is developing. Someday, computers will give sight to the blind.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Transcendence may have some problems but not enough to completely diminish its impressive technical feats and not enough to warrant the disastrous stigma of its icily-reviewed, publically-shunned theatrical release. It's well worth a viewing, especially for those partial to sci-fi and those who like Christopher Nolan thrillers enough to enjoy a lesser version of them.

The lightweight promotional extras of Warner's Blu-ray combo pack add little, but the feature presentation's picture and sound should delight most viewers.

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Reviewed July 20, 2014.



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