TRANSCENDENCE. Cyberpunk buffet

Many of the criticisms directed towards Transcendence are incomprehensible. It’s a perfect example of a situation where expectations were too high…

Maciej Niedźwiedzki

28 August 2023

transcendence johnny depp ill

… and before the film even premiered, a massive balloon was inflated, and the lofty trailers helped keep it afloat. I’m not going to argue that this is a flawless film – there are plenty of shortcomings. Not all the plot threads are resolved in a satisfying way, and towards the end, the action rushes by too quickly. Transcendence barely touches on a dozen or so topics instead of fully exploring three. Artificial intelligence, cyberterrorism, transhumanism, questions about individual privacy, the boundary of surveillance, and the essence of humanity all make appearances. In addition to that, there’s advanced medicine, an attempt to match God, entangled within it is a love drama, and in the background looms an apocalypse. Transcendence leaves the viewer with a sense of dissatisfaction – a conviction that with these ingredients, a dish should have been a bit juicier. Nevertheless, I find it flavorful.

Undeserved criticism

However, I won’t hide the fact that I enjoyed it. There are several noteworthy aspects to it. First and foremost, it’s not just a cold treatment of artificial intelligence, for which the scientific background serves as a pretext for sensational action. It’s also not foolish and juvenile cinema that treats the viewer with a wink. Instead, it provokes discussions and tests the viewer’s sensitivity. The creators even ask us, to what extent are we willing to let things go? When is the natural order broken? At what point does the situation spiral out of control? Of course, this isn’t the first time in the history of this genre that we’re seeing a cautionary film, a guiding post. The director and screenwriter are extremely skeptical. Technological progress is set to bring about humanity’s downfall.

Transcendence, as a representative of cyberpunk, must draw from a finite set of topics to explore. It will always involve artificial intelligence, the collapse of society, another vision of utopian/dystopian cities or apocalypses, and creating new human-machine hybrids. When going to see a sci-fi film, I expect to encounter themes that have already been explored in other works. It’s simply an inherent characteristic of this convention, which I would never call unoriginality. It’s a continuous process of processing, reinterpreting, and renewing constant motifs.

transcendence johnny depp transforming

Transcendence on a well-trodden path

Wally Pfister is indeed walking a well-trodden path. However, this formula, in my opinion, is still viable. Transcendence doesn’t turn this genre on its head – that’s true, but I can’t expect that from every film I watch. Just as every Western must be set in the Wild West, different directors place the weight differently, with different priorities. In Transcendence, aside from the films already mentioned by others, there are echoes of Terminator, Her, and 2001: A Space Odyssey – yet it’s still one closed, hermetic futuristic world, observed from slightly different perspectives by each subsequent creator. I don’t know if there are any unexplored territories left in this genre.

I also disagree that the acting roles are genderless and anonymous. Of course, the characters played by Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy don’t contribute much to the plot, and Transcendence wouldn’t suffer if these two were removed. It’s difficult to justify why the director chose actors with such an extensive portfolio for such marginal roles. Throughout the film, you expect them to suddenly take action, to significantly influence the course of events. However, these characters lack personality – they’re typical and dull. On the other hand, it’s impossible to complain about the rest of the cast. Johnny Depp is a scientist with a massive ego and a visionary who’s grappling with God. He believes that science can make him immortal, protect humanity from the weaknesses of the body, and overcome all limitations with it.

transcendence johnny depp morgan freeman rebecca hall cillian murphy


Blinded by her love for Will Caster is his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who desperately wants to keep her husband alive at any cost. Her desperation turns into madness. Artificial intelligence is her only chance to delay the inevitable separation. She completely ignores the ethical and biologically incongruous dimension that rewriting a human into computer code provokes. For her, he will always be the same beloved Will. Evelyn is the emotional and dramatic backbone of Transcendence – a dynamic character that frequently changes her stance. Much more doubtful is Max Waters (Paul Bettany). He wears a cross around his neck, after all. For him, a human is much more than knowledge, memory, and personality traits that can be described and then encapsulated in a few gigabytes. He’s an outstanding scientist, but he’s permeated with skepticism and doubts, far from the enthusiasm of the Casters. He’s the character that’s easiest to identify with, the one speaking on behalf of common sense. The ideological conflict is expertly written and balanced, inviting the viewer to engage in discussion.

transcendence johnny depp in a wheelchair rebecca hall

I also appreciate the visual aspect: it’s spectacular, not flashy. It’s clear that the director, a working cinematographer, places great importance on the composition of frames, color tone, camera movement, and the role of detail. Computer-generated effects only appear when necessary. Transcendence tries to be an ambitious and significant work. The title itself carries a huge load of pathos – guaranteeing us an experience on par with catharsis. However, not this time: we won’t leave the theater purified, we won’t see reality differently. What will remain in our minds are a few questions and doubts. For me, that’s enough to consider the screening a success. Pfister’s film is two hours of cleverly presented entertainment that’s worth buying a ticket for.

Maciej Niedźwiedzki

Maciej Niedźwiedzki

Cinema took a long time to give us its greatest masterpiece, which is Brokeback Mountain. However, I would take the Toy Story series with me to a deserted island. I pay the most attention to animations and the festival in Cannes. There is only one art that can match cinema: football.

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