Transcendence–Why Is This Film Only Getting 19% at Rotten Tomatoes?

I went to Transcendence thinking I’d hate this film because of all the bad reviews it’s getting, but to my surprised I ended up enjoying it way more than I imagined.  I went with two friends – Laurie walked out, and Ann said she liked it so much she wanted to see it again.  I thought Transcendence had some big problems, but overall it was a nice exploration of the idea of brain uploading.  Coincidentally, I’m listening to Accelerando by Charles Stross this week, and the science fictional ideas in the book overlapped nicely with those of the film.  Maybe I enjoyed the film merely because it was more fuel for the ideas I’m entertaining at the moment.

If you read the reviews I do concur that the film is lackluster in action, that most of the acting was subdued, and the plotting is clunky, but it just didn’t seem that bad, not a 19% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  If you compare Transcendence to the dazzling Her, another movie about evolving computer intelligence, yes, this film is slight, but is it that bad?   I’ve seen films I thought were much worse get much higher scores at RT.

I have a hypothesis to test.  Does the acceptance or rejection of science fictional ideas in movies prejudice critics and fans opinions of a science fiction movie?  So if a movie explores an idea you hate, you reject the whole movie?

I wondered, if Transcendence presents ideas that people don’t like?  To talk about those ideas, I’m probably going to reveal some plot points, but many of these are in the previews.  The movie is about three AI scientists, one of which, the husband of the couple played by Johnny Depp, is shot by anti-AI terrorists and his wife saves him by uploading his mind into a computer.  Uploading also happens in Accelerando, and like that book, they also cover super technology brought about by post-human minds.  The book covers vast stretches of time, but in the film, all the advance technology comes out in two years.  This scares the regular folk in the flick, who feel they must destroy the Frankenstein AI.

Are movie goers tired of films about sentient computers?  Do they find post-human life offensive?  Are the networked humans too much like zombies to them?  Is nanotechnology just too scary to think about?  Or, was the ideas in the story fine, and they just didn’t like the writing, presentation, acting or settings?


Science fiction books and movies have a long heritage of tales about intelligent computers.  Sometimes they are evil (Colossus), and sometimes they are fun (Short Circuit).  In Transcendence, it’s ambiguous.  Is that the problem?  Uploading minds is not as common, but there’s plenty of precedent (The Matrix).

I’m a little tired of science fiction being about saving the world.  Why does science fiction always have to involve a big threat to all of humanity?  There was no need to involve guns or violence in this story.  Gattaca was the perfect science fiction movie to me.  It was a personal story.  Ditto for Her and Robot and Frank.  Can’t we have a story about a super intelligent being without involve armies and terrorists?  Or maybe critics and audiences didn’t like this movie because there wasn’t enough action and explosions.

Or was the film disliked because it suggests that ordinary people will be obsolete?  What’s weird is movie goers love mutants in superhero comic book stories, but they don’t seem to like post-humans.  A human that can fly is fine, but one that makes us look past our due date is not?

Audiences are more forgiving than the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and the audience response at RT was 47% for Transcendence.   That’s pretty low for audiences.  Maybe I should just accept that this film was a dog, and maybe I liked it because it was about some of my pet topics.  That does fit in with my hypothesis – I liked it for its ideas, and others hated it for the same ideas.   I really hated Marvel’s The Avengers, which got a 92% critics/91% audience rating at RT, and I disliked the movie intensely because of its ideas.

I wonder if movie makers could save a lot of money on special effects if they merely created science fiction movies with extremely popular science fictional ideas?

JWH – 4/22/14

18 thoughts on “Transcendence–Why Is This Film Only Getting 19% at Rotten Tomatoes?”

    1. That’s an excellent quote Jason. By the way, your web site has evolved into quite an elegant looking site. I need to revamp mine. Also, I like how you have focused your topics.

      1. Thanks Jim! I highly recommend you watch “The Machine” ASAP if you haven’t as well. Has a lot of forward-thinking ideas (i.e. brain uploading, AI, etc.). Thanks for the input on the blog. I keep up with it as much as possible around school/work. I sure have been enjoying your posts since you’ve retired as well. I hope you’re enjoying it! 🙂

        1. Man, I never even heard of The Machine. It’s not at Netflix yet, but I see I can rent it from Amazon. Is it great enough to own? I have the choice $4.99 rental or $12.99 own. Can it stand up to repeated watchings?

          1. I paid to own it. I hate to tell you yes because you may not like it but I RARELY buy movies…I did this one however and don’t regret it as I’ve watched it 3x already. Cathy didn’t care for it – she said it’s “too dark” but I enjoyed it because of the futuristic concepts it incorporates. So it can go either way. You can’t go wrong renting it. I definitely recommend watching it either way.

  1. Interesting post. I was put off by the trailer, leaving me feeling cold and disturbed more than anything, the reviews just reinforced that original feeling.

  2. I liked the film and have read many negative reviews. The biggest complaint I see is people feel like the characters made consistently stupid choices. I don’t know to which they are referring and perhaps they do not either. Also sometimes the stupid choice is the most human choice…

    1. Yeah, I don’t know what bad choices that made either. I was talking with my wife and friend yesterday at dinner about robots and they both expressed a hostility to AI and robots. They aren’t science fiction fans, and I’m surprised they felt that way. They said they worried that intelligent machines will be evil. I think that’s a common assumption. I don’t know why.

      1. I think it has to do with the fact that logically, humans would become obsolete and seen possibly as threat to an Artificial Intelligence that had the capability to understand and evolve past us. The fact that we war among ourselves and have been destroying our planet and home are illogical traits only humans possess. A.I. would likely see this as a mild nuisance and dispatch of us or use us for other means. That said I am not sure why everyone hated this FIlm, I thought it was great.

  3. Thanks for your review! I am looking for a film to show in my English course on the topic of Animal, Human, Machine and briefly considered Transcendence (Her has too many awkward phone sex scenes). I think I may need to find something else.

    1. Check out the book Wake by Robert J. Sawyer for your students. It’s the first book in the WWW Trilogy – Wake, Watch, Wonder. Sawyer compares human intelligence with animal intelligence and machine intelligence in one story. It’s much better than Her or Transcendence, and it’s more young adult oriented. Plus Sawyer links in interesting historical stuff that relates, like Helen Keller. The story is about a blind girl who gets artificial eyes and an emerging machine intelligence uses her and her vision to learn about the world.

  4. On movies: “Transcendence” – I like the AI concept and the movie. First time I had doubts on RT though, I think their critics are getting obsolete and can’t accept new ideas.

    1. Rotten Tomatoes just polls newspaper and magazine movie reviewers, so I think RT’s score is an accurate reflection about how they feel about the movie. However, I think the general opinion against the movie has some to do with movie production quality, but a lot to do with the ideas about artificial intelligence. People like to identify with movie heroes and I guess they didn’t identify with an uplifted human with super intelligence.

  5. Definitely need to watch Transcendence soon; I always make an effort to watch a Johnny Depp movie, even though I don’t watch much TV.

    Personally I liked the Avengers, but here’s the thing; that’s not a movie that I watched for the ideas, the story, the character relationships, or anything of the sort. I went into it expecting an action flick, and that’s exactly what I got.

  6. Here is my 2 cents:
    1. This movie is about trans-humanism. Non of the reviewers in RT and … have any idea about it. That’s why they consider it as a boring idea.
    2. Never care about the ratings. What was the best selling movie last year? Avengers! Who is the most wanted singer? Justine Biber!! What is the most seen video in youtube? Gangnam style!!! All the ratings as well as the awards are actually decided by school kids.
    3. Anyhow I still think this movie can not be considered as a good one. Because if you like science, it does not give you new information. If you like action, it doesn’t give you too.

    1. Good point. Transcendence is not a particular good movie. I just don’t think it was such as bad movie as predicted by Rotten Tomatoes. The movie is about trans-humans, or post-humans, or uplifted humans, which I think is a fascinating idea. It was just poorly executed in this film.

  7. I watched Transcendence today on Redbox Blu Ray, and I share your puzzlement over why the film was almost universally panned by critics. I would be the last to claim that I have highbrow taste in movies, but I do know that I find most “blockbuster” movies, whether they be sci-fi, fantasy, or some other kind, monotonously mindless CGI fests full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. But I found Transcendence’s plot and execution enjoyable and even compelling. IMHO it deserved much better reviews than it received, kind of like a TV series that ran for a brief time about ten years ago called “Century City.”

  8. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly. The premise was great. Only slight I have with the movie is it’s lack of elaboration on the technology that cured blindness and healed people so quickly, and increased their physical attributes. If Depp was uploaded as a human with the limited intelligence we have. What happened to give him the technological know how to accomplish such great things.

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