Movie Reviews: 'Transcendence,' 'Heaven Is For Real'

PHOTO: Johnny Depp, left, as Will Caster and Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster in "Transcendence."
Peter Mountain/Alcon Entertainment-Warner Bros./AP Photo

"Transcendence" and "Heaven Is for Real" were both released this week. Read on to see whether they're worth your while. For more movie reviews from ABC News, go here.

'Transcendence'

Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany

Rated PG-13

Two-and-a-half out of five stars

Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), want to change the world through artificial intelligence. But Caster is an intellectual hermit: instead of going out into the world and raising money for his research, he’d rather spend his life at home with his beautiful wife, taking care of their garden while creating complex algorithms. That type of lifestyle just isn’t possible for him because, as indicated by his face on the cover of popular tech magazine WIRED, Will is a tech community rock star.

The culmination of Will’s research is PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), an artificially intelligent computer whose only major flaw is that it’s not self-aware -- a plot point seemingly created only to create conflict later in the movie.

Shortly after Will reluctantly delivers a speech about his research and the convergence of artificial intelligence and human intelligence -- which he calls “transcendence” -- an anti-technology zealot attempts to assassinate him. It’s all part of a coordinated attack on computer labs around the country that support Caster’s research, fearing it will lead to the downfall of society as we know it.

Will survives the attack, but not for long. The bullet he took was laced with a radioactive isotope, leaving him with only weeks to live.

Evelyn thinks she can save Will, or at least his mind, by employing PINN tech to essentially upload Will’s brain into cyberspace, where he can live forever. She’s going to need help, and that’s where their good friend and business partner, Max (Paul Bettany), comes in. Max helped Will develop the PINN software, and also apparently has some surgical skills – a convenient plot point which, like so many other aspects of Transcendence, is never explained.

The gamble works, but Max soon realizes that the A.I. version of Will may not be Will at all. It grows more powerful and intelligent by the second, becoming – ironically -- the very thing the terrorists who tried to kill Will feared, and alarming the government as well.

"Transcendence" feels less like a film title and more like a mission statement, with the filmmakers hoping the movie would transcend its faults and become a fully realized story with fleshed-out characters (Kate Mara from House of Cards is particularly underutilized as the terrorist leader) and intellectually stimulating conversations. In fairness, there are a few tense moments, but there are also plenty of other moments where you wish the projectionist would stop the movie and throw on Spike Jonze’s Her, a much more subtle and entertaining meditation on a somewhat similar theme. "Transcendence" aspires to be a philosophical rumination about the future of artificial intelligence, but it’s really just an exercise in superficial intelligence.

PHOTO: From left, Greg Kinnear and Connor Corum in a scene from "Heaven Is For Real."
Allen Fraser/Sony Pictures/AP Photo
'Heaven Is for Real'

Greg Kinnear, Connor Corum

Rated PG

Two-and-a-half out of five stars

Based on the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name, "Heaven Is for Real" stars Greg Kinnear as Pastor Todd Burpo. In addition to being his church’s pastor, he coaches the local high school wrestling team and is also a volunteer fireman. He’s passionate about his faith but most passionate about his family. And there will be no greater test of his faith than when his four-year-old son, Colton, needs emergency surgery and almost dies.

Following the surgery, something is a little different about Colton. First, he asks his dad if they can return to a butterfly preserve where the young man passed up an opportunity to hold a tarantula: Colton wants to go back because he’s no longer afraid. When Todd asks if the hospital scared him, his son responds, “No, that’s where the angels sang to me.” Colton goes on to reveal that the angels sang to him during surgery, while his mother was in one room making calls on her mobile phone and Todd was in another room yelling at God.

Todd, reasonably, is a bit freaked out, since that’s exactly what took place during Colton’s surgery. It doesn’t end there: Colton also reveals that he visited Heaven, met his great-grandfather, his unborn sister, and Jesus.

Thanks to Kinnear’s earnest performance, you can’t help but feel for him, though it’s difficult to understand Todd’s lack of faith in Heaven before Colton’s surgery, given that he’s a pastor. Connor Corum as Colton is also an excellent find, as this young actor is asked to do a lot. He does it well, but the performances aren’t enough to elevate the vanilla narrative from a faith-based film that will only preach to the choir, to a quality piece of film-making that will appeal to moviegoers beyond that audience.

But nobody here is trying to win an Oscar. They’re trying to win the hearts and minds of the faith-based audience that will undoubtedly show up in great numbers to find out if Heaven Is for Real. I suspect they will succeed.

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