Based on a script that comes from the infamous blacklist of best unproduced films in Hollywood, featuring an all-star cast and marking the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence has all the credentials of an intriguing science fiction think piece that looks to tackle some big ideas about identity and technology.
Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn Castor (Rebecca Hall) are computer scientists who are working on a piece of artificial intelligence that will transcend humanity and help heal the world. Following a lecture, Will is shot by a member of an anti-technology terrorist group with a poisoned bullet that proves fatal. Acting in desperation Evelyn and friend Max (Paul Bettany) implement a plan to move Will's consciousness into their AI machine to keep him alive. Seemingly successful, an investigation from fellow scientist Joseph (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) seem to suggest that the AI is not Will, but simply using his stock memories to give that impression.
Opening with a voice-over that says "the Internet was meant to make the world a smaller place," itself incorrect it is clear that fist-time director Wally Pfister clearly saw this project as something similar to friend Christopher Nolan's Inception. A deep-thinking drama with science fiction and mystery elements. Unlike the former however, Transcendence seems to struggle to balance its ideas with the apparent desire for an all-action finale.
Starting with endless flat dialogue full of nonsensical techno-babble, the film skips to the Transcendence in double-quick time. There's little time to flesh out the characters and the urgency is placed on humanities fear of new technologies. It plays out a little like the birth of Skynet from The Terminator, with lashings of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Depp's performance, almost entirely a disembodied head and voice on a monitor, drives the messy narrative, while the likes of Hall, Bettany, Freeman and Kate Mara are wasted, reacting to his evolution and rarely actually being anything other than walking exposition talking heads.
Some of the ideas, such as technology vs. humanity, the overwhelming fear of new ideas and what it means to be human are touched upon and raise some really interesting theories. But these are glossed over to fire the story toward its inevitable final battle between the technophobic humans and the sentient super-computer, but then it even balks at delivering this.
Desperately trying to marry a think-piece with a modern science fiction action film, Transcendence fails to be either. While it may look beautiful and makes some interesting points, it never has the strength of character to follow through on some of its threats. By the time the end of technology finally happens it isn't with a big dramatic explosion, but rather a small whimper. There is some bright moments of direction from Pfister who clearly has the right eye, even if his script-management leaves a lot to be desired.
Perhaps a smaller budget might have focused him better and would have stopped Transcendence becoming Dr. Technobabble or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Skynet. As it is, what we have left is a rather dull, uninspired mess of a film that doesn't really know what it is.