Transcendence opens with a bookending present-day sequence depicting the post-technological ravages of Berkeley, California. Here, the denizens silently walk the dusty downtown streets and shopkeepers run military-guarded trade posts where keyboards serve as doorstops. Emerging in a neighborhood dormant with overgrowth, Max (Paul Bettany) narrates vague, expository stuff about mankind’s “inevitable collision” with technology as he makes his way to an empty house once belonging to Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall).
The movie then flashes back to the day Will, a prominent researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, is shot by an agent of a terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, a name loudly indicative of the level of writing on show here), which has simultaneously staged attacks on multiple of Will’s research teams. Though he survives his initial injuries, the bullet that struck Will was laced with a polonium isotope that will kill him in a month’s time, which spurs his wife Evelyn and friend Max to upload his consciousness into the remnants of an existing artificial intelligence framework called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network—again, the writing).
Wally Pfister’s directorial debut (he made his name as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, dating back to the Memento days) is not so much a mess of big scientific and philosophical concepts as much as it is lifeless procession of those concepts. Much of the problem derives from the proliferation of big-name actors (Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara) playing characters who exist on a logical plane that solely works in favor of the clunky plot. (In response to Will’s developing godlike powers of cell regeneration, Murphy’s FBI Agent Buchanan leads an bafflingly small special forces team in an attack on the underground facility housing Will’s AI while the other characters just look on.)
On a smaller budget, Transcendence at least couldn’t afford calling so much attention to its shortcomings. What’s here shows that Pfister, on his own, is not a long form storyteller. In fact, everything that happens in Transcendence is so incidental, I’m not even sure he’s seeing the page for the words written on it.