Science fictions films in the late 1960s - early 1970s, before STAR WARS changed everything, were movies about ideas rather than spectacle. Even 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, with its groundbreaking special effects, had a lot on its mind. STAR WARS, of course, changed all that, and while thoughtful sci-fi films still exist, they are a distinct minority in today's tentpole landscape.
With that in mind, I can respect what Wally Pfister's directorial debut, TRANSCENDENCE, is trying to do. It tries to be more introspective , more intelligent, more contemplative. It fails, of course. It fails because the ideas that TRANSCENDENCE tries to convey are so silly, and rather than genuinely explore our relationship with an increasingly technological world, it takes the stupider route. There isn't a plot point that we don't see coming a mile away, and there isn't a single character that doesn't behave like a bad plot construct rather than a real person.
And while many people may point to Johnny Depp's performance here as one of the major problems with the movie, he gives it an admirable try. True, his Will Caster also behaves in predictable ways; if one pays attention you can feel Depp struggling to overcome the material. The trailers are somewhat misleading in regards to the intentions of Caster, a computer and tech genius who gets shot with a polonium-laced bullet by radical anti-tech radicals. Despite the misgivings of his friend Max (Paul Bettany), Caster, with the help of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is able to transfer his consciousness into a massive computer, in hopes of saving his knowledge and personality after death. Once installed, as it were, Caster tries to grab more and more information and power, and eventually his wife (with newfound money from the stock market) purchases land in the desert so that Caster can get all the power he needs.
Max, meanwhile, has been kidnapped by members of RIFT, the anti-tech terrorist group, led by Bree (Kate Mara). She thinks that Caster isn't as benevolent as Evelyn believes him to be, and that Caster is attempting to take over the entire planet. Max is forced to agree, and with the help of computer developer Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), RIFT will attempt to take Will Caster offline, and do whatever it takes to keep him from controlling everything.
If you've seen HER, Spike Jonze's brilliant science fiction romance from late last year, you know that there are interesting takes on these themes. I get the idea that screenwriters in Hollywood read the Wikipedia page about Ray Kurzweil's Singularity theory without much understanding it. HER, at the very least, tries to engage such heady ideas and material with a humanistic take, bringing it down to our emotional level of understanding. TRANSCENDENCE merely appropriates it for plot purposes, without any deeper meaning. There are moments in TRANSCENDENCE that feel like nerd bingo - let's use the popular terms like "hack into the algorithm" to sound smart when it's all just code words for "We really have no idea how any of this shit works." Thanks to movies like THE LAWNMOWER MAN, or THE NET, and now TRANSCENDENCE, it seems that Hollywood has no idea how to tell these kinds of stories anymore without resorting to every possible cliché.
But Johnny Depp, who has his Quirk-O-Meter dialed down to 3.5 in TRANSCENDENCE, seems to get the larger picture. Once Caster is uploaded, Depp "plays" him as more logic than emotion, and what other characters perceive as malevolence is more along the lines of non-human behavior that humanity cannot possibly understand without a frame of reference. A program of Caster's size and ability would be long past caring about humanity's wants and would be more concerned with what humanity needs, whether they are willing to go along or not, and Depp struggles mightily against playing the character as a cliché. But he can't help being bound to the constrictions of Jack Raglen's script. All the performances feel trapped by it, and none of the actors break free into anything memorable. Rebecca Hall's steadfastly loyal wife becomes grating after a while - you'd think that she'd eventually get over her loss and move on, but she behaves so unlike any normal human would in such a situation that the audience basically has to swallow what the movie feeds them. I've always enjoyed Paul Bettany's work, but here he simply reacts to things around him, and offers little substance. Morgan Freeman probably bought a guest house with the work he does here, and I hope the swimming pool is nice. Other than that, there's little of merit.
Probably TRANSCENDENCE's worst crime is that it's boring. Wally Pfister can certainly make movies look good, but it's difficult to see what he brings to the table as a director here. Much of TRANSCENDENCE is a plodding bore. The little action that there is in the movie is dull, and while, again, I can admire a science fiction film that tries to be thoughtful, the thoughts this one has are, frankly, pretty stupid. Pfister tries to give TRANSCENDENCE a gloss of importance, but instead it makes the movie feel smug about how dumb it really is. TRANSCENDENCE reminds me of the guy at the party who tries to regale everyone with how smart he is, but keeps mispronouncing the names of the authors he's read. TRANSCENDENCE isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is.