Wally Pfister's Transcendence looks like a Christopher Nolan movie. After all, he's served as the director of photography on a variety of his projects, culminating in an Academy Award for his work on Inception. The movies Pfister served as director of photography on have earned a total of over four billion dollars worldwide. He's certainly earned his right to direct a feature-length film. But Transcendence is not a Christopher Nolan movie. It's certainly determined and energetic at times, but it's also enthusiastic to a fault.
Johnny Depp trades the garish costumes of his Tim Burton tentpoles in favor of a Bay Area scientist garb. He's much more low key and likable as an AI specialist, Dr. Will Caster, who works with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and friend Max (Paul Bettany). He's the kind of guy who's on the cover of WIRED magazine, but still afraid to give large talks to audiences about PINN, the Physically Independent Neural Network. Caster, Evelyn, and Max are working toward the singularity, a very specific moment time where an operating system becomes a sentient creature.
It quickly becomes clear that Caster's work isn't as casual as creating something like Oculus Rift or asking Siri to pull up something from Wikipedia. A terrorist group called RIFT, no relation to Oculus, begin to assassinate tech people working in the Artificial Intelligence field. They even shoot Will Caster with a radiation-laced bullet that will eventually lead to his death. The logical solution? Uploading his consciousness by recording his neural and synapse responses to stimuli and thus creating a sentient being because what could go wrong?
It's from there that Johnny Depp is able to go back to his Burton-esque sensibilities. He trades in his Berkeley-tech vest for pixels on iPades, computers, and anything else he can infiltrate. Computer programs in Transcendence evolved from movies like The Net, Hackers, and even Jurassic Park. Everything looks completely ridiculous - flying 0s and 1s, a 3D-generated image of Depp on an Apple device, and generally trippy sequences of what it's like to be inside of a computer happen without irony.
But if you think this is just a movie about Johnny Depp turning into an evil Skynet-like creature - the World Wide Web vs. Us - you'd be wrong. It tries to cover so many other topics. Nanotechnology. Hybridization. Regeneration. The movie takes place over the course of half a decade, but you wouldn't really know it because the technology advances so quickly that it just seems unreal. The movie would have been better suited in leaving such concepts out for a sequel if this movie was lucky enough to get one.
And then there's Morgan Freeman, Carer's science mentor, and an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy. They're all just doing there own thing and then seemingly come out of nowhere to work their way into the story when it seems convenient, but it really never is. They're all amazing actors, but they're also seemingly in completely different movies, which is at times fascinating, but mostly infuriating.
Transcendence covers so many topics over years condensed into a two-hour movie that by the end it's impossible to not feel disappointed. It's not that it's a mediocre movie. In fact, there are moments that really shine through. But the finished project is ultimately spread far too thin due to its ambition.