It turns out that unregulated technology in the hands of one person will eventually become problematic on a grand scale. And if you thought that handing the unregulated technology over to one-dead-person-turned-artificially-intelligent-phantasm would circumvent human error and power-mad hubris, you were wrong. It will be perfectly unsurprising if you are unsurprised by that news.
Transcendence would like to be the film that refreshes that vintage sci-fi story by laying down some Inception-style mindfreaking. To that end, Oscar-winning Inception (and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) cinematographer Wally Pfister makes it his directorial debut and flocks the narrative with luxuriously freaky visuals and Johnny Depp as a floating head inside a computer.
Shot with a radioactive bullet by an anti-tech terrorist group, genius computer dude and TED-talker Will Caster (Depp) finds himself slowly dying. His wife and colleague Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) devises a plan to adapt Caster’s research, keeping him "alive" by uploading his brain to a supercomputer. Much like in Spike Jonze's Her (and in the lives of everyone who communicates exclusively via cellphone), Evelyn maintains her marriage via constant interaction with Caster's digital image and a handful of analog symbols of their love (vintage vinyl records, mostly). A true living-deader, Caster can think, access much-needed research funding, eat the entirety of the internet and push medical science forward by helping wounded people regenerate their flesh. He's a secular resurrection story and he comes in peace, just not for long. Those regenerated people aren't fully "there" anymore.
And then everything goes wrong all around. The plot details of that wrongness are better left unspoiled, but Transcendence's turn toward a struggle for the physical and intellectual destiny of all human life spoils itself all the same with internal confusion, an unwillingness to push past sci-fi cliché and a retreat into action-thriller sameness when it’s time to wrap it all up. Whatever the bigger picture was supposed to be, it got smallered, maddeningly so.
Good thing nobody told Rebecca Hall. Read through her character's actions, Transcendence isn’t science fiction at all, but a story of spousal grief, denial and the inability of a surviing partner to mourn and move on. Pfister surrounds her with a frame full of darkness and we become as intimately connected to her pain as we are disconnected from Depp’s checked-out non-performance (in his defense, he is playing a disembodied head with a brain-suitcase full of 110110000111100). She's the heart in a machine that's lost its way. Maybe somebody should try turning it off and turning it back on again.