Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster
Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster
Paul Bettany as Max Waters
Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger
Kate Mara as Bree
Cillian Murphy as Donald Buchanan
Clifton Collins, Jr. as Martin
Cole Hauser as Colonel Stevens
Ghost-in-the-Machine stories have been around for about as long as the personal computing era, and it's easy to understand why; it makes for a great modern monster story. The newest take, "Transcendence," is certainly heading in that direction: a computer genius (Johnny Depp) on the bleeding edge of artificial intelligence is pushed past it when he transfers his mind into a super computer to survive a fatal poisoning; with his new abilities and view of the world, he tries to pull the rest of humanity after him, with predictable reactions of panic and fear.
And that would be great if it was the actual premise of "Transcendence," but it's not; at least not the only one. It's also be about a woman (Rebecca Hall) who turns her husband into an inhuman monster through her inability to let their love go, inadvertently placing all of humanity at risk. And it's about a man (Paul Bettany) who has to save the world from his best friend even if it means joining with the terrorist group which killed his friend in the first place. It's also a little bit about the terrorist group which poisons Will in attempt to stop an advanced artificial intelligence from being created and instead insures that it happens. Rather than a collection of subplots supporting the main story, first-time director Wally Pfister has developed a handful of competing set-ups in an attempt at complexity which ends up being muddled and impenetrable.
All of those strings do however keep the film hopping, at least for the first act, as Evelyn and Max try to save Will and stay one step ahead of the anti-technology zealot (Kate Mara) desperate to finish the job once she realizes what they're attempting. Though zippy the sprawling story—which also encompasses Will's old mentor (Morgan Freeman) and the FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) trying to make sense of the whole thing—keeps the characters from developing much as they only get enough screen time to spout exposition before things must move on. Only Evelyn grows in front of us as Pfister seems to finally zero in on the tragedy of their love as the focus of his film. At least until the cyborgs show up.
Will's built in isolation as a computer program (which does not do much with Depp's particular acting gifts) means the bulk of the film's emotional connection is left to Hall. But the decision to isolate Evelyn from everyone else—while understandable from a narrative perspective—also leaves her no one to talk to but a computer screen. Most of her development ends up being internalized with little to tell us what is going on in Hall's head beyond a succession of deeper frowns. This requires the audience to project their own answer into the space provided, with no telling how well that answer will intersect with the actual conclusion the filmmakers have devised. Which is still more than most of the other characters get as the film ignores them entirely for large chunks of time once Will and Evelyn disappear into rural Kansas.
The desert proves to be as hospitable to the film as it does to plants which need a great deal of water, both slowing down the story (which ends up being not as helpful as it should be) and limiting Pfister's visual choices. His cameraman background shows in the film's frequently beautiful images and the narrative weight he is able to impart through them—a drop of water on a flower, an old record player, an endless row of solar panels—but the epic feel he seems to be going for is belied by the New Mexico location most of the film is shot on. It traps a movie called "Transcendence" into a very specific piece of geography and weakens the final confrontation which is meant to have global significance (particularly in light of the film's post-apocalyptic framing sequence) but never feels as if it reaches beyond a few people in the desert.
All of these myriad pieces do end up in the same place at the same time, complete with mortars and super strong cyborgs, but the filmmakers' insistence on not being nailed keeps them from actually coming together. In an attempt to be complex, "Transcendence" also refuses to be nailed down; it never even bothers to decide on an actual antagonist, letting everyone try on the role for a little bit but with no one holding the bag when the climax finally does arrive. This only works if you ultimately decide on some sort of answer at the end (even if it is kept partially obscured from the audience). Instead, "Transcendence" wants to leave itself ‘open to interpretation' but it does so in the laziest way possible, by trying to leave every option on the table, forgetting that without choice there are no consequences and without consequence there is no meaning.
In trying to encompass so much, "Transcendence" ultimately amounts to nothing.