Wally Pfister has spent almost fifteen years as Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer. From Memento to The Dark Knight Rises, he's been behind the camera capturing incredible action-packed movies. For his directorial debut he chose a cyberthriller and packed it with terrific actors, even getting Nolan to serve as an executive producer. This is all quite an impressive pedigree for a first-time director, but it's also why the finished project, the movie Transcendence, feels so disappointing.
The story begins in the not-too-distant future with Max Waters (Paul Bettany) wandering around the chaotic streets of Berkeley, California. We learn there is no power and the phones are down thanks to an "unavoidable collision" of mankind and technology. After spending just a few moments in this dystopia, we flash back five years to try and understand why. Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, a research team and loving couple who specialize in artificial intelligence.
A series of deadly lab attacks happens across the country while the Casters are in the midst of giving a big donor presentation called "Evolve The Future." The FBI blames the actions on an organization called "R.I.F.T." (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a group of hackers and activists who believe that artificial intelligence is a threat to humanity.
Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow from The Dark Knight Rises) plays the main FBI agent who meets up at the Casters' lab with fellow researcher Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). He's the only survivor of their lab's attack because he neglected to eat a piece of poisoned birthday cake that was placed on his desk while he was deep in thought. They all introduce the FBI agent to PINN, a super-intelligent machine that basically operates like Siri on steroids.
Up to this point, things are a little far-fetched, but nothing you can't suspend disbelief for. Things go downhill pretty fast when we discover that Will Caster has been shot with a bullet that is laced with radiation and he's only given a few weeks to live. At this point, an emotionally distraught Evelyn decides that the best way to preserve her husband's legacy is to simply upload his brain into their supercomputer. We're then treated to a series of close-up images of wires and cables and mathematic formulas on whiteboards before she heads out to the middle of nowhere to buy up an entire town and build a remote lab to "grow" his intelligence.
Are you with me so far? For your sake, I hope you've already given up and decided Transcendence is as stupid as it looks and you can save yourself $10. If you insist on going further, just know that the preview audience I saw it with earlier this week laughed out loud more than once. In fact, after the third bout of spontaneous laughter at the ridiculous events transpiring on screen, I began to wish I were watching the movie with the Master Pancake crew.
Pfister is a cinematographer at heart, so of course the movie looks sharp. I saw a traditional screening, but the movie is also opening in digital IMAX and it's possible that the action sequences play better in that immersive format. Some effects are impressive, but the execution of the story and dialogue is so ridiculous that the movie almost becomes a parody of itself. Even worse for viewers, Depp spends half of the movie as nothing more than a talking head on various computer screens. It's hard to believe what he saw in this script that made him want to be a part of it.
Pfister's laughable warning about our dependence and reliance on technology is in the same league as Hackers, The Net, and Swordfish. Hell, all three of those may actually be more entertaining. Transcendence is merely an empty-headed big-screen bore.