Long story short: Transcendence occurs in a fascinating arena for a story, but then forgets the story.
Transcendence will remind you of: Virtuosity, The Lawnmower Man, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The East, The Terminator, T2, Inception
Review: "The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates...We will be able to live as long as we want." -Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near
"Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it...I'm afraid." -HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey
The ideas are cool in Transcendence. Singularity is achieved. Johnny Depp's mind transcends his body and he becomes Max Headroom. Unfortunately, that's all this film has: ideas. It has no clue how to mold them into a narrative and execute it all in two hours. Transcendence transcends nothing.
Director Wally Pfister does his best to spin a tragically incomplete screenplay to fruition, but it's not enough. The script, by Jack Paglen, is sporadic, scenes seem to be missing. At 119 minutes, Transcendence jams five years in the lives of brilliant computer scientists down our throats. Things happen, wondrous things, but little is explained, and we never get to know anyone.
Beginning with a prologue that spoils the ending instead of enhancing it, Transcendence presents a world in blackout: No power and no internet make Homer something something. And the world does indeed go crazy, as the streets of Berkeley are lined with even more homeless people than usual and the economy is now some kind of barter system.
So we know the world is ruined and we spend the rest of the movie watching a bunch of brilliant morons ruin it. How do you root for anyone in a movie like this? Depp plays Will Caster, a famous computer scientist on the verge of a breakthrough. He's boring and normal and married to someone even more boring, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). She actually refers to him as "my partner in science and in life." These are wooden figurines. Depp and Hall are going through the motions because there's nothing in the script for them to say.
The lame characters are a big deal because, at the beginning of the film, Depp is shot. He's going to die so, in a desperate act of love or craziness and is there a difference, Evelyn uploads his brain to a computer even though "HE IS NOT A MONKEY!" As third wheel scientist Max Waters (Paul Bettany) hilariously yells at her in warning. Love is the driving force behind the world's most revolutionary technological breakthrough - the view from the event horizon. Love! And who are the the two lovebirds we're supposed to believe in? Romeo and Juliet? Rick and Ilsa? Channing and Jenna Dewan Tatum? No. It's Will and Evelynnnnnnn. Ew. My grandma's best friend is named Evelyn.
Okay, so they're more than a pair of stiff names. But not much more. Will seems to be baked out of his gourd all the time and it doesn't help that he's either severely wounded or powered by 5000 gigs of RAM for much of the film. But, wait, isn't film history littered with incredibly charismatic sentient machines? From HAL 9000 to Samantha in Her, this is a sacred film character. And here we have Johnny freakin' Edward Scissorhands Jack Sparrow Depp playing a genius who becomes a computer and the most interesting thing about him is... is... (I really can't think of anything, "his glasses" is what I was going to write). Look at what Jeff Fahey did in The Lawnmower Man! Look at Fassbender in Prometheus! Even in Transcendence's best moments, Depp is just a morose white man who looks like he hasn't gotten laid in decades.
Will and Evelyn are both boring AND stupid because we know the end result of their work will be world ruin. We could root for the tech terror group who tried to murder Will. They're called RIFT and led by Bree (Kate Mara in a Julian Assange wig), a idealistic, Sarah Connor-type who's dead set against allowing anything transcendent to go down. We know she's in the right, but she gets significantly less screen time and, you know, the whole terrorist thing. We can try to root for the people who help her, who reach out to Will: his former colleague (Morgan Freeman) and a government agent (Cillian Murphy). But they get even less screen time than Bree. It's just hard to care about anyone.
Transcendence's script has great cinematic ideas: synthetic stem cells, a God-like sentient machine building its own city. But the love story has to work to create a sense of urgency. Since that doesn't happen, the things the film does well—the science, the incredible sets and art direction, Pfister's meticulous camera work—are soundly wasted. I can see the future and Transcendence is destined to be remembered as a gigantic missed opportunity.