In the motion picture industry, it's often difficult to make the career transition from cinematographer to director because, often, when cameramen direct they make the fatal mistake of concentrating visual imagery, as opposed to storytelling. And Wally Pfister, renowned collaborator of Christopher Nolan's who won an Oscar for filming "Inception" (2011), falls into this trap.
The story begins in the near future -- after the information superhighway has been derailed. Cellphones litter the streets and a computer keyboard makes a convenient doorstop.
As the narrator, neurobiologist Max Walters (Paul Bettany), recalls the "unstoppable collision between mankind and technology," flashbacks begin. Five years earlier, research scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife/collaborator Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) were developing a sentient computer called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). Think of omniscient HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
The triumph of artificial intelligence over human individualism terrifies RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a militant rebel group led by Bree (Kate Mara), who launch a deadly series of terror attacks around the country. A radiation-laced bullet leaves Will dying, as Evelyn and their colleague Max upload his consciousness into PINN, which is moved to a hastily constructed $38 million data center in the southern California desert that's powered by thousands of solar panels. Soon Will/PINN becomes digitally omnipotent, creating creepy, obedient nano-zombies that horrify Will's former associate (Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy).
The ethical conflict inherent in mind control is an intriguing concept, but first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen's muddled, simplistic, highly derivative thriller is filled with blandly one-dimensional characters speaking confusing techno-babble.
Calling Pfister's directing heavy-handed is an understatement; there's no sense of danger, tension or emotional connection in his tediously slow pacing. And director of photography Jess Hall comes up with too many slow-motion droplets of water and ascending flares filled with energy particles. Sci-fi was far better served by Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" and Spike Jonze's "Her."
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Transcendence" is a terminally boring 2. What a waste of talent and money!