Make no mistake about it: The science-fiction chiller "Transcendence" is as silly as it is sinister. But since it's also the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister -- an Oscar winner for "Inception" -- "Transcendence" has a sobriety of tone that effectively works against its inner mad scientist.
At heart, "Transcendence" is a throwback to the fear-mongering science fiction of the past: not those atomic-age adventures like "The Incredible Shrinking Man," but rather the lab-bound likes of "The Andromeda Strain" and "Demon Seed," circa the paranoid '70s. Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a superstar scientist in the field of artificial intelligence who falls victim to a terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). Encouraged by the recent "upload" of a rhesus monkey, Will's wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) determines to preserve her dying husband's consciousness within his PINN (Physically Integrated Neural Network) supercomputer and, more worryingly, cyberspace.
The Casters' best friend -- ethically oriented colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) -- agrees to help Evelyn, despite his qualms (he is, after all, author of the essay "An Unhealthy Reliance on Computers"). It's one thing if Will's entire consciousness survives the upload, Max muses, but what if they miss even one key memory or moral compass point? "How would you know what you're dealing with?" When Will 2.0 comes online, Max almost instantly decides his worst fears are about to be realized, and soon he finds himself aligned with R.I.F.T. (represented by Kate Mara's Bree) against Evelyn.
Once these battle lines have been drawn, "Transcendence" gets down to even wilder speculative science fiction about how an evolved consciousness (the fulfillment of the moment futurists call "the singularity") might begin leaping and bounding past humanity to achieve a god-like status (one plot point intriguingly relocates advanced medical science to the territory of faith healing), where the A.I. may well arrive at the obvious conclusion that we're no good for the planet. Will 2.0 has a pronounced instinct for self-preservation, but also an impassive, "massive appetite for power" and expansion.
The devil's in the dimwitted details of the plotting, but what keeps "Transcendence" from being just another goofball riff on HAL 9000 or Skynet is the human element, the hybridization of man and computer that has come to define the direction of our modern world. Jack Paglen's script (reportedly polished by Pfister) raises stakes of a potential extinction-level event, but it also deals with the ground-level melodrama of Evelyn's confused, enabling state of grief (well limned by Hall) and the ambiguity of Will's afterlife as a ghost in the machine. Most distinctly, Paglen blurs lines by turning the heroes into sympathetic villains, and the villains into antiheroes.
Those ideas, though not developed to an audience's satisfaction, help to define "Transcendence" as a mildly frustrating but never dull two hours. The approaches of Pfister and a strong cast (partly culled from the Nolan stock company) give the proceedings a patina of artfulness. Inspired by cinematographer Gordon Willis ("The Godfather") and in tandem with Nolan, Pfister brought back to the cinematographic mainstream visual texture, which serves here to offset the digital-themed material.