Pretty damned bad. Another example of 2014 CG used to animate 1974's science fiction ideas. After an overlong TED-talk lecture about the importance of AI, Lawrence Livermore scientist Will Caster (a colorless Johnny Depp) is shot with a poisoned bullet by anti-technology terrorists. With the help of Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), his "partner in life and work" as she describes herself, Caster is uploaded first into a program, and then into the Internet.
The bracketing story is shot on Telegraph Avenue, which already looks post-collapse. Did they go for the bracket because Transcendence's finale isn't as awe-walloping as they'd hoped? (Humanity's last stand seems to take place in the same depressed New Mexican town where Thor killed that fire-breathing robot.) Speaking of Marvel, it takes much of the movie to tease the audacity of a premise that took 45 seconds to establish (and love) in the Toby Jones sequence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
First-time director Wally Pfister is Christopher Nolan's usual cinematographer, and yet Transcendence isn't distinguished visually; Pfister seems to have absorbed all of Nolan's self-seriousness and none of his liveliness. The blocky, stale script doesn't play with the ideas, and the humor is unintentional: surgeon Max Waters (Paul Bettany) is told that a rhesus monkey brain was uploaded, so why not Caster? "He's not a monkey!" Waters shouts. (We're later informed that we don't negotiate with terrorists.)
Takeaways: if you're unsure where you stand on a complex matter of whether Utopia means enslavement, just see where Morgan Freeman stands on the matter (he's here as a head of security, benign and in charge). 2. Computer virus protection is clearly worth what it costs. 3. If you're a Godlike computer being, and you don't want to terrify the world, try turning down the bass woofer on your voice controls.
PG-13; 119 min.