Like Her, Transcendence's core is a love story that gets complicated when one of the partners becomes vastly intelligent, a mind that transcends space and time.
But here's what Her did well: it gave us scenes between the two partners that showed us the development and depth of this love—didn't just show us, but made us feel it. Transcendence, though a character piece, is also preoccupied with its singularity plot, trying to explore the negative and positive potential of this sort of development.
As a result, it moves far too fast, skimping on both character and plot. It tells us that Evelyn and Will have a vital connection, but doesn't really make us feel it. It tells us to be worried about the singularity, and tells us there might be benefits, but without giving us enough time to catch our breath and sink into the feeling. And by the end, when it effectively pulls the rug out, it leaves us scratching our heads about what we were supposed to be feeling in the first place. Sure, it's great when characters are complicated and multi-dimensional, but all those colorful sparkles a prism flings around a room get blurry and flat when you whirl it around too fast.
Another, more surprising problem, given Pfister's bona fides as a cinematographer, was the use of IMAX. If I'm seated in front of an enormous screen, you've got my attention, and I am expecting something visually stunning. Transcendence delivered, but only occasionally. In fact, I thought at least once that I might like this movie better if I was watching it on a smaller screen—something I've never thought before. It's visually excellent, but it doesn't merit the majesty of IMAX, and it seems dangerous to raise an audience's expectations (and ticket prices) without delivering. (It may do well on DVD.)
All that to say that among the field of directorial debuts, Transcendence is better than the average. But it doesn't really give you much to think about with respect to human love or to the dangers of technology.
An (Inadvertent?) Parable
But, but. I couldn't shake the feeling there was something else going on. I don't know a blessed thing about Jack Paglen or Wally Pfister's religious beliefs, and I'm definitely not the kind of critic who sees a Christ figure around every corner.
But if Paglen and Pfister weren't intentionally layering in a narrative structure ripped straight from the Bible, they certainly did so unconsciously.
(There might be some spoilers ahead, so if you plan to see the film, you may want to stop now or jump down to the Caveat Spectator, and then come back later.)
We begin with a couple who are busy about the work of creation driven by both the pure joy of creating and by a desire to heal the world's ills and cause human flourishing. But violence is done to one of them because of this, and he dies. He becomes—as the man in the audience says to Will—a sort of god, a transcendent being who can heal humans and bring about harmony, who becomes part of creation, all because of his love for his wife, an embodied being who is working with him.