On paper, Transcendence has everything it needs to be a solid technothriller. First-time director Wally Pfister is a longtime cinematographer; his work with Christopher Nolan on the Batman trilogy and The Prestige explains a collection of familiar faces in front of the camera, including Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman, with Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, and Johnny Depp rounding out a cast of veterans. (Depp as AI researcher Will Caster and Hall as his wife Evelyn don’t have much spark, but Paul Bettany as lovelorn Max provides enough equal-opportunity pining to make up for either side of this love triangle.)
Jack Paglen’s script—about a dying Will, a ruthless band of anti-tech activists, and what happens when Will uploads and goes viral—benefits from an ethically-sloshy premise in which activists kill programmers and take hostages as Will’s AI heals people with nanotech that makes them what turns out to be very expensive marionettes. And Pfister’s visual style lends the frame a certain slickness, particularly in the stronghold Evelyn builds to Will’s specifications: the multiple reflections of her dozen-screened basement apartment start out as sanctuary and swiftly close in, even as the stark black-and-white solar panels above ground spread like a plague.
Still, somehow the whole fails to click. Despite the thriller overtones, the movie lacks any particular urgency, while skimming over its potential character studies. Bettany’s so effective as a clench-jawed rebel that Depp’s two-dimensional avatar doesn’t stand a chance. Ambitious but uneven, Transcendence ends up being nothing we haven’t computed before.