The directorial debut of Wally Pfister may sport some of the hallmarks of his mentor Christopher Nolan, but a plodding script and a determination to be taken seriously make glossed-up B-movie Transcendence a slog to get through.
When brilliant scientist Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is shot with a radiation-laced bullet by members of a terrorist cell, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) convinces their cautious colleague Max (Paul Bettany) to help them upload Will’s consciousness to the AI programme they were working on. As he dies, an intelligence claiming to be Will wakes up, demanding more power and to be put online.
It’s clear to the audience that this new Will isn’t exactly what he claims to be, and Max’s instant desire to turn him off makes Bettany’s character the only really recognisable human in the whole film (also thanks to his strong performance). Evelyn’s flat refusal to acknowledge that this might not be her late husband makes it very difficult to sympathise with her, which in turn hobbles the film.
The fact that we can’t relate to the love story between these two is a crucial failing, as it’s the only real attempt the film makes to connect. Hall is a superb actress capable of elevating material, but she can’t find a way to make Evelyn the beating heart that the film believes she is. With no real chemistry between her and a detached Depp, any warmth bleeds from the film by the half hour mark.
Transcendence isn’t merely lacking in warmth, however; it’s also lacking in momentum. Pfister treats Jack Paglen’s script with a respect that such a high-concept idea doesn’t necessarily merit. Nolan might have dour-ed up Batman, but he didn’t rob it of humour completely. The supporting actors, including Morgan Freeman, Clifton Collins Jr and Cillian Murphy, are left stranded as cut-outs going through the plot hole-ridden motions.
With an unconvincing love story and clunky dialogue, some self-awareness or even a little mischievousness could have made a tremendous difference. As it is, this po-faced misfire drags to its conclusion, all the while claiming a humanity it simply doesn’t possess.