Pretend you haven't seen the trailer for Wally Pfister's cyber-thriller Transcendence. Let's simply pose the question: do you think it would be a good idea to upload a genius' brain to a computer and then network that artificial intelligence in to the world wide web? Probably not, right? Transcendence is a film that poses a lot of ponderous questions, but they all lack any real dramatic tension. There's something inherently skin-crawling about zapping the brain of dying Will Caster (Johnny Depp) into AI form, which happens about 15 minutes in, but a slow, slow build to creepiness follows nonetheless.
Transcendence's screenplay, written by Jack Paglen, was on the 2012 Black List of best unproduced scripts and wants to grapple with weighty issues of transhumanism and man's evolving relationship with technology. It also wants to be an atmospheric thriller and, by the end of the film, is working to convince the audience that the spine of its plot is the love story between Will and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). None of this gels. A late effort to inject some ambiguity into the perceived danger of computer-Will comes off as flimsy, and the action-packed showdown at Will's compound involves a couple of Jeeps and maybe half a dozen guys with assault rifles.
Pfister, making his directorial debut, is used to epic scope after serving as Christopher Nolan's cinematographer for all but his first independent film, but thanks either to budget or script issues, cannot capture that energy to essay the rise and fall of Will the AI. There's plenty of Malickian shots of dewdrops, and the occasional shivery moment as Will deploys silvery clouds of nanobots to bend the world to "his" will, but a lot of the film is either set in the bland white-walled labs that house Will's computer-brain or the blank desert he plants himself in.
Computer-Will's rise is predictable and barely explained—it's easy enough to believe that once he connects to the internet, his "mind" grows exponentially, allowing him to accrue the funds (through stock-trading) and power he needs to expand his influence around the world. He is aided by Evelyn, who is clinging to the memory of her lost husband (he is assassinated by anti-tech terrorists at the beginning of the film) and opposed by Kate Mara's luddite activist, a couple of fellow scientists (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy). All but Bettany are entirely without depth and exist only to bat around conceptual dialogue about the implications of Will's power; none are ever remotely tempted by what Will has to offer the world, such as freedom from disease and injury (which comes with the complication of having his nano-bots swim around in your bloodstream).
Hall is a more than capable actress and does her best to inject some real conflict into her relationship with AI-Will, but for most of the film, she's acting alongside a computer screen. It'd be one thing if Depp was bringing any personality to the role, but while real-life Will is a little goofy and mumbly, computer-Will is impassive and creepy, just screaming to be unplugged, no matter how many dinners he can silently watch her eat while he blares cutlery-clinking sound effects to put her at ease.
This brings me back to the lack of tension. The second Will's mind is uploaded and combined with an AI he created, we know he has to be stopped. The film's main dramatic material is watching him slowly but surely expand his influence, while Mara and Bettany sit out in the desert tutting over just how to shut him down. Transcendence could have perhaps widened its scope and gained some traction with Will taking on the whole world. By keeping things smaller, Pfister and Paglen are going for emotional intimacy, but they forgot to add enough shading to their ensemble to land any kind of punch. The dull final battle is also foreshadowed by an unnecessary in medias res opening that basically spoils the (unsurprising) conclusion.
Transcendence obviously wants its audience to leave questioning the big moral questions posed by the film: is it worth sacrificing some humanity for the gains radical technology might bring us? Is a life lived off the grid but in relative poverty or anguish worth the soul-soothing comfort of being unplugged? Its failure is not making enough of a compelling argument for transhumanism. There's engrossing film and literature on this topic, cyberpunk and otherwise, that makes a real effort to explore our ambiguous future. Transcendence does a flimsy job of that, but it also isn't even thrilling or frightening enough to gloss over those intellectual shortcomings.