How can you tell a movie is the directorial debut of a renowned cinematographer? When everything’s interesting to look at except the performances. Since the new future-shock thriller “Transcendence” wastes the talents of our most mercurial movie star (Johnny Depp), two of England’s finest (Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany), and God himself (Morgan Freeman), the missed opportunities are bizarrely impressive.
The director is Wally Pfister, the man behind the camera for all of Christopher Nolan’s films since “Memento,” including the fantastically visualized cinema-scapes of the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception.” Accordingly, “Transcendence” gives off an almost unholy gleam. Set a day after tomorrow, the film introduces us to Dr. Will Caster (Depp), a shyly asocial genius at the forefront of artificial intelligence research, and his wife, Evelyn (Hall), who handles the fund-raising, speech-giving, and social outreach. She’s the brains of the operation, but he’s The Brain.
A group of domestic anti-technology terrorists headed up by the grim-faced Bree (Kate Mara) stages an attack on America’s AI labs, leaving Will the last man standing and not for long. With his demise imminent, the panicked Evelyn takes advantage of an experimental breakthrough — the movie’s biggest leap of sci-fi faith — and uploads her husband’s mind to the Internet. We know this isn’t a good idea because fellow scientists Max Waters (Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Freeman) are standing right there saying as much, but it’s hard to keep a grieving soon-to-be widow from destroying civilization as we know it.
The densely plotted screenplay by Jack Paglen — another first-timer — is built squarely on the bones of classic Technology Is Scary movies from “Soylent Green” on, with an unacknowledged debt, perhaps, to “The Lawnmower Man” (1992). Once he’s in the system, Techno-Will is unbound by the laws of physics and can see and control any networked point on Earth. And then he goes further. In a way, “Transcendence” is a thundering horror movie remake of Spike Jonze’s delicate “Her” — or maybe its sequel — in its exploration of the mischief a godlike digital consciousness might get up to.
I have to get into some mid-movie spoilers about now, if only because they’re the most original aspects of “Transcendence.” Could Techno-Will, with his access to the world’s banking servers, actually buy up a small desert town and create a massive underground AI research bunker? Who knows, but it looks pretty great: long white hallways receding to vanishing point, a field of solar panels the size of a small county, robotic arms doing miraculous things with nano-technology. Pfister, Paglen, and production designer Chris Seagers are playing with a ripe notion: What if a superior intelligence could manipulate physical reality as easily as today’s CGI technicians can dictate what we can see on a movie screen?
I’m not sure the filmmakers spot the parallel, though. They’re too busy crowding the frame with high-tech wonders and tracking the busy plans to stop Will by a consortium of desperate frenemies: the scientists, the terrorists, the FBI (led by Cillian Murphy), and the US Army. Pfister keeps all the parts moving and he’s terrific with surfaces. It’s everything under the surface that eludes him: the more ambitious, ambiguous themes a less hectic script and richer performances might illuminate.
“Transcendence” is torn between giving its characters conflicting motives and reducing them to White Hats and Black Hats, and it’s Hall who suffers most. Depp gives 90 percent of his performance from a chair — we see Techno-Will only on various screens — and he looks about as bored as he probably was. Bettany and Freeman are stuck with stock parts and dialogue. But Hall’s Evelyn is the movie’s secret central character: a Madame Frankenstein who confuses the monster she has created with the man she loves. This is a splendid opportunity for an actress to go a little nuts, push the edges of propriety — I’d love to see what Tilda Swinton could do with it — but the talented Hall just goes through the motions with a mopey, vaguely distressed look on her face.
That’s a director’s failing as much as it is an actress’s, since it’s Pfister’s job to guide his cast to their best, most incisive work. While he was tending to the film’s whiz-bang visuals, though — the better to disguise its hoary Perils of Science clichés — he left the human beings hanging out to dry. There’s a lot of intelligence in “Transcendence.” Ironically, almost all of it feels artificial.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.