Shouldn’t a future America ruled by a disembodied Johnny Depp – playing an artificial intelligence on the rampage – be a lot more zany than this dull-as-computer-code thriller? Transcendence isn’t going to win any comparisons with last year’s Her (a pocket version of the same general concept), and you wonder why Depp signed on to the staid role of Will Caster, a Berkeley genius whose Einstein-shaggy hairdo would suggest someone dottier. Before Will is critically wounded in an act of anticomputer terrorism, the film introduces some warmly geeky characters, all on a first-name basis: Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, the fluttering heart of the film) is Will’s fund-raiser, researcher and wife; Max (Paul Bettany) is their brilliant best friend; and Joseph (Morgan Freeman) is a government-supported scientist who smells something bad in the air.
The human element – including much of the audience’s interest – is largely jettisoned, though, after Will’s brain gets wired to the Web, he’s reborn as a mildly annoying overlord and husband, and microscopic nanobots begin to swarm into unsuspecting bodies. While Transcendence has tons of money to spend on unpersuasive digital effects and dronelike music, it shows little interest in exploring the potentially tricky benefits of a computer-enhanced intellect; it’s not even in the enjoyable realm of starkly ridiculous Cold War thrillers like Colossus: The Forbin Project. You won’t be able to follow multiple subplots, nor will you care why Kate Mara is running around looking nervous. The blame must go to Wally Pfister, normally a gifted cameraman for Christopher Nolan but here, making his directorial debut, an uncertain helmer who tears too many pages out of his ex-boss’s humourless playbook – while forgetting to make his visuals dazzle. Reboot.