There are times when one has been primed to expect an all-out disaster, and getting something functionally mediocre instead is no less disappointing than expecting a great movie and getting one that's just okay. So when I confess to being disappointed by Transcendence, I hope you'll know what I mean.

The directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Transcendence is not good in almost exactly the ways one would expect when a cinematographer tries to make that jump: the images are gorgeously composed at the level of line and shape (not so much color), the lighting is sharp enough to shave with it, and the actors and screenplay have been entirely abandoned to their own devices. And let's not gloss over the strengths involved in that summary on the way to screech about the weaknesses. Pfister, along with cinematographer Jess Hall (doing his best to mimic Pfister's work - on The Dark Knight especially, though there's some obvious Inception here as well), and production designer Chris Seagers, have created some wonderful, striking interior spaces, and eerie mixtures in the exteriors between shiny metallic objects and organic nature, and simply as an exercise in presenting a high-tech future with a thick layer of foreboding atmosphere, Transcendence never misses a step. It's sleek, futurist textures married the the pulpiness of a thriller works on a visual level well enough that if only the film didn't suck, it could be really great.

But alas, it does suck. I don't know that it's fair to blame the script, by Jack Paglen; it contains its share of boneheaded ideas, but the worst of it is compounded by the director's impressively complete mismanagement of pacing - when Transcendence has an opportunity to stretch out a moment that needs to punched up, it will, without fail, take that opportunity. Anyway, the plot goes like this: Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an artificial intelligence specialist working hard with his wife, Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) to develop a sentient AI. This makes him a target for a group called RIFT - Revolutionary Independence From Technology - which orchestrates an attack on all the major AI labs in the United States, culminating with an assassination attempt: Will is shot with what proves to be an irradiated bullet, and it starts poisoning him from the inside. Given only about a month to live, he and Evelyn whip up a plan to upload his mental processes into a computer developed by his friend Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany), despite Max's misgivings about the whole process. Working against the clock, the trio is able to upload Will's mind just before he dies. And within hardly any time, the AI now identifies itself as Will, though whether this means it is Will is the question that Transcendence thinks it's asking, though the gap between "we have posited this science-fictional idea" and "we are interested in engaging with the implications and meaning of this science-fictional idea" is one that the makers of Transcendence don't seem aware needs to be bridged.

The result is a film that's at once both convoluted and shallow, something like a feature movie version of a Wired sidebar, and just about as fleet-footed. There is only one speed at which the film ever moves, and it's even actually pretty promising for the first 40 minutes or so, before Will is digitised: it feels like the slow burn preceding a quickly ramped-up onslaught of tension. Except that the tension never comes, and as computer-Will starts to turn an entire desert town into the center of his terrifying techno-zombie hivemind, the film continues to bubble along slowly. Not only does the film needlessly drag as a result, the lack of intensity makes it hard to believe it when it tries to claim its stakes: this never feels like a world-threatening incident, even though the opening scene, set after the events of the plot, makes it clear that it very much was. And the refusal to crank things up means that campy plot developments and lines of dialogue like "The only way to stop it is to shut down the internet" just sit there, allowing us to bask in how dumb they are.

Meanwhile, this investigation of the human condition and the impact of technology on humanity never gets around to establishing that it has any humans in it, so the rest of the edifice falls flat. Some of that is the writing - Hall's character makes virtually no sense, presented as Lady Macbeth-type partner to a psychopath (a computer psychopath who only appears as a face on a screen, but still), only with neither the moral culpability nor the good sense to understand what's happening around her. It's an unplayable character that the very talented, very under-utilised actress struggles with fruitlessly. More than the writing, though, the actors just seem adrift. The way images are lit and framed, it seems that Pfister is spectacularly disinterested in making his cast look good, and that indifference extends to the performances. Bettany successfully autopilots through a stock "should you being doing this? No, really, should you be doing this?" sad-sack moralist, and Morgan Freeman has happily stepped back a bit from the smooth voiced wise old man routine that has been devouring his career, but Depp is dreadful in his early, human scenes: there's one playful bantery moment between the Casters that finds Depp spouting out the line "Heheh, you're lying", in the most artificial, stilted, phonetically improbably way I could imagine (when he's just a face and emotionless curious computer-thoughts, he's actually pretty decent).

The overriding tone is of po-faced seriousness whether the film likes it or not. It's clearly Pfister's attempt to copy his long-time director and mentor Christopher Nolan, misapplied and fumbled in the execution; it ends up being glowering and slow instead of methodical and grave. Coupled with how disinterested the film seems in any aspect of its script other than as an excuse for staging bays of computers like so many inanimate serial killers, the film ends up a chore and a slog: handsome but inert, and too monotonous for its thrills to live beyond the second that they are sprung.