‘Transcendence’ will make you think, until you lose interest

04/17/2014 2:14 PM

04/17/2014 2:14 PM

If Johnny Depp seemed overexposed by the time the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” lumbered into theaters, that’s nothing compared to “Transcendence.”

Depp’s character in this cautionary sci-fi tale literally shows up everywhere. He becomes fused with the global network, the ecosystem and even other people.

Talk about marketing advantages.

But Depp’s star power can’t quite provide the oomph needed to make this intriguing idea soar. It’s a competent but curiously flat drama. More shrugs than thrills.

That could be because “Transcendence” arrives in theaters late to the A.I. party. “Her” earned an Oscar for its story of the romance between a man and his artificially intelligent operating system. Likewise, a crucial piece of the rousing “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” involves a rogue scientist uploading his mind into databanks.

Depp portrays Dr. Will Caster, a renowned scientist working to create a sentient machine. Married to the equally brainy Evelyn (a perfectly cast Rebecca Hall), they envision a day when their Physically Independent Neural Network (PINN) could help cure the world of its ills.

Members of the radical anti-tech group RIFT (led by spooky Kate Mara) consider this project an “unnatural abomination,” and they unleash assassination attempts on those involved.

Critically injured in the attack, Will transfers his consciousness into PINN.

As Will’s powers expand, a fellow pioneering researcher (Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) wonder if RIFT might have been right all along.

The veteran Depp has carved a career portraying oddballs. Yet his quirkiness often veers into creepy territory — a nice fit here.

For parts of the movie, Depp’s skull is hardwired into the system, which makes him look like a cross between the ’80s icon Max Headroom and Pinhead from “Hellraiser.” Coupled with his already robotic voice, Depp comes across as not quite human. The fact his image is constantly popping up to have virtual conversations with his rapidly freaking-out wife makes him more stalker than hero.

“Can you prove you’re self-aware?” Freeman’s character asks Will.

“That’s a difficult question,” he responds. “Can you?”

Much of the picture by rookie director Wally Pfister (Oscar-winning cinematographer of “Inception”) and rookie screenwriter Jack Paglen provides a riff on this debate. What constitutes “alive” or “intelligence” or “good”?

Another scientist friend, Max (Paul Bettany, ironically the voice of the computer Jarvis in the “Iron Man” franchise), becomes the devil’s advocate. The film begins with his narration lamenting the “unavoidable collision between mankind and technology.”

Besides the fact he is one of several narrators — rarely a smart decision — the film also is subject to that same collision between mankind and technology. Or in cinematic terms: performance and special effects.

The movie is structured as if its digital images depicting wounds healing by themselves or buildings crumbling and reconfiguring can still wow the viewer. Instead, they seem overly familiar. (Remember “Inception”?) And they often deposit a buffer between the fine actors and the emotions they’re trying to impart. (The more impressive visual pieces are the locations, from the fields of solar panels to the massive underground labs.)

The first-time filmmakers deserve praise for delivering a finale that doesn’t abandon the philosophical booby traps they introduce. Even when ensconced in a traditional shoot-’em-up, the film still kicks around some heady ideas. If only there were some underlying momentum to energize such poetic, intellectual flourishes.

Considering that the fate of the planet hinges on the actions of these individuals, why is it so hard to care?

On paper, “Transcendence” is potentially a great movie. Yet something — humanity, perhaps — gets lost when uploaded to the big screen.

WALLY WORLD

“Transcendence” is the first film Wally Pfister has directed. But he has a hefty Hollywood resume:

• He met his star, Johnny Depp, when they worked on Paul McCartney’s 2012 video for his romantic ballad “My Valentine.” Depp and Natalie Portman starred, and Pfister was the director of photography.

• Pfister won a cinematography Academy Award for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and was nominated for “The Dark Knight,” “The Prestige” and “Batman Begins.”

• His first collaboration with Nolan was 2000’s mind-bender “Memento.” Nolan executive-produced and helped edit “Transcendence” while working on his own sci-fi film, “Interstellar,” due out Nov. 7. The two filmmakers shared crew members for makeup, special effects, casting and more.

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