Movie Review: “Transcendence” doesn’t transcend cliches

ImageFor years, the rumor about Johnny Depp was that he wouldn’t take a role that
required him to get a haircut. “Chocolat,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Once
Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Sleepy Hollow” — unchallenging, mop-topped
coincidences, or a career vanity?
With “Transcendence,” he’s got a part that requires a shaved head in some
scenes. And acting. He needs to suggest a brilliant scientist, the first to
crack “the singularity,” a very smart man transferring his mind to a machine and
thus achieving “Transcendence” — immortality.
Depp cuts it off, but he doesn’t pull it off.
This thoughtful but windy and winded sci-fi thriller shortchanges the science
– understandably — and the thrills. The directing debut of “Dark Knight”
cinematographer Wally Pfister is a mopey affair with indifferent performances,
heartless romance and dull action. It transcends nothing.
Depp is Dr. Will Caster, a mathematician, computer genius and artificial
intelligence theorist who, with the help of his brilliant wife Evelyn (Rebecca
Hall), is close to a computer that might “overcome the limits of biology.” It
will think.
That troubles his equally brilliant neuro-scientist/ethicist pal, Max (Paul
Bettany) who doesn’t give voice to fears of a machine that wants to jump from
tic-tac-toe to “Global Thermonuclear War,” SkyNET and HAL not opening the “pod
bay door.” But you know he’s thinking it.
And since this tale is told by Max in flashback, from a desolate,
off-the-electrical-grid San Francisco five years in the future, we figure Max
knows what he’s talking about.
Terrorists have decided that this project is a threat and try to blow it up
and kill Dr. Caster. They almost succeed, sentencing the not-so-mad scientist to
a lingering death. That gives his friends the chance to try and skip a few steps
in their research. They’ll load the electrical and chemical contents of his
brilliant mind — his thoughts, memories, ethics — into a vast machine and save
his life.

In a manner of speaking.
And since we’ve seen a San Francisco where keyboards are only useful as door
stops and cell phones are just so much worthless litter, we know this is where
the trouble starts.
Kate Mara suggests nothing fanatical, clever or fearsome as the leader of the
RIFT revolutionaries who tried to kill Caster and who then kidnap Max.
“What is it you want?”
“Just some clarity.”
Depp and Hall are supposed to have this “Ghost” level love, a romance of
death-defying longing that drives her actions to save him, in spite of Will’s
warnings to her.
“Don’t lose yourself in this.”
They don’t set off sparks.
Morgan Freeman shows up as a grandfatherly skeptic scientist, Cole Hauser as
a dull military man brought in to deal with the growing problem that happens
when Will’s insatiable brain gets on the Internet, manipulates Wall Street and
starts to plan a technological revolution.
The script suggests the miracles that bio-tech has in store for us —
repairing injuries and infirmities with nano-technology, 3D laser printers and
the like. The lame will walk and the blind will see.
But there will be a cost, well, a cost common to sci-fi stories about “the
singularity” and the unlimited power it promises.
Depp is a bland presence as a disembodied face on a computer screen. Hall
seems to wish she had a flesh and blood actor to emote to and Bettany spends far
too much of the time with Mara, who has never been worse in a movie.
As Max says, in his narration and elsewhere, this sort of dilemma seems
“inevitable” given the state of our wired-in world. But we knew that from “The
Terminator.” The trick is to transcend sci-fi tropes, get past bogey-man
“People fear what they don’t understand” and get into the experience of Will’s
existence across the digital divide.
“Transcendence” doesn’t.

Image
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for
sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and
sensuality
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
Credits: Directed by Wally Pfister, written by Jack Paglan. A Warner Brothers
release.
Running time:1:59

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