“Transcendence” contains two great science-fiction themes: the man-made monster, as in “Frankenstein,” and the pod-people-syndrome, as in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
For good measure, “Transcendence” throws in a plea for environmental awareness, and it even has a decent ending. Yet the story is told flatly and heavily, and the characters exhibit little more personality than a computer.
Even stranger, it is the directorial debut of acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose astounding, powerful visuals on “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” whisk viewers to other worlds.
Here, he displays a few interesting shots, but they’re like stand-alones, apparently designed for reasons other than aiding the story.
In what could be the least interesting role of his career, Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a brilliant computer scientist who has built an artificial intelligence machine. His devoted wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), believes computers can save the world.
When a radical anti-technology group attacks several AI labs, and shoots Will with a radiation-laced bullet, he starts to die, slowly.
Evelyn gets the idea to upload Will’s consciousness into his AI computer, to keep him alive, so to speak. Their best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) helps.
When Will comes online, he seems pretty scary, and Max wants nothing to do with him. The leader of the radical group, pretty raccoon-eyed Bree (Kate Mara), kidnaps Max and forces him to join the fight.
But Evelyn believes in Will and helps him set up a huge laboratory in a miserable little desert town, using countless rows of solar panels — one of Pfister’s favorite shots — to run things.
Will begins helping sick people by using nano-bots, making them super-strong, but also turning them into mind-controlled drones.
Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy (both from the “Dark Knight” films) also appear, but are given nothing to do.
And the movie more or less gives up on the rest of the characters, who simply stand around and murmur lines designed to advance the plot.
Depp, an actor whose movement is usually such a treat, is likewise stuck, occupying a computer screen and talking in a calm, sinister voice, but never getting to move.
He’s like Max Headroom, but not funny. (Oddly, Bettany previously played a computer in the “Iron Man” films. Perhaps they could have switched parts?)
Ironically, the whole of “Transcendence” feels more in tune with computers than it does with people. It has some intelligence of the artificial kind, but it could have used some heart.
Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara
Written by Jack Paglen
Directed by Wally Pfister
Running time 1 hour, 59 minutes