By Greg Popil
Since before the time that the Greeks used the tale of Icarus to warn against flying too close to the sun, stories and art have been used as a natural governor on humanity’s desire for progress for its own sake. Just as books like “1984” and “Brave New World” taught us to be wary of changes to our government, tales like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and even the Terminator series have warned us against humanity’s overreliance on machines and the advancement of science at the expense of human rights and dignity. The thing that all of those stories have in common, however, is that they are massively entertaining, wrapping their messages of caution in wonderful tales featuring iconic characters. This is a lesson that the stupefyingly dull “Transcendence” would have done well to heed.
“Transcendence” stars Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall as Will and Evelyn Caster, a husband-and-wife team of scientists working to create an artificial intelligence that will be both self-aware and stronger that all of the combined human minds in the world. After a nationwide anti-technology terrorist attack that leaves dozens dead and Will gravely injured (these attacks, like most of the violence in the movie, are barely touched upon, beyond a few hugs and sad looks among the main characters), Evelyn decides to upload Will’s consciousness onto a computer, fusing it with an AI that the two created together. Once online, Will (or is it?) immediately wants to get online so that he can gain more power, and Evelyn is too blinded by love to believe that his intentions could be anything but benevolent.
This all sounds intriguing, but the script by first-time writer Jack Paglen is simply not engaging at any level. After an opening scene that helpfully tells us exactly how the movie will end, Paglen writes subplots for a group of neo-luddites (primarily represented by Kate Mara), a programmer who helps Evelyn but feels conflicted about it (Paul Bettany) and a CIA counter-terrorist division led by Cillian Murphy. Morgan Freeman also shows up, and does pretty much exactly what you would expect Morgan Freeman to do in a movie like this. Not one of these subplots is even mildly intriguing, and the stunningly overqualified cast sleepwalks through the motions of trying to stop a global pandemic that could cause the end of humanity as we know it.
The bulk of the blame for “Transcendence’s” failings must, unfortunately, be placed at the feet of director Wally Pfister. An amazing cinematographer who won a well-deserved Oscar for “Inception” and has been working as Chrstopher Nolan’s personal director of photography since “Memento,” Pfister clearly knows how to frame a shot for maximum effect. Drops of water, streams of sunlight and Depp’s uncanny valley-residing digitized face are perfectly shot. But where Nolan will inject his morose stories with almost surgically precise moments of humor and levity (most of Batman’s scenes with Alfred, or Joseph Gordo-Levitt trying to sneak a kiss from Ellen Page), Pfister’s movie is simply a bore, taking moments that should be infusing us with equal parts wonder and horror and making them seem as bland as wet cardboard.
And then there’s Johnny Depp. When did the most electrifying, immensely talented actor of the late 20th and early 21th centuries become such a drag? Depp’s lack of engagement in the material is so pronounced that he seems to have one foot perpetually back in his trailer. It may be unfair to single one bored actor out of a whole cast of them, but there was a time when Depp could send an electric charge through even a piece of B-movie dreck like “Secret Window” or “Nick of Time.” You watched even those crap movies and saw an actor that had, well, transcended Hollywood’s expectation of what a marquee-idol movie star could be and do.
But Depp hardly seems to care anymore, and his post-“Pirates of the Caribbean” films have been increasingly dire. This type of role calls for a truly mad scientist, with the kind of fire that Colin Clive brought to Dr. Frankenstein back in 1931. That kind of hammy acting may not have made the movie any better, but it least would have made it mildly interesting. Depp would have known that once. But neither he nor Hall seem ready to take that leap. “Transcendence” wants to be the latest movie to warn against flying into the sun, but it can barely bother to get itself off of the ground.