MOVIE REVIEW: 'Transcendence' can't transcend sci-fi cliches

By: Roger Moore McClatchy Newspapers
April 17, 2014 Updated: April 17, 2014 at 11:54 am
photo - Johnny Depp stars in "Transcendence." Courtesy Alcon Entertainment.
Johnny Depp stars in "Transcendence." Courtesy Alcon Entertainment. 

Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman

Director: Wally Pfister

Running time: 119 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality; D

For 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" ?- 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.

He 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 (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." 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 to 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 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 revolutionaries who tried to kill Caster and who then kidnap Max.

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 time with Mara, who has never been worse in a movie.

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