For all its solemn sci-fi posturing, the stakes in Transcendence never seem that high. As usual, one man's desire to play God has consequences. The movie doesn't dwell on what the bad ones are, only the healing of people and the planet, easy online banking and Skype after death. Yay, technology.
But only if it's placed in the right hands, and whose hands could be righter than Johnny Depp's? He wouldn't do anything to harm the future of mankind, and in Transcendence he doesn't, although a little more menace would perk up the movie. Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a pioneer in infusing artificial intelligence with humanity, presumably to have all the answers then never make good decisions.
This not-mad-at-all scientist must be stopped nonetheless by tech terrorists sensing Skynet in their future, who assassinate Will slowly, with a bullet tainted by radioactivity. He'll die in about a month, but science will keep Depp in the picture, mostly pixilated or as a disembodied voice but in the picture. More muted in spirit — more normal — than we prefer Depp to be but in the picture. A pretty dull picture.
Will, his colleague/wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, always interesting) and sulky pal Max Waters (Paul Bettany) set up a brain surgery ward in an abandoned school gym, uploading Will's mind into a neural network the NSA may already have stashed away. A worldwide invasion of privacy isn't surprising science fiction anymore, a fact that coupled with a spoiling prologue leaves Transcendence without much tension. The intro answers questions posed for the next two hours. We know who will survive, and what shape they'll leave the world in.
Transcendence is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Christopher Nolan's Inception, with which this movie projects a desire to be cerebrally competitive but winds up inferior to. Pfister and Nolan are frequent collaborators; the veteran handed this cumbersome script over to the rookie. The movie looks as good as one directed by a cinematographer should, with Jess Hall behind the camera and likely Pfister over his shoulder.
The ethics and repercussions of Will's project, and the emotions of those opposing him, are barely mentioned in Jack Paglen's screenplay, which once made Hollywood's unofficial "Black List" of heralded, unproduced scripts. Doubts are raised about Will's godlike amassing of information and power, without hinting that his cyber soul has been corrupted. Transcendence is a movie without villains, thrills or, after Nolan fanboys show up, much of an audience.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.