Transcendence: Disappointing as Sci-Fi and as Depp Vehicle

transcendence_1_depp“Transcendence,” the new Johnny Depp star vehicle, is a misfire, a lavishly-produced sci-fi-thriller that suffers from poor plotting and lack of heart or soul.  But, alas, there’s considerable gap between the film’s level of ambition and its level of execution.

“Transcendence” suffers from another problem: The timing of its release, a week or two after “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” which is breaking box-office records, and a week or two before the eagerly anticipated sequel, “The Amazing Spider Man 2.”  Likely to be dismissed by most serious critics, Warner’s ultra-expensive production (rumored to cost over $200  million) faces an uphill commercial battle.

The sharply uneven screenplay by first-timer Jack Paglen is based on the notion that human consciousness can be stored and saved.  Thematically, “Transcendence” is a rather familiar sci-fi tale, which recycles ideas about the evils and dangers of ultra-modern technology by carrying them to their logical (or illogial) extreme.

Visually, however, it’s a sleek techno-thriller, which, for the first reel or so, holds our attention, before collapsing into a senseless, uninvolving saga. (The last reel is particularly weak).

transcendence_6_deppSet in the near future (though no specific year is noted), “Transcendence” is narrated by Paul Bettany, who warns us about the “unstoppable collision between mankind and technology” (a collision, I might add, about which we have heard over the past two decades in numeorus Hollywood pictures back in the 1990s).

 

 

In a flashback, set five years earlier, Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is introduced as a talented researcher, happily married to Evelyn (British actress Rebecca Hall), who’s a fellow scientist. They live in an ideal house, where Will uses the backyard as a copper-encased technology free-zone (no more can be said about that).

A their Berkeley laboratory, the couple are involved in building a huge, dangerously exciting machine. Ws collective knowledge and marry it with an uploaded conscious mind, including a complete range of emotions.

On the verge of a breakthrough, Will is gunned down, when he becomes the latest target of Revolutionary Independence From Technology (RIFT), an extremist organization whose motto is Evolution without Technology.   They will stop at nothing, including murder, to halt humankind’s growing dependence on technology and its influence on our world, and the damage they inflict on Will’s body is fatal.

But their attempt to stop Will’s research backfires.  In fact, they provided the opportunity for the realization of what they fear the most, inadvertently leading to the ultimate test of Will’s hypothesis. Will’s wife, Evelyn Caster, a fellow computer scientist, will not allow Will to die. She enlists their best friend, the neurobiologist Dr. Max Waters, to help “save” her husband by uploading Will into PINN, thereby achieving transcendence.  If they succeed, the possibilities are infinite, but so may be the dangers.  Problem is, the bullet that entered Will’s body was radiated and so his time on earth might be limited.  Evelyn and Waters do all they can to digitize the vast knowledge he had acccumulated over the decades.

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One of the film’s problems is that, as projected on numerous computer monitors, the digital Will looks and sounds too much like the old Will, except that the new Will wants to stretch his bits and expand his bytes, that is, to be uploaded into the cloud.  Inexplicably, Will is given magical powers such as the skill to manipulate organic matters.

Meanwhile, Evelyn, who clings to the belief that her real husband is still fully alive, goes for the ride Resistance in the story is represented by a fighting group named RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), led by Bree (Kate Mara, Rooney’s sister).

transcendence_7_mara_bettanyBy now the very appearance of Morgan Freeman in any film, especially futuristic one, signals gravitas, always representing the voice of reason, if not the voice of God.  Morgan has appeared in several movies directed by Christopher Nolan (who serves here as a producer), and basically fulfills the same function here.

There are some intriguing but underdeveloped ideas in “Transcendence” (a pretentious, but a good or accurate title for the story it describes),  but the scenario is at once over-baked and under-baked.

The combination of lugubrious yet simplistic script and heavy-handed helming by Pfister, who doesn’t show strong instincts for being a director, results in a film that’s only sporadically engaging and rarely entertaining.

transcendence_8_deppWe can’t get involved with (or relate to) any of the persona, good or evil, because all the characters are bland, not to mention the fact that they are played by actors who deliver listless performances.

It’s hard to tell whether Johnny Depp is miscast or misguided in playing the lead, a brilliant scientist- expert in matters of Artificial Intelligence.  He somehow seems too detached, as if he doesn’t care about the ominous and threatening matters around him.  It doesn’t help that there is no prticularly strong chemistry between Depp and Hall.

Depp has not made an artistically good or a commercial film in three or four years. This picture may test his bankability at the box-office, after the huge failure last year of “The Lone Rider,” though it was not entirely his fault.

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