“Transcendence” is a most curious name for a movie that never shakes free from those hoary old cliches about the evils of technology and the danger by which man plays at becoming a god. The man in question here is Johnny Depp, whose listless lead performance as a brilliant scientist in the field of artificial intelligence does little to aid this overplotted, dramatically undernourished debut feature from longtime Christopher Nolan d.p. Wally Pfister. Arriving at a crowded spring box office, the pic will test Depp’s drawing power outside of the Disney franchise factory, before weak word of mouth and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” send it packing.
One of the manifold pleasures of Spike Jonze’s “Her” was how elegantly it shrugged off decades of speculative fiction in which technological progress correlated to a loss of human individualism. In its place was the delightful suggestion that, rather than battling us for domination, artificial intelligence might join us in romantic bliss, and then, having had its fill, journey off in search of some more fulfilling destiny in the cosmos. But in “Transcendence,” which might have been titled “Him,” it’s very much back to square one: the culture of technophobia that gave us the predatory mainframes and cyborgs of “2001,” “Demon Seed” and “Alien,” and that early ’90s wave of cyber-paranoia thrillers (“The Net,” “The Lawnmower Man,” “Virtuosity”) that now seem as quaint as dial-up Internet.
Some might add to that list the collective work of James Cameron, almost all of which involves the fusion of man and machine; except, in Cameron’s case, technology is just as often friend as foe, and in any event an inevitability that we can’t reasonably be expected to live without. Yet, when “Transcendence” begins in some unspecified near-future year, the plug has been pulled on that whole crazy information superhighway. Abandoned cell phones litter the streets like tumbleweeds in an old Western; computer keyboards make for convenient door stops. Our narrator (Paul Bettany) reports of an “unstoppable collision between mankind and technology,” and then begins to unfurl his tale of woe. Fittingly, we are in Berkeley, that hallowed hippie enclave where the coming of chain stores was once seen as a sign of cultural apocalypse, until a more immediate threat arrived in the form of Silicon Valley one-percenters.
The movie then flashes back five years and introduces us to Depp’s unsubtly named Dr. Will Caster and his wife and fellow researcher, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). That the Casters have not (yet) fully sold their souls to demon science is evinced by Will’s building of a copper-encased “technology-free zone” in the backyard of the couple’s picture-perfect craftsman home. But meanwhile, back at the lab, the Casters are hard at work on a sentient machine called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), which takes up an entire room (like the all-knowing super-computer from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and converses in a female droid monotone that sounds like HAL 9000’s premenstrual sister.
Not everyone, it seems, is thrilled with this idea. In the course of a single day — a kind of cyber-9/11 — a series of coordinated terror attacks lays waste to the best and brightest in the A.I. community. Will himself takes a bullet to the belly but makes an incredibly speedy recovery, only to learn that the bullet was laced with radiation and now, like the poisoned man of the classic noir “D.O.A.,” he’s living on borrowed time. Rather hurriedly (as it has a habit of doing), the screenplay by first-timer Jack Paglen introduces the notion that, just as one might save a video or music file to a hard drive, so might we do the same with an entire human consciousness. And so, with some help from their best scientist friend (Bettany), the Casters spend Will’s dying days digitizing the good doctor’s noggin for posterity.
Thus “Transcendence” arrives at that old, irresolvable conundrum: Is it live or is it Memorex? Staring out from a bank of computer monitors, the digital Will looks and sounds awfully like the old one — and yet, as with George Romero’s zombies, looks can be deceiving. This new Will isn’t content to stay contained on one (massive) server. He wants to stretch his bits and bytes, to be uploaded into the cloud (and not only, one suspects, so that he can debate philosophy with Alan Watts). And Evelyn, who wants more than anything to believe that her husband is still somehow alive, happily obliges. Appearing periodically to offer grave prognoses is Morgan Freeman (one of several members of the Nolan stock company who appear here), once more cast as the wise, weary Voice of Reason.
There are intriguing, half-formed ideas afoot in “Transcendence,” but the script and Pfister’s heavy, humorless direction tend to reduce everything to simplistic standoffs between good and evil — or, in this case, heartless technocrats and crunchy-granola resistance fighters known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) and led by plucky martyr-in-training Bree (Kate Mara). Take that, PINN. The bigger problem is that all the characters on both sides are so uniformly bland and lifeless that one can hardly tell the flesh-and-blood humans from the army of man/machine “hybrids” Will begins assembling with his suddenly infinite powers (including, for murkily defined reasons, the ability to manipulate real-world organic matter). Imagine a version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in which the aliens arrive to discover a world of anodyne pod people already in place.
It’s a bit of a cliche (which doesn’t make it untrue) that when cameramen turn to directing, they make movies long on visual splendor and short on storytelling. In any case, most who make the transition (Jack Cardiff, Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis, John Bailey, Dean Semler) eventually go back to shooting for others. With “Transcendence,” Pfister has certainly delivered a good-looking, well-produced picture, albeit one lacking in the memorable images he has supplied in excess in Nolan’s employ. (Pfister’s d.p. of choice, Jess Hall, is big on sun flares and slow-mo water droplets.) More critically, he’s made a movie empty of feeling, even as it labors to convince us that the entire future of the human race is hanging in the balance. There is, at the story’s center, an attempt at a grand, doomed sci-fi romance between Will and Evelyn, but one need only think back to David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly,” or Nolan’s own “Inception,” to see how short “Transcendence” falls on this particular score.
Presented with much the same challenge as Scarlett Johansson in “Her” — to play a character who, for most of the movie, exists only as a disembodied voice (and, in this case, a flickering face on a screen) — Depp fails to convey any real sense of the passion and curiosity that supposedly drive Will Caster to do what he does. The gravely beautiful Hall (who was, along with Johansson, one of the women caught up in the epic magicians’ duel in Nolan’s “The Prestige”) seems to have been directed to deliver her entire performance in an unwavering state of glassy-eyed anxiety. Indeed, long before the Web goes bust, “Transcendence” has already flatlined.
Composer Mychael Danna rattles the speakers of the new Dolby Atmos sound system with a score that combines lush string arrangements and occasional electronic twangs, whenever the basso profundo sound design isn’t doing same.