OK, Google, what the hell is going on in “Transcendence”? Siri? Anybody?
Here we have an Internet-age Frankenstein, both in the themes of the story and the misbegotten, patched-together film itself. In his first, and likely last, outing as a director, cinematographer Wally Pfister delivers a garbled, dispiriting, pseudo-cerebral non-thriller.
Johnny Depp plays an exceedingly dull artificial-intelligence researcher whose work on giving machine systems human consciousness will hasten the arrival of the Singularity, the moment when computers’ cognitive powers outstrip humanity’s. He is a man of wisdom committed to making the world a better place.
A Luddite terrorist cell disagrees, accusing him of creating a false god. When their assassination attempt leaves him mortally wounded, his scientist wife (Rebecca Hall) and fellow researcher (Paul Bettany) upload his awareness into a supercomputer. Next thing you know he’s talking to them through a computer screen avatar and performing nanotech miracles like a cybernetic Jesus. He sets up shop in a dusty backwater, recruits a coven of followers and faces the wrath of a government frightened by his rise.
Can even a selfless scientist resist the temptation to abuse the power that comes with infinite intelligence? A more apt question: Can even seasoned actors elevate stilted, overwritten dialogue, inane plotting and flat characters? Not in this outing.
Depp’s approach to playing an intellectual is a fixed expression of furrowed-brow concentration and a bone-dry monotone. His serious, remorseful look is intended to convey a noble spirit burdened by weighty thoughts, but he comes off as a sad sack. You sort of hope that once he takes his evolutionary leap of consciousness Depp’s avatar will cut loose and grow a beaded beard, or wear a dead crow on his head or evolve scissorhands. No such luck. He’s Mr. Frowny throughout. His character has experienced the most amazing, sanity-shaking transformation in human history, yet he has no emotional arc.
The rest of the cast is equally ineffective. Hall pops her eyes to express intense emotion and Bettany lingers on the sidelines looking concerned. While the actors flounder and the narrative structure crumbles around him, Pfister busies himself setting up nice-looking shots. It is safe to say that two of his favorite things in the world are hallways that stretch to infinity and slo-mo water droplets.
Someone should have warned Pfister that a first-time director working with a first-time screenwriter is not a formula for surefire success. Jack Paglen’s script unfurls like a bad dream, leaping from future to past to more recent past and back again with foggy, surreal illogic.
“Transcendence” imagines that a terrorist can wipe out a research lab with a poisoned chocolate cake, by getting a job at the bakery. It creates a character with absolutely no narrative function for Morgan Freeman, because, hey, Morgan Freeman. It oscillates artlessly between meditations on the meaning of life and lots of megaplex-rattling explosions. It frames its story as a flashback of a marginal character who didn’t witness most of the action on-screen. Hello?
My favorite moment came when Hall, Bettany and Freeman gathered at a lakeside to scatter Depp’s ashes. The script specifies that he died of a particularly virulent form of radiation poisoning. The trio solemnly pour out his cremation urn while wisps of radioactive death-dust whirl around them. I do not believe that world-renowned scientists would do this.