“Transcendence” certainly has an impressive pedigree.
The sci-fi drama is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, whose brooding visuals are a signature element of Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy and “Inception.” Nolan is listed as the executive producer of the picture, and Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, two of Nolan’s favorite actors, appear in minor roles.
Promising, all of it, leading one to hope for a movie in the Nolan mode: dark, gripping, challenging. But alas. It’s a promise unfulfilled.
For starters, “Transcendence” is painfully, awkwardly and ponderously slow. It takes a seeming eternity to set its plot wheels in motion, to get to the point where the mind of a murdered scientist played by Johnny Depp is uploaded into a computer and then proceeds to try to take over the Internet and, by extension, the world.
His assassination is the work of anti-technology terrorists led by a woman played by Kate Mara (“House of Cards”) with a nutty intensity that fairly screams “Look out for me! I’m dangerous!”
Before he’s shot, the picture must establish the brilliance of Depp’s character, Dr. Will Caster. He’s on the cover of Wired magazine, hailed as a groundbreaking thinker on the subject of artificial intelligence. As rapt audiences hang on his every word, he delivers deep pronouncements on the skies-the-limit possibilities that can come from the melding of human and computer-generated brain power.
Above all, the movie must establish the relationship between him and his equally brainy cyber scientist wife, played by Rebecca Hall. The key here is the couple’s mutual devotion. She’s so in love with him that after he’s mortally wounded she’s the one who insists on squirting his mind into cyberspace because she can’t bear to the thought of him being dead and gone.
Sorry. Not buying it. The problem is Depp and Hall have exactly zero chemistry. Not since the 2010 snorefest “The Tourist” has Depp been party to a pairing so lacking in fizz. There’s more credible chemistry between Hall’s character and a fellow scientist played by Paul Bettany. He’s the conscience of the picture who worries that this brain-uploading business could have dangerous (and, as it happens, all too predictable) consequences.
“Transcendence” traffics in a lot of interesting ideas. Too bad it does so in unoriginal ways. Depp’s voice from cyberspace, unnaturally calm and faintly godlike in its omniscience, is reminiscent of the cadences of Kubrick’s HAL 9000, and his omnipresent image peering from a multitude of computer screens is very Big Brotherish.
And it’s shades of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when Will’s computer-enhanced megamind starts snatching the souls of the movie’s many extras and enslaving them.
Finally, hovering over everything is “Frankenstein,” with its cautionary warning about the perils that arise when science recklessly tampers with the natural order of things. Dr. Frankenstein shrieked “It’s alive!” when he animated his unnatural creation. Unfortunately, “Transcendence,” despite several explosive special effects scenes, stays moribund from start to finish.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
Director: Wally Pfister
Running time: 1:59
Rated: PG-13; sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality