At long last, Johnny Depp returns to a role that forces him to act, not just ham it up. That departure is one of the most appealing aspects of the muddled but well-intended sci-fi mind-tripper "Transcendence." Other minor incidentals, such as how the film opens in what's described as an Internet-deprived Berkeley of the near future and later references Lawrence Livermore Lab, give it Bay Area relevance.
Beyond that provincialism and the snazzy visuals and relevant premise, this cautionary man vs. computer tale from first-time director Wally Pfister is a bit of a slog, interesting in patches, but boring in stretches. And while its discussions about supercomputers, transcendence and god complexes send red flags flying about the near future, the story's mainframe is faultily wired and in need of repair.
"Transcendence" wrestles with a cutting-edge theme -- man's escalating pursuit of a mega-computer that will harness all collective intelligence and possess a soul -- but it offers no startling insights about the "Frankenstein" possibilities that premise raises. Literally, there's more talk than action and that, along with underdeveloped elements in Jack Paglen's screenplay, drag it down.
Depp plays the brilliant -- we know he is because we keep hearing him referred to as such -- Dr. Will Caster, a research scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence. Looking disheveled in that sexy Depp way, the actor smartly makes Will, who becomes a target of violent anti-tech zealots, both eccentric and enigmatic. That benefits the narrative's progression as Will's intentions become more circumspect once his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), decides, along with their friend Max Winters (Paul Bettany), to essentially download -- or would that be upload? -- him to a sentient computer Will created named PINN, or Physically Independent Neural Network.
Is Evelyn, played with passionate conviction by Hall, venturing into dangerous territory to make the world a better place? Or is she so blinded by grief that she can't let go of Will? And is that really Will popping up on-screen?
Naturally, revealing too much spoils the fun. But the real disappointment is how the screenplay shortchanges certain key characters. Case in point: Anti-tech ringleader Bree (Kate Mara of "House of Cards") is given minimal dialogue, even though she's essential to the plot. Simply putting a blonde wig on Mara and having her chat for a bit at a bar doesn't expand on what the RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) group is really all about.
Joseph Tagger, a friend of the Casters and a computer expert, is treated with the same lack of depth. We never get a reasonable gauge on who he is, but since he's played by Morgan Freeman, he commands more respect than the role deserves.
That "Transcendence" spends more time talking about computers than creating live human characters is even more problematic, because the romance between Will and Evelyn is so key to what happens. Pfister and Paglen give us satisfying hints of their love at the start, but more is needed. On the upside, Pfister has crafted a subtle and convincing not-so-distant future, and once again, this Oscar-winning cinematographer of "Inception" hits the highest of visual notes.
But when it comes to modern techie anxiety and love connections, Spike Jonze's "Her" juggled the topic with more dexterity. True, "Transcendence" has a different approach and thematic goals. But which of the two films results in the conversation starter it so strives to be? Hands down it would be "Her." And you don't need a supercomputer to figure that one out.
'TRanscendence' * *
Rating: PG-13 (sci-fi action and violence, bloody images,
brief strong language, sensuality)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany,
Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara
Director: Wally Pfister
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes