The new Johnny Depp sci-fi movie, “Transcendence,” may seem newfangled, but its subject is that oldest of chestnuts: Thou shalt not play God. The only spin here is that God is, strictly speaking, a supercomputer.
Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, the biggest cheese in the field of artificial intelligence, who is close to creating a sentient machine that contains everything ever known to man, combined with the complete range of human emotions. He seems like a rather mild-mannered sort, not a world changer, but his research provokes anti-technology extremists to stop him at all costs. As “Transcendence” demonstrates, however, you can kill the body, but the mind, properly downloaded, can achieve immortality. It can even take over the world if you’re not paying attention.
What this all means, in mundane terms, is that Depp plays most of the movie as a species of hologram. Audiences expecting a flesh-and-blood, walking-and-talking Johnny Depp will be flummoxed. And his performance, at least when he’s in his “singularity” phase, is about as thin as a hologram, too. He’s balanced out by the hyperactive Rebecca Hall, as Will’s adoring computer scientist wife, Eveyln, and Paul Bettany, as his best friend and fellow researcher Max. In the future, one hopes sentient supercomputers in the movies, not to mention in real life, will have a bit more oomph.
Moderately entertaining, periodically draggy, “Transcendence” is not as wacky-visionary as “The Matrix,” or nearly as lyrical as “Her,” which was about a man’s romantic infatuation with a computer. The dialogue is often in the flat-footed “We need to call Washington” mode. Wally Pfister, a cinematographer (“Inception,” the “Dark Knight” movies) making his directorial debut from a script by Jack Paglen, doesn’t have the transcendent spark. I rarely felt as if I was in another world – or that I was in a world brought shudderingly close to my own.
Maybe this is not entirely the film’s fault. After all, it’s getting more difficult by the day to distinguish people from their computers. Grade: B-