When was the last time Johnny Depp played a romantic lead? Over the past decade the talented actor has turned into one Hollywood’s leading box office stars by simply being quirky. Think Jack Sparrow (of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series); the Mad Hatter (from "Alice in Wonderland"), even Sweeney Todd and you have an actor that has defined his career through offbeat roles.
At first "Transcendence" promises more of the same. As Will Castor, he’s a brilliant scientist in the field of artificial intelligence. With the assistance of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), he has built a computer prototype of a human mind (similar to the HAL 2000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" crossed with SAM, the seductive OS played by Scarlett Johansson in "Her") called Physically Independent Neural Network (PINN). But when techphobic terrorists bomb the labs of Castor and his colleagues, the technology breakthroughs are compromised. Making matters worse is that Castor is shot with a bullet laced with a deadly, radioactive compound, giving him a month to live.
Evelyn, though, has an idea: would it be possible in Castor’s remaining day to transfer his mind to a computer, thus creating a new level of consciousness? With the help of research from colleague Max Waters (an earnest Paul Bettany), the concept proves successful; Castor dies but lives on (his face on flat screen monitors) and Evelyn takes the role of his human conduit to carry on his work.
But is that disembodied image really Castor or some megalomaniacal cyber-bully out for world domination? Does he really want to cure the world of disease, pollution and famine or has his operating system got the Putin virus? Such is the thrust of this dull, pompous sci-fi thriller that has Evelyn torn between her love of Castor and her fears of what he might have become. None of this works, in part because of the lack of chemistry between Depp and Hall. He is so self-absorbed that it is next to impossible to imagine him in any kind of relationship; while she just looks lost (admittedly understandable considering the absurdity of the premise).
But that’s just the first of the many reasons that keep "Transcendence" from being far less than transcendent. The subplot involving a Bettany (earnest in a thankless role) torn between his loyalty (and unrequited love) for Evelyn and joining forces with the cyber-terrorists, called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) and led by a creepy, peroxided Kate Mara, doesn’t convincingly resonate. Nor do the efforts of another scientist Joseph Tagger (the reliable Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (a wasted Cillian Murphy) fit well into the narrative.
Too much of the time "Transcendence" attempts to place high-minded ethical arguments within the confines of a conventional sci-fi thriller, but loses out on all counts. The points-of-views are so muddled it is next-to-impossible to figure out just whom to root for. Also Depp is just creepy in his alternative identity; and his attempts at intimacy with Hall through surrogates only adds to the general unease, leaving you to wonder if the cyber-terrorists have a legitimate cause for alarm.
What’s most disappointing about "Transcendence" is how it wastes Hall, one of the most intelligent and evocative actresses working in film today. She evokes Tilda Swinton in her ability to get under the skin of her characters; unfortunately she’s much more conflicted as confused in this under-developed role. Almost anyone could have played this part, which makes her presence such a waste.
But no one comes off well in this overly busy, humorless thriller. Director Wally Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen have all the technology tools at hand to make a sleek looking film with superb CGI effects; what’s missing is a story that either touches the heart or challenges the mind. Too much of the time "Transcendence" offers an argument about the limits of technology, but never really takes a side; only to dissolve into a sentimental love story. Too bad; for that to work, the central couple needs to be believable, but there’s no there ’there’ to begin with. Depp is good at playing quirky; for him to play a grounded human in a relationship seems to escape him. He just can’t transcend his weirdness, and this film can’t overcome its self-importance.