Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman
Director: Wally Pfister
If Spike Jonze's 'Her' imagined a delicate, heartfelt romance between man and his artificially intelligent operating system, then 'Transcendence', directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, takes a less optimistic view of the future, cautioning us about the dangers of relying too heavily on technology. They're two sides of the same coin, but where 'Her' felt fresh, original, and forward-looking, Pfister's film trades in familiar clichés.
That's a shame because 'Transcendence' starts off promisingly, offering some interesting ideas. Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a brilliant scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, who's prone to delivering deep pronouncements on the limitless possibilities that can come from the melding of human and computer-generated brain power. Alas, not everyone is a fan.
An anti-technology extremist group, led by Kate Mara's Bree, launches a coordinated attack on AI researchers across the country, including Will who is shot at with a bullet laced with poison. Left with only weeks to live, Will implores his loving wife and research partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their buddy Max (Paul Bettany) to upload his thoughts, memories, and personality into a sentient computer, so his mind can live on even if his body can't.
So far so good. It's from this point on that things begin to go completely mental. I'll spare you the details, except to say that Cyber-Will, now staring out from overhead screens, begins expanding his powers at a rapid rate. Manipulating Evelyn, he creates an underground lair where he recruits an army of superhuman-zombies to help him change the world.
Sounds like a slog? You bet.
Even if one were to overlook the innumerable leaps of logic in the story, 'Transcendence' is clunky and lifeless, and is worn down by the weight of its leading man who looks bored out of his skull. Depp seems remote and distant in a part that needed full engagement, much like Scarlett Johansson who provided the voice for the operating system in 'Her', despite never appearing on screen. Depp's co-star, Rebecca Hall, meanwhile, is pretty good as his grief-stricken wife, but there's no getting around the fact that the two have zero chemistry together. Fine actors like Morgan Freeman (playing Will's mentor), and Cillian Murphy (as an FBI agent) are entirely wasted, and Bettany vanishes for a chunk of the film in an unconvincing plot turn, only to show up a little before the end credits roll.
There's a lot of pointless jabber-jabber about supercomputers, transcendence and god complexes before the film ends in a hurried, inelegant action climax. But there's a good chance you've nodded off in your seat already.
Pfister, best known as Christopher Nolan's director of photography, may be drawn to a similar kind of thinking-man's blockbuster, but 'Transcendence', unlike Inception or The Dark Knight Rises, remains simplistic and predictable. I'm going with a generous two out of five. The film looks good, but it's never as smart as it should be.