THE REEL: Johnny Depp thriller can’t “transcend” its flaws

By: Ben Conniff

From executive producer Christopher Nolan, “Transcendence” marks the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister. 

Like his work on “Inception” and the “Dark Knight” films, Pfister’s dark, brooding visual style translates well to his directorial efforts.

It’s just sad that the pretty pictures are so weakly supported by a poorly-executed story.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) hope to achieve a better, healthier, more tranquil world. To do that, they team up with colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to build an omniscient, self-aware, artificial intelligence that can transcend the abilities of the human brain.

It’s no spoiler that Will ends up victim to a terrorist group who will stop at nothing to assure this dream is never realized. As Will’s health deteriorates, Evelyn and Max decide to upload his consciousness to a computer. Little do they realize that they’ve just given him the greatest gift of his life – to act as the intelligent force behind the world’s first omniscient supercomputer. As his power continues to grow, Will soon poses a threat to the entire world. 

Surprisingly, there are never any news reports depicting the effects of Caster’s work, so we never quite understand how palpable that threat really is. It feels too isolated to actually be a credible, worldwide hazard.

First-time scribe Jack Paglen still offers plenty of food for thought with weighty concepts that don’t seem all that far away from our own future. With such heavy themes regarding the “God complex” and artificial intelligence, I’m surprised that this story isn’t directly based on previously-published source material. 

It feels fresh from the pages of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick. 

Paglen offers a concept that’s diverting enough and will certainly spurn conversations about what the future of technology might look like. 

However, the script feels too cluttered with painfully awkward dialogue and underdeveloped characters.  A few scenes with Depp and Hall feel as if they were cut short before the exchange could conclude.

There are never any lighthearted moments, either. In a science fiction film entirely devoid of even one chuckle, this makes the chemistry between the characters feel muddled and otherwise forced. 

Then you have Morgan Freeman as Dr. Joseph Tagger – another colleague of Will and Evelyn’s. In hindsight I have no clue what his purpose in the movie is. I suppose he aids Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) as they try to discover how the terrorists who attacked Caster operate. 

I will say that it’s refreshing to see Depp take on a role that doesn’t require hours in the makeup chair. As Dr. Caster, he reminds us that he can truly act in something outside of a twisted Tim Burton fantasy.

Kate Mara also stars as the leader of R.I.F.T, the anti-technology organization that knocks off the good doctor. Her character here is pretty much the antithesis of Zoe Barnes in “House of Cards.” This makes for a fun flip in dynamic for the actress.

It’s got all the trappings of an exceptional sci-fi thriller, but the big concepts feel undercooked in “Transcendence.”