“Transcendence” can’t transcend sci-fi cliches

For years, the rumor about Johnny Depp was that he wouldn’t take a role that required him to get a haircut. “Chocolat,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Sleepy Hollow” — mop-topped coincidences, or a career vanity?

With “Transcendence,” he’s got a part that requires a shaved head in some scenes. And acting. He needs to suggest a brilliant scientist, the first to crack “the singularity,” a smart man transferring his mind to a machine and thus achieving “Transcendence” — immortality.

He cuts it off, but he doesn’t pull it off.

Depp is Dr. Will Caster, a mathematician, computer genius and artificial intelligence theorist who, with the help of his brilliant wife (Rebecca Hall), is close to a computer that might “overcome the limits of biology.” It will think.

That troubles his equally brilliant neuro-scientist / ethicist pal, Max (Paul Bettany) who doesn’t give voice to fears of a machine that wants to jump from tic-tac-toe to “Global Thermonuclear War,” SkyNETand HAL not opening the pod bay door. But you know he’s thinking it.

And since this tale is told by Max in flashback, from a desolate, off-the-electrical-grid San Francisco five years in the future, we figure Max knows what he’s talking about.

Terrorists have decided that this project is a threat and try to blow it up and kill Dr. Caster. They almost succeed, sentencing the not-so-mad scientist to a lingering death. That gives his friends the chance to try and skip a few steps in their research. They’ll load the electrical and chemical contents of his brilliant mind — his thoughts, memories, ethics — into a vast machine and save his life. In a manner of speaking.

The script suggests the miracles that bio-tech has in store for us — repairing injuries and infirmities with nano-technology 3-D laser printers and the like. The lame will walk and the blind will see.

But there will be a cost, a cost common to sci-fi stories about “the singularity” and the unlimited power it promises.

As Max says, in his narration and elsewhere, this sort of dilemma seems “inevitable” given the state of our wired-in world. But we learned that from “The Terminator.” The trick is to transcend sci-fi tropes, get past “People fear what they don’t understand” and get into the experience of Will’s existence across the digital divide. “Transcendence” doesn’t.


1 1/2 stars (Grade: D)

Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman

Directed by Wally Pfister, written by Jack Paglen. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:59

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality


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