Movie review: Depp can’t bring humanity to high-tech ‘Transcendence’
Review • Modern take on “Frankenstein” story is glossy but empty.
Published: April 21, 2014 11:03AM
Updated: April 18, 2014 02:43PM
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There are some interesting ideas rattling around “Transcendence,” a lushly realized high-tech update on the “Frankenstein” tale — but a lot of problems, too.

The biggest problem is the movie’s star, Johnny Depp, who has found the one type of character he can’t convincingly portray: a normal, well-adjusted guy.

Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a computer genius with rock-star fame and ambitious plans to create an artificial intelligence with human qualities. He’s also happily in love with his wife and research partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who has lofty dreams that their work can save the world.

Then a radical anti-technology terrorist group strikes, attacking several AI research sites at once — and grazing Will with a bullet. Alas, the bullet was laced with radioactive polonium, which will kill him in about a month. Evelyn, desperate, enlists family friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to upload Will’s brain into a supercomputer. It works, and suddenly the Will-augmented AI is spreading across the Internet.

Max has his doubts about Will’s power. Those doubts are fanned by Bree (Kate Mara), the leader of the terrorist group, who kidnaps Max to urge him to infiltrate the high-tech lab Evelyn and the computer Will are building in a remote desert town.

Rookie director Wally Pfister borrows some moves from his longtime collaborator Christopher Nolan (Pfister was cinematographer on “Memento,” “The Prestige,” “Inception” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy), exploring the science-vs.-God themes of first-time writer Jack Paglen’s script. It’s no surprise, considering his résumé, that Pfister creates some arresting visuals and shows a sure hand with the clever special effects.

Where “Transcendence” falls down, ironically, is capturing the humanity of the story. Hall does what she can, carrying the emotional weight as Evelyn cycles through grief, grim determination, self-doubt and fear while carrying out the computer Will’s wishes.

This gets us back to the Depp problem. Depp is a great actor, your go-to guy for larger-than-life characters — whether it’s Willy Wonka, Capt. Jack Sparrow or Hunter S. Thompson, to name a few. But playing a regular guy is beyond his reach. And when your entire movie pivots on whether Depp’s character is still human, that’s a fatal flaw.

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‘Transcendence’

A genius is downloaded into a supercomputer, with devastating consequences, in this well-mounted but chilly thriller.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens today.

Rating • PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.

Running time • 119 minutes.