Movie review: 'Transcendence' is lost in cyberspace

What It's AboutApril 17, 2014 

So that you don't waste two hours of your life and hard-earned money, know that "Transcendence" is ultimately an exercise in frustration.

Dense and convoluted, the sci-fi techno thriller fritters away any credibility it might have started with by contradicting the points it makes, exasperating viewers with a muddled message.

Boiled down simply, its "Nature Good, Technology Bad" emphasis winds up raising more questions as it goes on, not making much sense, nor stating a convincing argument about its half-baked "Man vs. Machine" theme.

At least I think that's what they mean. But you might come away with another idea.

Who knew "anti-technology terrorists" were a threat to humanity? In this cerebral intellectual world, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a rock-star scientist whose work in artificial intelligence gets him magazine covers and autograph requests.

He wants to see how far A.I. can advance, while his wife and partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) wants to change the world, and his brilliant pal Max (Paul Bettany) wants to save the world.

Their united efforts fall apart soon after Will dies, but he put his thoughts, memories and image into a computer, and remains an overbearing presence, directing his wife's research and staying part of her life by being omnipresent at home. Shades of 1984 -- think a Big Brother, only better looking, on screen at all times.

So is Will a mad genius eager to dominate the world or is he a misunderstood savior?

Good luck figuring it out.

Performances

When is the last time Depp, a highly regarded actor, really gave a 'Wow!" performance, on par with his Oscar nominated-roles and his most interesting work ("Donnie Brasco," "Ed Wood")? He plays the stoic, smart Will as righteous and laser-focused.

And turns a shade creepy when he becomes the computer-generated image, manipulating what's going on in an underground lair in a sleepy California town. But he's devoid of any personality, and really not convincing as a scientific game-changer -- a bland HAL 9000, if you will.

Rebecca Hall ("The Town"), who plays his grieving, loving wife, gives the strongest performance in the film, with Paul Bettany ("Margin Call") believable too, effective as usual. They can only do so much with the inane plot, however.

Sadly, Morgan Freeman, as their celebrated mentor, and Nolan regular Cillian Murphy, as an FBI team leader, are utterly wasted.

You know when you see Kate Mara that she's going to be trouble, and she is, as a radical, but her part is extremely under-written.

What Works

Hmmmm ... good cinematography and nice shots of California? The film had lofty ambitions but lost its way.

What Doesn't Work

Let's point the finger at rookie mistakes. The icy script by first-timer Jack Paglen unravels and becomes darn near incomprehensible.

Wally Pfister, Oscar-winning cinematographer for "Inception" and Christopher Nolan's director of photography on his all his movies, was given this opportunity to direct.

He has a sleek style and favors long tracking shots down sterile corridors and outdoor symmetrical pathways. The repetitive scenes of Hall walking through the hallways bordered on obsessive.

The images of water drops on a sunflower get serious screen time, too. We wind up with a sorta "Tree of Life" nature kaleidoscope with a little "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" paranoia -- but never fully developed or committed so that you're actually interested.

This film aimed high, but was in need of a reboot.

1 1/2 stars out of 4

Director: Wally Pfister

Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Clifton Collins Jr.

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

Length: 1:59

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