Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ghost in the machine

Ponderous sci-fi flick relies on familiar technophobe tropes about the cost of a wired world

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For years, the rumour 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 very smart man transferring his mind to a machine and thus achieving "Transcendence" -- immortality.

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

This thoughtful but windy and winded sci-fi thriller shortchanges the science -- understandably -- and the thrills. The directing debut of Dark Knight cinematographer Wally Pfister is a mopey affair with indifferent performances, heartless romance and dull action. It transcends nothing.

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," SkyNET and 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 he 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.

And since we've seen a San Francisco where keyboards are only useful as door stops and cellphones are just so much worthless litter, we know this is where the trouble starts.

Kate Mara suggests nothing fanatical, clever or fearsome as the leader of the RIFT revolutionaries who tried to kill Caster and who then kidnap Max.

Depp and Hall are supposed to have this Ghost-level love, a romance of longing that drives her actions to save him, in spite of Will's warnings to her.

They don't set off sparks.

Morgan Freeman shows up as a grandfatherly skeptic scientist. Cole Hauser appears as a military man brought in to deal with the growing problem that happens when Will's insatiable brain gets on the Internet, manipulates Wall Street and starts to plan a technological revolution.

The script suggests the miracles that bio-tech has in store for us -- repairing injuries and infirmities with nano-technology, 3D 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.

Depp is a bland presence as a disembodied face on a computer screen. Hall seems to wish she had a flesh-and-blood actor to emote to and Bettany spends far too much time with Mara, who has never been worse in a movie.

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.


-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 G1

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