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Nano Tech: ‘Transcendence’ and Small Thinking in Modern Sci-Fi

Johnny Depp, for his part, might actually be out of performances. Without a complete physical transformation and without Tim Burton, he seems in contempt of acting. His face doesn’t move. His rich, bizarrely accented baritone operates without inflection here.

In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a scientist on the verge of an artificial-intelligence breakthrough so world-altering that a faction of Luddite radicals demands that he stop it. After a presentation, one of the radicals (Lukas Haas) shoots Will, but doesn’t kill him because were he to die we’d be on our way home after 12 minutes. No, no: The bullet was laced with poison that leaves Will with only weeks to live, which is long enough for his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), to propose uploading his consciousness into their “physically independent neural network” — PINN. It’s a practical plan, like storing leftovers. So this new home for Will — cables, screens, and servers — basically amounts to very expensive Tupperware.

He speaks to Evelyn from giant monitors, loudspeakers, and earpieces, not about love and romantic existentialism but about location: “We need to get off the grid,” says Will. “Where are you going?” she asks. “Everywhere,” says Will. That’s pretty typical dialogue. Transcendence is a lot more Him than Her. What this computerized Will wants is world domination. He and Evelyn buy a small town in the middle of nowhere, build a lab that stretches for miles in the sort of immaculate space you find only in science-fiction thrillers, and use nanotechnology to turn the townspeople, including Clifton Collins Jr., into a race of indestructible drones and minions — Will calls them hybrids — that builds a farm of solar panels.

The radicals — led by a steely, bottle-blonde Kate Mara and called RIFT (“Revolutionary Independence From Technology”) — get wind of Will’s transmogrification. They kidnap his friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) and try to destroy PINN before Will connects to the Internet. Obviously, they’re too late. Otherwise, we’d be on our way home after 40 minutes. No, no: The radicals need to team up with the FBI (it’s Agent Cillian Murphy!), the military (Colonel Cole Hauser!), plus one of Will’s former colleagues (and Dr. Morgan Freeman!). No one seems to know exactly what Will is up to, but everyone agrees that he and Evelyn must be stopped. They’re in such agreement that certitude crowds out any ominousness.

Jack Paglen is the credited screenwriter, and there’s a serious, important action-adventure at the core of this movie. What we get in the end, though, is skim-milk science fiction. There’s no attempt to complicate the widening philosophical divide between Evelyn and Max, who wears a cross around his neck and is terrified by the implications of Evelyn’s proposal. Max is presented as the film’s moral conscience. First he’s holed up with the Casters, then jailed by RIFT. His sympathies shift, but there’s no drama in the change. A switch just gets flipped.

The Casters speak about their techno-neurobiology as if they’re addressing a new Peace Corps class. (As an indication of the sensibility at work, one of the opening images features a waterdrop parachuting from a sunflower in the slowest-ever motion.) The director of Transcendence is Wally Pfister, a very good cinematographer who’s shot most of Christopher Nolan’s films and is making his first film as a director. Nolan’s an executive producer here, and you can tell what Pfister’s going for, whether he knows it or not: that Nolan feeling. His film approximates the atmosphere of something like Inception, but he doesn’t have material as ornately lunatic. He doesn’t even have an ending to work with.

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This should be a movie about marital obsession, how a wife can’t bear to go on without her husband. It should be a movie about moral-philosophical fanaticism, how the radicals won’t tolerate a world run by technology. You’re permitted to free-associate about what it means for a man to turn not into RoboCop, but Siri. You can think about the perils of government surveillance and maybe experience paranoia about your relationship to your devices. But Transcendence doesn’t induce paranoia, wonder, or suspense. It’s the most incurious film you could make about something as simultaneously preposterous and promising as Johnny Depp the Internet.

As is his occupational wont, Pfister supplies handsome shots of bundled cables, building facades, and code dancing across the screen. He even throws in portentous images photographed through dewy windows, which ought to be part of a chapter in The Beginner’s Guide to Cinematographer Turned Director. He doesn’t yet have the skill to make a movie, even a sheepishly written one, come to life without a vision. It’s helpful to remember that Nolan’s first movie was a sleepy little conceptual number called Following. Pfister’s been permitted to commit creative stagnation at a grander scale. This is skim-milk Nolan, too.

There’s nothing nutty in Pfister’s execution. He’s taking the look seriously. But I don’t go to movies for a look. I go for feeling. The ideas should kick. The energy should pop. The actors should act. If the concept’s craziness can’t come through — and just to be clear, this concept is crazy — shouldn’t the cast’s? Will might surpass the limits of existence, but the actors can’t transcend the script. Hall captures the basic ethical and emotional nightmare of Evelyn’s situation. But the film is too busy to do much with it. Otherwise, you can’t tell Will’s hybrids from everyone else: They’re all body-snatched. There’s a nominally climactic scene in which Freeman, Bettany, Mara, Murphy, Hauser, and a few other people stand on a roof looking at each other and just trading exposition. That’s pretty much the entire movie.

Depp, for his part, might actually be out of performances. Without a complete physical transformation and without Tim Burton, he seems in contempt of acting. His face doesn’t move. His rich, bizarrely accented baritone operates without inflection here. It’s not just a lack of joy. There’s no soul, blood, or pulse, either. Even before Pirates of the Caribbean made him a true movie star, he was an actor who seemed to enjoy acting. Since those films and aside from what he’s done with Burton, he’s become increasingly remote. He’s become the corpse you feared Sean Penn would become after he admitted a disdain for his profession. Depp could have brought a creepy, desperately needed madness to this movie. Instead, he almost literally Skypes it in.

Whatever frustration or bafflement one feels about Shane Carruth’s pair of microscopic magnum opuses — Primer and Upstream Color — they are fundamentally works of and about scientific obsession. You know you’re in the presence of a compulsive, a dreamer. I don’t know how Carruth would fare at the helm of a Transcendence, but certainly he’d bring more to it than a weeping sunflower. Watching Transcendence, I also thought a lot about the insurgent kick of David Cronenberg’s farcical gaming thriller, eXistenZ, and wished that this movie had gone there. Or any, even vaguely kinky place Cronenberg does. When Will proposes a physical surrogate for Evelyn, she recoils in horror. But at that point, if we can’t have actual transcendence, we’ll settle for a little transgression.