Johnny Depp stars in "Transcendence," a sci-fi thriller about artificial intelligence run amok. Owen Gleiberman filed the following review for NY1.
Last summer, as a tidal wave of negative publicity washed over "The Lone Ranger," a lot of people agreed that Johnny Depp's career was now stuck in a rut of naval-gazing self-parody. The question no one quite answered is: What could Depp do to get out of the rut?
"Transcendence," a schlocky but not entirely un-entertaining cautionary sci-fi cyber-fable, provides an answer. The movie casts Depp in a role that starts off heroic and then turns foreboding and villainous, and the bad-guy vibes look good on him. They rescue him from those overly familiar deadpan-cheeky Depp doldrums.
Depp plays Will Caster, the world's foremost researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. His dream is to create a machine that combines boundless knowledge with the full range of human emotion. But not everyone thinks that's such a good idea. When Will is attacked by a group of Luddite terrorists who shoot him with a bullet tipped with radiation, he's given just one month to live. His wife and research collaborator, played by Rebecca Hall, then completes one of his experiments by uploading the contents of his brain onto a computer. The result? Will dies, but also lives on as a ghost in the machine. He promises to take mankind into a brave new world of technological regeneration, but the catch is that Will, in his born-again computer state, wants absolute power and control. He's Big Brother meets RoboCop meets the Wizard of Oz.
There's a lot to jeer at in "Transcendence," yet about half the film sort of works as an updated '50s B-movie that channels contemporary anxieties, in this case about the unfathomable reach and manipulation of the Internet. The film is a sci-fi vision of how the online universe often seems to have a mind of its own.
The metaphors percolating around in "Transcendence" are, in their way, effective, and the special effects are pleasing, if only because regeneration is more fun to watch than destruction. Yet I wish that the movie had a better story, and that it let Johnny Depp dip even further into fantasies of dark dominion. It may be about time for him to play a Bond villain - or, more radical still, an evil character who's fully human.