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'Transcendence' stuck in tropes

| Thursday, April 17, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
Warner Bros. Pictures
(From left) Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in 'Transcendence'

For years, the rumor 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.

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). And since this tale is told by Max in flashback, from a desolate, off-the-electrical-grid San Francisco in the future, we figure Max 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 into a vast machine and save his life.

And since we've seen a San Francisco where keyboards are only useful as door stops and cell phones 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.

Morgan Freeman shows up as a grandfatherly skeptic scientist, Cole Hauser 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, but there will be a cost, a cost common to sci-fi stories about “the singularity” and the unlimited power it promises.

As Max says, in his narration and elsewhere, this sort of dilemma seems “inevitable” given the state of our wired-in world. 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.

Roger Moore is a staff writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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