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Despite Depp, Transcendence compromised by spotty plotting

Intriguing ideas abound in Transcendence, an existential science-fiction head-spinner marking a directorial debut, but unfortunately only a few of those ideas are developed in a credible fashion. The directorial debut of noted cinematographer Wally Pfister is not a bad movie, but it comes dangerously close at times.

Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who’s been poisoned by anti-technology terrorists. Scientist wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and scientist friend Max (Paul Bettany) are able to successfully “download” Will’s memories and personality, thereby keeping him alive – or on-line, in any case. But with this untold power, of course, comes great responsibility, and the potential for global consequences.

There have been variations on this basic theme before (The Colossus of New York, RoboCop, The Lawnmower Man, Demon Seed, TV’s “Max Headroom” and even Frankenstein – although in this case the scientist becomes his own monster), and given the talent involved here, one would have hoped for a more compelling, convincing rendering than this.

There’s a capable cast on hand, with Depp sympathetic as the “human” Will and suitably enigmatic as the digital version. Hall brings a palpable sense of romantic will to her role, which is actually the pivotal one in the film. Unfortunately, everyone else is more or less wasted: Morgan Freeman (cast to type as a wise mentor), Cillian Murphy (FBI man), Kate Mara (steely-eyed terrorist), Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr. and Bettany, who narrates the film.

When it’s not tripping up on its own technology, the screenplay (credited to Jack Paglen) is also burdened with some major narrative gaps and lapses into contrived convention. When Max is abducted by the antitech contingent, no one seems to notice. As Evelyn, with Will’s disembodied guidance, constructs a hi-tech haven in a remote desert town almost overnight, it’s years before anyone investigates. That’s just weak storytelling, and it hurts the overall film.

The climactic battle between the forces of Will and his enemies is hackneyed, routine shoot-’em-up action … and it’s yet another difficult notion to accept, in this already (very) shaky context, that the FBI would work in conjunction, even surreptitiously, with the very terrorists the agency has been pursuing supposedly for years.

A few of the film’s ideas retain interest, and it’s no surprise that it looks terrific (courtesy cinematographer Jess Hall) and boasts snazzy visual effects. From time to time, there are a few emotionally touching moments and some provocative (and prophetic?) notions about mankind’s reliance on technology. But in the end Transference ranks as both a misfire and a missed opportunity.

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