The Lawnmower Man, Max Headroom and Johnny Depp walk into a bar. They get drunk and decide to make a movie.
“Transcendence” shows what happens when big dreams and grand ambition meet incredibly flawed execution, like backyard wrestling, the Sochi Olympics and Denny’s Sushi Grand Slam. OK, I made that last one up.
And like his two drinking buddies in this scenario – who you may have to Google –Depp could also be headed toward becoming a pop culture fossil – a $2,000 Double Jeopardy question or “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” co-host – without a dramatic course correction.
OK, maybe that’s not fair. “The Lawnmower Man” was actually an enthralling Stephen King story before it became a throwaway B-movie about virtual reality-infused smarts. And talking head A.I. pioneer Max Headroom had his own sweet British movie and TV series before becoming a shill for Coke commercials.
But onto the movie, in which Depp plays Will Caster, the world’s foremost expert on A.I. (artificial intelligence) technology. His brain is just a wee bit bigger than that of his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), research buddy, Max (Paul Bettany), and friendly competitor, Joe (Morgan Freeman). That puts him atop the hit list of extreme anti-technology sect, which coordinates attacks against the field’s best and brightest, leaving Will wilting with a bullet wound and radiation sickness.
That’s when Will and Evelyn get an awesome idea: let’s upload his brain to the Internet, so that when he dies, that spongy mass between his ears lives on forever like the AOL “You’ve got mail” voice. The technology behind this procedure is very complicated, so much so that first-time Director Wally Pfister – the cinematographer behind “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” – doesn’t bother to waste his time explaining it to us lay folk. But I think it’s kinda like when the two dudes wore bras on their heads and hooked up a car battery to a Barbie doll in “Weird Science.”
Will makes his dream of transcendence come true, as he swallows up the Internet, becomes borderline omnipotent, and shows up as a floating head on computer monitors for the second half of the flick. God, I wonder what he’s paying Comcast a month…
The preposterous setup leads us down subplots about life-saving nanotechnology, mind-controlled agriculture and shared, community thinking. Curiously and thankfully, the whole science vs. religion subplot is pretty much dropped after the film’s first five minutes. I think that’s because Pfister needed more screen time to devote to close-up, slow motion shots of water dribbling off leaves and flower petals. That’s really his money shot. That and showing a bored Morgan Freeman awkwardly standing in the corner.
“Transcendence” is the type of movie where we know folks are academics because they wear dusty jackets, where we want to LOL at lines that are designed to heighten the drama, and where metaphors are delivered with the subtly and nuance of a giant ACME airdrop for Wile E. Coyote. Ohhh, in a post-Internet world, keyboards are only useful as doorstops? I think I get it…
Oh, if only I had some rocket-powered roller skates to escape this mess...
“Transcendence,” rated PG-13 and with a running time of 119 minutes, is now playing nationwide. Mike gives “Transcendence” 1/5 stars.