After an intriguing start, "Transcendence" — aka "The Computer Wore Johnny Depp's Tennis Shoes" — offers roughly the same level of excitement as listening to hold music during a call to tech support.
You can feel the audience hanging in there for a while, as first-time feature director Wally Pfister, working from a script by first-time writer Jack Paglen, sets up the film's artificial intelligence premise. The prologue takes place five years in the future and reveals a city (Berkeley, Calif.) bereft of electricity and pass codes and any sort of online activity. Everyone's biking everywhere, through apparent ruins, and although it's supposed to look menacing and dystopian, I thought it seemed nice and quiet.
Like much speculative fiction, "Transcendence" is in thrall to the notion of revolutionary technology even as it warns of the energy demands of unleashed, unchained AI especially as applied to the face, voice and aura of a bona fide movie star. Depp, who essentially Skypes in his performance, plays Dr. Will Caster. He and his researcher wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), have pioneered AI experiments inching the human race ever-closer to "transcendence," the ability to imbue a fantastically powerful computer with the personality, memories and foibles of a human being.
Then anti-tech terrorists launch a series of attacks, and Dr. Caster is critically injured in an assassination attempt. At death's door he enlists Evelyn and a fellow AI whiz (Paul Bettany) to digitize the good doctor's big brain, thereby "saving" the best of the dying man and allowing him to live on in the form of a machine, all-knowing, all-seeing, thirsty for knowledge and with the attractive, implacable face of Johnny Depp.
Much of the film takes place in the computer-doctor's desert lair, where Caster and company build a team of "hybrids" (superhuman humans with impressive gas mileage), much to the chagrin of the FBI and other authority figures. Cillian Murphy has virtually nothing of interest to do as the federal agent looking worried alongside Morgan Freeman's wise owl of a computer expert, who knows the Casters are going too far once they get around to reordering Earth's organic matter.
In story terms "Transcendence" struggles to make the human square-offs and factions interesting. In visual terms, director Pfister, a longtime cinematographer of tremendous skill, has a few things to learn. Compared to many other effects-dependent pictures lately, this one's on the easygoing (if not plodding) side. Now and then there's a quick, sharp image that works, such as the initial computer-screen indication — "Is anybody there?" Caster types from the other side — the audience sees but the Hall and Bettany characters do not. Too often the actors mill around waiting for some momentum to build, or for some visual dynamism to emerge in the staging of the copious and awkward dialogue.
Spike Jonze's great 2013 film "Her" dealt with many of the what-ifs "Transcendence" explores, tentatively. For most of the film's increasingly listless second half, we're stuck watching a vaguely bored Depp, his face floating, Wizard of Oz-like, on the nearest monitor, dutifully pulling the strings on a scenario allowing for anything and everything to happen. The doctor's super-duper-AI abilities allow him to heal the halt, the lame and the blind, even. But is this progress? The movie's a cyber-"Frankenstein," with Depp as both the visionary mad scientist and the experiment. It has everything except a sense of urgency and visual magic. And those are two pretty big things.
"Transcendence" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)
Running time: 1:59
Opens: 8 p.m. ThursdayCopyright © 2015, RedEye