1. Transcendence is what Her would be like if Her were made by idiots. All the things that film did right—establish a love story convincing enough to make us believe its crazy premise; scale down a global story for a specific focus; have a weirdo lead actor willing to dial it down and do something real—Transcendence does wrong. It wants to be a parable about the dangers of technology, but it's more like an old man screaming at you to get off his porch with your iPods and your doo-dads. This is the big-budget Hollywood movie your kids will be smirking about for the next 20 years. It's the new The Net.
2. The movie stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a genius celebrity computer programmer—he gives something like a TED talk and is greeted like an eccentric god, not all that differently than how Depp is treated in the real world—who believes he has figured out a way to upload human consciousness into the cloud. (He does this to Make The World a Better Place, rather than eventually enslave humanity.) Handily, mere minutes after his TED talk, he is shot with a polonium-laced bullet, and before he dies, his partner and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), to keep him "alive," uploads his brain. Suddenly, he's self-aware, and once he connects to the Internet, he decides that humanity must be destroyed. I know how he feels sometimes.
3. This is a big, bloated Hollywood movie, so whatever ideas it might have about our reliance on technology and our lack of connection to our own humanity get washed away pretty quickly by all the pointless shootouts and incomprehensible techno-jargon. It's so self-serious that it's inevitably going to be ripe for parody, if enough people even bother to see it to make it worthy of parody—particularly a scene in which Caster, now embodied on a video screen in a house he's built for Evelyn to live in while he amasses his robot army, seems to have a domestic dispute over wine and clanking utensils. (Guys, there's a fight concerning the very nature of human evolution going on right outside. Can this wait?) Transcendence jumps so quickly from plot point to plot point that it forgets its initial premise—that we are becoming too reliant on technology, a notion introduced with thunderous import, as if the film were the first to come up with it—and just becomes a jumbled mess. There are characters who pop in and out of the narrative for no reason—at one point, Kate Mara is a terrorist, and then she's a soldier, and then she just sort of disappears—and I have absolutely no idea what Morgan Freeman is doing here at all. I honestly can't remember a single thing he did, and we're talking about Morgan Freeman here.
4. I wonder if a large part of the problem lies with Depp. This is one of his rare Normal Human Being roles, and maybe he just can't pull them off anymore. What should be "charming egghead" becomes "spaced-out alien man" in his hands; he's so mannered and removed that you don't really believe him as anything these days. This is crucial, because the love story between Will and Evelyn is the crux of the whole film—that she loves him so much and wants to preserve his soul is the driving force of the rest of the narrative. But we never buy that these people are in love, or that Depp could really be in love with anything other than that space far off in the distance that he's been staring at for the last 30 seconds while fussing with his hair and clearing his throat. (Seriously, he acts like he's paid by the tic.) It doesn't help that his Will spends most of the film virtually staring back from an HD screen, addressing characters he's not in the room with. It makes you wonder if Depp only agreed to do the film if they didn't make him leave his townhouse anymore than was absolutely necessary.
5. Transcendence looks fantastic—it's directed by brilliant cinematographer Wally Pfister—and there are moments where you can see what could have been, particularly when it slows down for a moment to just take everything in. (The movie is mostly in a constant, careening sprint.) But its obligation to be a Big Studio Event sneaks out in every scene, and the characters are slaves to a lumbering plot that ultimately ceases to make sense. (Paul Bettany's supporting character, in particular, has no logic at all.) It ends up selling out its own premise anyway, cleaning up any negative thoughts you'd have about Caster because, hey, it was all about love after all. You won't buy it, and you shouldn't. It's gonna be hilarious a couple decades from now, though.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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