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updated: 4/17/2014 1:23 PM

'Transcendence' sputters as science-fiction thriller

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  • Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) comments on the future in the science-fiction thriller "Transcendence."

    Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) comments on the future in the science-fiction thriller "Transcendence."

  • Video: "Transcendence" trailer


The science-fiction thriller "Transcendence" marks Elmhurst native Wally Pfister's feature directorial debut.

It looks sharp, which you'd expect from a movie by the man who won an Oscar for his spellbinding cinematography on Christopher Nolan's own cutting-edge science-fiction thriller "Inception."

Where "Inception" took us places we'd never been before (into levels of the subconscious brain), "Transcendence" recycles old technophobic plots and stock sci-fi characters in a sometimes silly thriller short on thrills and convincing human connections.

"Transcendence" intends to traffic in technological paranoia of the sort popularized by the 1970 classic "Colossus: The Forbin Project," about super computers that join circuitry to take over the world.

But Pfister's film squanders its terrific opportunity to capitalize on the suspenseful suspicion of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" then fails to bring any fresh ideas to the ongoing debate over what exactly constitutes humanity in a near-future world where men and machines menacingly merge.

Dr. Will Caster (a dulling Johnny Depp, whose wild coif is the most interesting thing about his character) addresses an auditorium of students about using technology to improve the planet when an obviously disgruntled man accuses him of creating his own god.

"Hasn't mankind done that all along?" Caster asks.

It doesn't take long for a radical group of Luddites called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) to stage an attack against all major AI (artificial intelligence) national leaders. Someone shoots Caster with a radiated bullet.

Caster's loving scientist wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) knows she must act quickly to save her dying hubby. She and fellow scientist Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload his consciousness into a computer (there's apparently an app for that) and he becomes something resembling an Etch-a-Sketch character on a screen.

Quickly, Caster increases his Will power by taking to the Internet, then building a secret utopian town populated by "hybrids," injured or handicapped humans healed and augmented by Caster's amazing nano-technologies.

Now they're faster, stronger, tougher, better. Oh, and they're also wirelessly linked to Caster like the Borg collective. He can see through their eyes and talk through their vocal chords.

As Caster's powers exponentially increase, RIFT leader Bree (Kate Mara, the only member in a tank top with a Maybelline makeover) and her fellow freedom fighters plot to stop what they view as a threat to humankind.

Fortunately, they receive assistance from Joseph Tagger, yet one more obligatory soulful symbol of reason provided by Morgan Freeman when he's not narrating nature documentaries.

Written by Jack Paglan, "Transcendence" can't quite decide what it wants to say about individualism and the Internet, or about true love between a woman and a digitally Xeroxed man.

It doesn't help that Paglan begins this story with Bettany's unnecessary voice-over narration telling us about his crippled, Internet-deprived world, then jumping back five years earlier to explain how Caster's ascension into the ranks of an Instagram got us there.

It may be an obvious point, but just as actors who direct tend to focus their attentions on actors, cinematographers who direct (Chicago's Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis and John Bailey to name a few) tend to concentrate on the visuals.

This is certainly true in "Transcendence," shot by Jess Hall with lots of artsy slow-motion water drops and carefully composed computer room shots.

They muster about as much emotion as Hall's and Depp's characters who, like the town of hybrids, possess all the personality of a Prius.

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