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'Transcendence' Is So Bad You'll Start to Feel Sorry for Johnny Depp

Warner Brothers

I can save you some time; there are weeks and years when film critics have no higher purpose than that. Emerging from the mouth of Moloch in the same gasp as the new movie, Transcendence, is a featurette interview with its actress Rebecca Hall. The interview is about eight minutes—Transcendence is 119. There’s the deal. Ms. Hall is placed off to one side of the screen in a simple but affecting dark-blue plunge-neck dress. And she has an air of dawning distress that is more persuasive than anything coming from her character in this dogged movie. You can imagine, along the way, as Transcendence was being made, that people took her aside, and warned her about this chore:

“Rebecca, you know it’s coming, don’t you? At some time in the foreshortened future history of human intelligence, when we’re promoting this turkey, someone is going to have to go on camera and say what Transcendence is about. Sure, we had hoped that Johnny would do it. But what does $20 mill and 15 percent of the gross get you these days? He flat out refuses—he said he felt his presence on the picture should transcend the plot, et cetera. Especially the et cetera. Cool, huh? So it’s you, Rebecca, and don’t think this good turn will be forgotten.” (Is that a threat about a sequel?)

Yes, I made that up, and I’m sure Johnny Depp never said such a thing. But there’s the actual Rebecca Hall fiddling with her hair, flexing her long pale arms, scratching an elbow, blushing, suppressing a giggle, avoiding eye contact and doing her best to remember or invent what happens in Transcendence. She has been around some years now, and she’s a loyal team player. She has paid her dues, and sometimes—above all in Parade’s End for television—she has been brilliant. But this is asking her to go beyond duty. How is she supposed to remember, or notice, what happens in this ridiculous movie? This is excruciating embarrassment: eight minutes in which you can feel an English rose wilting. And you know she knows that even if she sat up the night before this interview studying the film’s script—by Jack Paglen—it’s still arrant nonsense. So she stumbles through the stuff about rarefied and overweening artificial intelligence in a movie where no one displays a shred of old-fashioned smarts or common sense. Like asking, why do this junk?

You know Rebecca. She’s an appealing, decent, hard-working actress who keeps a straight face in most of the real movie and manages to be less than exhausted by her own wide-eyed gob-smacked close-ups, where she gazes into a screen and sees the zombie visage of Dr. Will Caster (Depp), her husband and the pioneering figure in neurological intelligence research (Couldn’t you guess that the husband would be that much closer to the Nobel Prize than she is?) The poster for the film begs for a counter-punch: printed over a gloomy close-up of Depp there is the warning, “Yesterday Dr. Will Caster Was Only Human.” To which we might add, “And the Day Before Johnny Depp was an Actor.” 

Here is what the film is about: Dr Will is a brain scientist. Libertarian terrorists shoot him because they’re afraid of his meddling with nature. But his wife saves his brain by uploading it. Then the brain takes over and turns chilly and power-minded (You know the way brains are). Until the wife sighs and takes charge…

There’s another trailer in which Warner Brothers have actually added a line in which Morgan Freeman says, “If we don’t stop him this could be the end of human life as we know it.” If only! If only some Will Caster could take over movie projects like this and squeeze the last gross points out of them. If only Morgan Freeman was not reduced to playing these graybeard authority figures who hug the heroine and look anxious about the fate of the world. Freeman may be vice-president or head of some malign uber-organization in film after film. He does both with the same weary mannerisms, and it’s a disgrace.

The matter of Depp is close to despair. He was once a sly, elusive intelligence with a rare whimsical touch. He was never really a lead actor, but he did good work from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to Ed Wood and Donnie Brasco. But he fell into bad or easy company with Jack Sparrow and the providence that brought vast plunder on a wink and a leer. Then all of a sudden the world turned on The Lone Ranger. He looks his age now, sour and depressed; and he really shouldn’t play a character where the body is dying and the intelligence is thriving—let’s just say he isn’t natural casting in either direction. He looks like someone who had a face-lift, but the brain got left behind. Depp is fifty now, and he should have the wit to appreciate that the great American public does not like fifty or want to be reminded of it. Quite literally, as you watch Transcendence you begin to realize that you no longer know, or care, what Johnny Depp looks like.

It’s not just that a script is claimed for this film. For a few years it was said to be one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Does that say more about the script, the level of competition, or the horrors that overtook this production? In any event, Paglen has now been promoted to write Prometheus II, weird proof that the system’s best treatment for a bad picture is a sequel. This film is directed by Wally Pfister, director of photography on several Christopher Nolan films—notably Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. Those are visionary pictures, to be sure, and Inception has extraordinary beauty, all of which goes to prove that cameramen should not be given too much encouragement to direct films. Synthetic intelligence proved a rich subject with Sean Young and Rutger Hauer as poignant androids in Blade Runner. Artificial Intelligence, itself, thirteen years ago, was not perfect, but Spielberg, Haley Joel Osment, and Jude Law found a pathos in computerized beings that Pfister does not know how to see. It’s a further evidence of his limitation that he boasts that Transcendence was shot on film! (As opposed to a hard drive.) You wouldn’t know.

Maybe the kindest thing to wonder about Transcendence is if Depp ever read the script. As for intelligence in the movies—the track record is lousy.