Several years back, after Johnny Depp's twin triumphs in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" and the first "Pirates of the Caribbean," I started referring to him as the God Who Walks Among Us. (I think that qualifies as "ironic hyperbole.") Now, in "Transcendence," he actually plays the God Who Walks Among Us or, to be technical, the God Who Walks Among, Around, and Inside Us.
The setup is a variation on old themes: Will (Depp) is a cyber-scientist so brilliant that he actually has fans jockeying around for his autograph. (Of course, some of that may be because he, you know, looks like Johnny Depp, but let's pretend not.) But he prefers privacy and, outside of work, he just wants to spend time with also brilliant wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend, Max (Paul Bettany). Unfortunately a neo-Luddite terrorist group launches a well-coordinated attack that wipes out much of what Will and his colleagues have accomplished. They also poison Will, leaving him only a few weeks to live. Despite Max's misgivings, Evelyn becomes obsessed with the notion of uploading Will's brain into the one supercomputer that still has some of the latest, greatest artificial intelligence work on it.
This is not a new concept for a film, and, if you take, say, "Colossus: the Forbin Project" and crossbreed it with "Lawnmower Man," you know that the new Will (or pseudo-Will) will go mad with power. (This is not a spoiler, since the film opens with a framing device, in which Max gives us a tour of the current, devastated post-Will world.) First-time director Wally Pfister made his name as the cinematographer for all of Christopher Nolan's movies, from "Memento" on. (Nolan and his wife, Emma Thomas, are among the producers.) Those films, for all their virtues, weren't all that memorable in terms of visual style, and it's a pleasure to say that Pfister comes up with more striking images here. The story allows for some almost poetic shots of Will manipulating nanites with his control of the world's entire electronic grid, gently making people and objects repair themselves.
Yes, among his new powers is the ability to, as the old song goes, "heal the sick, raise the dead." He's fashioned himself into a god — a concept that is discussed so often that it can't be considered "subtext." It's right out there in the open. The other major idea throughout the film is whether or not a cybernetic reconstruction of Will's brain and its electrical processes is, in fact, Will. This notion is used as a plot element, but less satisfactorily handled — perhaps because a pat answer to one of the great, inherently unanswerable questions of existence and identity is really a bit too much to ask for.
Depp doesn't have to do much heavy lifting here. For three-quarters of the two-hour running time, his face is just a disembodied, machine-like image on a huge monitor; and his all-knowing voice is almost unmodulated. Will may be a god, but he's a god with a totally flat affect. The fine Clifton Collins, Jr., doesn't get to leave a strong mark either. As one of Will's zombie avatars, he's just part of a hive mind with expressions right out of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Morgan Freeman, not surprisingly, delivers, though it's odd to see him in a movie where someone else gets to play God.
Bettany is excellent, but "Transcendence" is really Hall's show. She makes Evelyn sympathetic even when her love for Will is catalyzing a frightening future.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun