Last year, Spike Jonze's "Her" envisioned a time when men and computers might fall in love. This wasn't a horror story but a romance, and it broke centuries of science-fiction tradition in which technology is always a fearsome, dehumanizing force. With "Her," the genre seemed to finally exit the anxious 1950s and enter the 21st century.
But here comes "Transcendence," which drags science fiction back to the Cold War era, if not the Stone Age. It's the story of an artificial-intelligence expert, Will Caster, who cheats death by uploading his brain onto a giant server -- "like a song or a movie," says his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). Actually, more like the Heartbleed bug. Will, played by a half-there Johnny Depp (mostly as a televised image), quickly hops onto the Internet and begins controlling Wall Street, human beings and our entire ecosystem. He exists, literally, in the cloud.
"Transcendence" quivers with so many fears (some valid, most preposterous) that it ends up feeling both paralyzed and hysterical. It's worried about "the grid," but also about neo-Luddite terrorist groups like RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). The movie is afraid of computers that speak in icy voices like HAL, of diseases in the form of source-code "cells" and that old bogeyman communism, here represented by an army of soulless, brainless, Bluetooth-controlled humans.
Cobbled together by first-time director Wally Pfister (the Oscar-winning cinematographer of "Inception") from Jack Paglen's incoherent screenplay, "Transcendence" makes no sense even by its own implausible logic. To distract us, there are a half-dozen stock characters, including Paul Bettany as Will's concerned friend Max, Kate Mara as a punkish rebel, Cillian Murphy as an FBI agent and Morgan Freeman as the vaguely titled Dr. Tagger. The dialogue is packed with what's meant to be dazzling techno jargon, but it ranges from antiquated ("Y2K") to campy ("He's fragmented! I'm gonna run a diagnostic").
Nothing in this movie feels authentic, not even its overriding fear of all science and technology, which seems copied from countless old sci-fi films. "Transcendence" is like a reformatted Gateway PC: It doesn't have a thought in its head.
PLOT A dying artificial intelligence expert uploads his consciousness into a computer.
RATING PG-13 (sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)
CAST Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany
BOTTOM LINE The year's first bona fide stinker is an implausible and outdated sci-fi film full of pseudoscience and ancient Windows terminology. Depp's performance could fairly be called "virtual."
'TRANSCENDENCE' DIRECTOR HAS STAR CONNECTIONS
"Transcendence" marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, but he's no stranger to the camera. He's worked as a cinematographer on numerous movies, often with director Christopher Nolan as well as these four "Transcendence" cast members.
MORGAN FREEMAN -- Freeman has played Lucius Fox, the research genius who supplied the Caped Crusader with the Batmobile, in three Nolan-Pfister collaborations -- "Batman Begins" (2005), "The Dark Knight" (2008) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012).
REBECCA HALL -- Hall starred as the doomed wife of an illusionist played by Christian Bale in Nolan's "The Prestige" (2006), a tale of rival magicians in 19th century London that was properly moody thanks to Pfister's cinematography.
CILLIAN MURPHY -- The Irish actor was properly menacing as the villainous Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow, in Nolan's Batman trilogy, and worked with Nolan and Pfister again when he played a tycoon's kidnapped son in "Inception" (2010).
JOSH STEWART -- In "The Dark Knight Rises," Stewart appeared as the evil Bane's right-hand man, Barsad, named after a character in Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."
-- Daniel Bubbeo