Artificial intelligence isn't just the villain in the muddled techno-thriller Transcendence. It's also an apt description of the film's script: a cockamamie mishmash of Big Ideas and TED Conference buzzwords that sound smart, but don't compute. Johnny Depp, playing what's probably the closest thing to a villain he's managed in his 30-year career, stars as Dr. Will Caster. He's a maverick brainiac working on a top-secret sentient computer nicknamed ''PINN'' (Physically Independent Neural Network), a colossal wall of servers that resembles one of those hulking old IBM mainframes with menacingly blinking LED lights and the soothing monotone female voice that anyone who's seen 2001 will immediately suspect is up to no good. Depp's Caster has an equally brilliant partner and wife named Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), as well as a rock-&-roll level of nerdy fame. All of which makes him a ripe target for a technophobic band of Earth First!-style terrorists preaching sci-fi doom. After delivering a preposterous lecture at an ''Evolve the Future'' conference, he's shot by one of the terrorists. The wound seems harmless enough until it's discovered that the bullet was laced with polonium. Now he's got a radiation death sentence. With his expiration date quickly closing in, his grieving wife decides against the misgivings of their more levelheaded colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman) to upload his consciousness to PINN. She will do whatever she can to allow him and his work to live on. (This is where a Living Will would have been handy). With a series of electrodes sprouting out of his shaved head, Depp looks like Pinhead (or PINNhead?) from the Hellraiser films crossed with a Radio Shack Chia Pet. And guess what? The experiment works. Depp has become the soul in the machine. But at what price?
Directed by Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan's brilliant cinematographer dating all the way back to 2000's Memento, Transcendence at least looks as great as you'd expect. But the script by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen is so full of half-explained cyber-nonsense and wheezy, kneejerk man-vs.-technology clichés, it borders on the ludicrous. It doesn't help that Depp—the star who will no doubt be the chief reason most folks go to see the film—is reduced to a spectral talking head that appears on video monitors spouting technobabble like some sort of Max Headroom digital messiah. Even worse is just how many good actors are left with little or nothing to do. Hall and Bettany never get to do much more than look increasingly concerned at the disembodied Will's bizarre actions, Freeman all-too-infrequently wanders onscreen to offer Voice-of-God concerns, and poor Kate Mara, as the leader of the luddite resistance, is given the most thankless task of all: popping up to spout manifesto-ready slogans.
Transcendence wants to be a thinking person's film about what the Internet hath wrought, à la The Matrix, questioning our dependence on ones and zeroes instead of human reason. And the film imagines a cyber 9/11 apocalypse that's more numbing than chilling. Watching it all unfold and slowly go off the rails, you can't help but wonder what Pfister's mentor, Nolan, might have done with the same material. My guess is he would have sent the script back for a Page One rewrite for starters. C