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‘Transcendence’: Johnny Depp in a bold, beautiful flight of futuristic speculation

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) science's reigning rock star commands every room he enters 'Transcendence.' |  Warner Bros.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp), science's reigning rock star, commands every room he enters in "Transcendence." | Warner Bros.

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Dr. Will Caster Johnny Depp

Max Waters Paul Bettany

Evelyn Caster Rebecca Hall

Joseph Tagger Morgan Freeman

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Wally Pfister and written by Jack Paglen. Running time: 119 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: May 19, 2014 1:09PM

“By mid-century, it could become commonplace to interact with computers directly with the mind. … We may simply give mental commands and our wishes will be silently carried out by tiny chips hidden in the environment.” — Michio Kaku, “The Future of the Mind.

When we meet the scientists Will and Evelyn Caster, they’re the greatest couple maybe ever.

They’re a brilliant team, in the laboratory and at home. Will and Evelyn are on the verge of achieving revolutionary breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence — AND they’re the kind of effortlessly charismatic couple with a perfectly appointed home, a great wine always breathing on the dining-room table and perfect music wafting from an old-fashioned turntable stereo. Plus they’re played by Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall, so they’re beautiful to boot.

And then one evening something terrible and sudden and shocking and tragic happens, and suddenly Will has only a few weeks to live, and that’s when “Transcendence” begins morphing into a thriller of the mind and soul with echoes of everything from “A.I.” to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Blade Runner” to “The Matrix.”

Directed by Wally Pfister, the cinematographer extraordinaire who lensed a half dozen films for Christopher Nolan (including all three “Dark Knight” movies), “Transcendence” is a bold, beautiful, sometimes confounding flight of futuristic speculation firmly rooted in the potential of today’s technology.

It’s the kind of movie that will have some viewers laughing at the audacious turns and twists. It’s a movie that had me thinking, “Wait, how did THAT just happen?,” on more than one occasion. The ending was underwhelming, and it raised at least as many questions as it answered.

And yet. What a stunning piece of work.

It’s hardly a spoiler alert when the trailer and the very poster for the film tell you what’s in store, but still, I urge you to proceed with caution and I pledge not to give away too much.

Depp is perfectly cast as Will, a slightly mad scientist, the kind of guy who probably considers Albert Einstein a fashion role model as well as a scientific role model, but can’t help but command every room he enters. Will’s the reigning rock star of his field. When he gives speeches, young men and women ask for his autograph.

“Imagine a machine with the full range of human emotion,” says Will in a presentation to a jam-packed auditorium. “Its analytical power will be greater than the collective intelligence of every person in the history of the world. Some scientists refer to this as the singularity. I call it transcendence.”

Shortly after Will utters those mind-boggling, awe-inspiring and slightly frightening words, a radical anti-technology terrorist group unleashes a series of attacks on labs across the country, killing a number of prominent geniuses and effectively erasing decades of research.

Will is shot. The bullet only grazes him, but it’s coated with a deadly toxin that will end his life within weeks. It’s a perfectly convenient plot device that gives Will, Evelyn and their best friend Max (Paul Bettany, who has nearly as much screen time as Depp) enough time to rig up a secret lab where they will attempt to upload every single thought, memory and personality trait of Will in an effort to keep the essence of Will alive after Will’s body gives out.

“Transcendence” doesn’t spend a lot of time on the spiritual ethics of such an experiment. There’s no discussion of any religion, so one assumes Will and Evelyn are not people of faith. (I was also left wondering why two of the greatest minds on the planet didn’t reproduce. Maybe they were afraid their kid would turn out to be an actual superhero.)

There is, however, much consternation about the ethics of this experiment, mostly on the part of Max. Evelyn’s love for Will is so strong she loses all sense of perspective when he appears to have returned. Sure, it’s beyond creepy that Will exists only as a voice and a moving image on a flat screen, like the next version of the Scarlett Johansson character in “Her.”

And when Will starts talking about acquiring bank codes and amassing tremendous wealth and building a secret underground bunker in New Mexico, you’d think Evelyn would get worried, but no. She’s just thrilled to have her honey back, especially when he can “remember” how they first met and he says “welcome home” every time she returns from that bunker.

Weird stuff. Morgan Freeman (who else?) plays Joseph Tagger, a mentor to Evelyn and Will who can’t believe his eyes when he first encounters Will 2.0. Cillian Murphy is the FBI agent convinced the A.I. version of Will is going to accumulate so much power and intelligence he’ll become the greatest threat to freedom the world has ever known. Kate Mara, all eyeliner and intensity, is Bree, the leader of the anti-technology group that seems less and less crazed as the story unfolds.

The screenplay for “Transcendence” from first-timer Jack Paglen is dense and fast and wildly imaginative and sometimes baffling. We get that Will is rapidly absorbing every bit of data available on the Internet and he’s using his ever-increasing intelligence to cure the sick and heal the planet, but then he starts developing skills that make him seem more like Loki from the “Thor” movies than a half-human, half-computer creation. You either go with it or you don’t. I went with it, even when multiple characters begin to sound exactly like Will.

Deep gives one of his most interesting performances, in part because he’s not wearing an elaborate costume or affecting some crazy accent. In fact he uses only his voice and his face for much of the performance. Rebecca Hall is the heart and soul of the film as Evelyn. Bettany and Freeman and a half-dozen other familiar faces are solid.

It’s little wonder the man who photographed “Inception” was intrigued by such a challenging puzzle of a thriller. This is the best kind of science fiction. I’ll bet Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling would have applauded this material.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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