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In Wally Pfister’s new, inflated sci-fi category-buster Transcendence, a federal secret agent, meeting with an FBI guy, asks him, “And the computer controls all this?”

That “computer” is Johnny Depp. Well, actually, it’s Depp’s character, Mark, an AI scientist at Lawrence Livermore Lab who’s dead. That, in a nutshell, is why he’s a “computer.” More accurately, he is infinitely intricate computer software based on Mark’s brain. Welcome to Transcendence, in which Depp adds to his already long resume of freaky-queer performances.

After Mark is mortally wounded in an attack by an anti-cybernetics gang, his desperate wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his colleague Max (Paul Bettany) try to upload the contents of his mind into a computer to extend his existence, more or less. And now he’s the digitalized commander of a neuro-cyber network with an enlarging and more-than-virtual regime based in the California desert, assisted by the conflicted Evelyn.

This may read as more entertaining and provocative than it is. Transcendence, with its vaguely self-congratulatory title, is a plodding, turgid, pop-moralistic vehicle with commonplace, old-fashioned origins. At root it’s no more than a spectacular and bloated reworking of the mad scientist B movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Their stars, often Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, were customarily ridiculous, but more entertaining than Depp and this movie. Its vaunting techno-ethical aspirations are mostly cumbersome and a pretext for Transcendence’s shallow messaging and increasingly uninvolving plotting.

Early on, it raises some disturbing questions that digitalized empowerment has engendered, starting with centralized ability to intrude on and manipulate people’s lives and ideas. (CNN ran a TV screen news crawl the other day that suggested Edward Snowden had won a Pulitzer Prize. He hadn’t, but he has impacted the way that power can be justified.) But before long it settles into plot busyness and bromides.

Depp’s acting as the pre-dead Mark is a little subdued and mannered. Afterwards, he damps it down a little more and intones mechanically. The rest of the cast, including Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, act like they’re trying to maintain their earnestness as the picture expands emptily.

The debut direction of Wally Pfister (previously a cinematographer for most of Christopher Nolan’s films) doesn’t suggest much of a game plan beyond relying on Jess Hall’s frequently striking photographic effects and compositions, sometimes losing control of the proceedings with careless editing and the script’s sentimentality and muddles.

This is a movie that seeks to communicate by having Max, increasingly remorseful at what he’s helped Evelyn do, admonishes her, “Human emotion contains illogical conflicts.” Well, okay. It ends on a slow-motion closeup of a dewdrop falling from a flower. You have to do a lot better than Transcendence has to get away with stuff like that.

Watch the trailer for Transcendence

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