‘Transcendence’ lacks the wonder posed by its big questions

Inside “Transcendence” is a 1950s B-movie, desperately trying to get out. A tale of a scientist poisoned by radiation, his brilliant mind passed on to survive after his death? That could easily be the plot of an atomic-era cheapie.

This movie, however, is distinctly of the 21st century. And expensive. The scientist is Will Caster (Johnny Depp), and he’s been working on a way to upload the human brain into a computer system.

With the help of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend (Paul Bettany), both scientists themselves, he achieves this goal. Because of the terminal illness, the experiment turns to Caster’s own brain.

The film makes a stab at big subjects: There’s a “neo-Luddite” group running around trying to stop technology, and a giant complex out in the desert for the machines needed to handle cyber-Caster’s new artificial intelligence.

Can this entity become a new god on the Earth, capable of healing the sick and joining together all life at the cellular level? And can it do anything about the cable-TV monopolies?

Alas, these questions are less enthralling than they might sound. “Transcendence” is mostly a jumble, a weirdly slack experience with a great deal of impressive hardware but not enough actual wonder.

It’s the directing debut of Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” This is an example of how a talented photographer is not necessarily a fine director — the movie seems to lose its train of thought within scenes, and it never can think of a way to usefully deploy Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy (in supporting roles that require a great deal of standing around).

The phenomenon of the Internet is something filmmakers have tried to bring visually to life — “The Fifth Estate” being a recent clumsy example. There’s a little of that here, with the usual awkward results.

Johnny Depp, by design, spends a lot of his performance as a disembodied voice or digitized image on a screen. That must have something to do with why the usual spark is missing.

Rebecca Hall ends up carrying much of the film, which is not a bad thing. The “Iron Man 3” star is more than capable, but here she spends too much time staring at computer screens.

It’s a peculiar film. Even the sure-fire gotcha moments don’t land with the expected punch. Maybe it needs a little more B-movie moxie — more humor, less weight, and Depp a little more off the leash.

“Transcendence” (2 stars)

The brain of a scientist (Johnny Depp) is uploaded into a powerful online system — a B-movie idea blown up into expensive but oddly unenthralling size. The movie tries to tackle big subjects, but can’t even land its sure-fire gotcha moments. With Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

Opening: Friday at Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe,Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Thorton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Cascade Mall and Oak Harbor Plaza.

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