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Photo by Peter Mountain - Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment.

Transcendence is a good film that aspires to greatness and falls a bit short. Jack Paglen’s screenplay grapples with the always-relevant question of how far science can, or should, go toward creating artificial intelligence. Yet despite the modern setting and visual effects it’s reminiscent of cautionary tales dating back to Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. The ultimate lesson: there are some things man was not meant to know.

Suspense is muted by the movie’s flashback framework, which reveals the overall ending in the opening scene. Knowing this undercuts the narrative impact of everything that follows, to some degree; it’s just a matter of learning the particulars. Fortunately, the story is provocative and original enough to hold our interest.

Johnny Depp plays a world-renowned scientist who is the victim of a terrorist attack; as his life ebbs away, his devoted wife (Rebecca Hall) decides to upload the artificial “brain” he’s been developing. His body may be shutting down, but she hopes his mind will live on. His best friend and colleague (Paul Bettany) tries to persuade her that the artificial intelligence won’t really be “him” any more, but she persists. Trouble ensues, big time.

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Photo by Peter Mountain - Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment.

My terse synopsis doesn’t embrace the story’s finer points or capture the heartbeat of the movie, which comes from solid performances in the leading roles. It’s nice to see Depp playing someone relatively normal for the first time in a long while; he and Hall make a good, credible couple. Bettany (in possibly the most normal role he’s ever played) is equally persuasive as their closest ally. Morgan Freeman brings his usual authority to a role that demands little of him, and other supporting parts are well filled.

Yet for all its high-minded ideas and eye-opening effects, Transcendence could be reduced to a short-subject without losing much. Once we get the idea of an all-powerful super-intelligence taking over the world, the specifics are just so much window dressing. This may be part of a greater challenge facing science-fiction writers trying to keep ahead of day-to-day reality—or moviemakers trying to find concepts that can shock a modern audience—but I felt more alarmed by the future world domination laid out in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In his directorial debut, cinematographer Wally Pfister never lets the impressive visuals eclipse his characters. One could actually describe the film as a love story complicated by science, rather than a futuristic yarn in which a couple become entangled. Transcendence is well-crafted on every level, and while it was executive produced by Pfister’s longtime collaborator, Christopher Nolan, it is neither pretentious nor self-serious, I’m happy to report. (It was shot on motion picture film, a medium both Pfister and Nolan are trying to keep alive. I saw it in a digital IMAX presentation where it looked exceedingly good.)

Unlike many major studio releases, this one doesn’t aim for the lowest common denominator, and for that I am grateful. I’m only sorry the movie didn’t engage my heart and mind as it sets out to do.