'Transcendence' (PG-13)

Transcendence is Her for dummies, a romance between a woman and a machine for people who care more about technology, pixels and special effects than the things in life that matter. The movie marks the debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister, a frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator, and you can picture him sitting at home at Oscar night, shaking his fists and yelling at the TV when Spike Jonze won the Best Original Screenplay award for Her. Judging by the size and scope of the movie, Pfister probably started working on his film first. But there are too many similarities not to compare the two pictures, and there isn’t a single instance in which Pfister comes out on top, aside from the number of shots of Johnny Depp speaking into a futuristic Skype camera.

Why pay the notoriously costly actor his typically enormous salary when he’s barely in the movie? That could be Max Headroom macking on Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston up there, and you wouldn’t notice the difference.

The premise of Transcendence, which was written by Jack Paglen (who should invest his paycheck wisely), follows what happens when the terminally ill Depp comes up with a groundbreaking idea to plug himself into a mammoth computer — an enormous, sentient machine with advanced artificial intelligence — and see if he can continue to live virtually when his body dies on him. His wife and loyal partner (Rebecca Hall) goes along with the plan, if only for the possibility of not losing her husband.

As FBI/NSA agents, Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy see nothing wrong with this idea, even if Depp would gain instant control of every computer and smart device on the planet if he succeeds. Hey, what’s a little God complex among between friends, right?

Only two people in the movie seem to have any common sense at all: Paul Bettany, as another of Depp’s fellow scientists, who isn’t too sure this whole let’s-give-this-guy-control-of-the-planet enterprise is a good idea, and Kate Mara (as driven here as she is on House of Cards), who is part of a terrorist organization plotting to pull the plug on this bunch of not-so-bright brainiacs.

Transcendence is filled with preposterous, you-gotta-be-kidding-me story elements you can’t stop to think about or else you’ll start craving a trip to the concession stand — anything to stave off the boredom. Wouldn’t the government, which has drones in outer space that can give you a ticket for running a red light, notice a gigantic solar-powered laboratory the size of a university that pops up in a dusty town overnight like a weed?

As Depp’s powers grow, his performance becomes more and more HAL-like (HAL remains the grandmaster of evil machines), and after he starts seizing physical control of people and giving them super-strength, I kept waiting for him to break out with a Dr. Evil laugh.

For all its improbabilities, Her explored the intricacies of romantic relationships and how much they hurt when they end while giving you plenty of neat eye-candy. Transcendence is a movie that, aside from a few scenes where he’s walking around in a suit, Depp could have shot in his living room while instant-messaging his agent about the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie. That prospect, torturous as it sounds, is a better alternative than this.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy.
Director: Wally Pfister.
Screenwriter: Jack Paglen.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 119 minutes. Vulgar language, sci-fi inanity. Playing at area theaters.