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Big brains, bad decisions

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    Will Caster (Johnny Depp) looks down on his cohorts
    Morgan Freeman, left, and Johnny Depp discuss their scientific advances in “Transcendence.”

In most horror movies, the victims can be forgiven for their lack of sense. It’s within the realm of possibility that a hormone-charged slightly dense 17-year-old might open the wrong door, utter the forbidden words or ignore the obvious warnings to get off the mountain.

In "Transcendence," the obtuse adults opening the wrong door are some of the world’s greatest scientific minds.

Real scientists are probably going to hate this film. It suggests they are oblivious narcissists who dive headlong into potential catastrophe with no safeguards, and with little consideration of the morals or consequences. And then, when catastrophe is surrounding them, they make a nice chicken piccata, sip wine and argue about their feelings.

The directorial debut for ace cinematographer Wally Pfister is very watchable, but the narrative flaws and logical leaps sabotage sustained enjoyment. "Transcendence" looks and sounds like a Christopher Nolan film that got attacked by malware.

One huge positive for "Transcendence": It’s never boring. The film has that fascinating vibe that happens when very talented people with a large amount of resources are making something unique. Nolan is the executive producer, and Pfister’s movie has that "Inception"/"Memento" feel, where audiences feel as if they’re on a ride that could go anywhere. This ride just isn’t as much fun.

Rated: PG-13
* *
Opens Friday

Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a Berkeley-based artificial intelligence scientist whose partners have figured out how to upload a primate’s consciousness onto a computer. Caster and his wife/scientific partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), have also been working on a sentient machine, which would never be made by anyone who has seen "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "WarGames." When Caster is seriously wounded by revolutionaries, Evelyn and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) hole up in an abandoned gymnasium and perform surgery, hoping to upload Caster’s consciousness before he dies.

Story problem 1: We’ll assume it’s even remotely possible that this Berkeley gym wouldn’t be inhabited by 47 squatters. And we’ll assume it still somehow has the working electricity to power a bank of supercomputers. Are we supposed to believe that a pair of academics would be capable of performing an on-the-fly intracranial neurosurgery procedure?

From there, "Transcendence" presents itself as a smart movie, while it bombards the viewer with confusing plot turns, huge lapses in logic, protagonists who act against their own interest, and smart characters who are slow to realize the obvious. For every really good story idea, there are two logical problems that will make you shake your head.

Story problem 2: The government, which would have 20 agents assigned to follow Caster’s every move in the real world, appears to assign one midlevel investigator to the case after a terrorism-related tragedy. The revolutionaries are gaining strength? The same investigator is in charge. The fate of mankind hangs in the balance? OK, we’ll let the single FBI agent order around a dozen soldiers, too. But don’t wake up the president. …

So now you have the bad news. While it fails as an airtight sci-fi thriller, "Transcendence" is still a decent "Twilight Zone" episode. The off-putting moments are reminiscent of the science-experiment-gone-wrong themes in the underrated "Splice," or a good David Cronenberg creep-out. The problems seem to rest more with the edits than with the work of "Transcendence" screenwriter Jack Paglen, whose detail-oriented script yields some fun surprises.

And Depp embraces the many complications of being a warped version of humanity, pulling off subtle emotional changes along with one or two bizarre turns. A Depp critic might complain that he’s been uploading all of his performances since 1997. But you wouldn’t want anyone else in this role. (OK, maybe Nicolas Cage …)

Cinema is a better place when filmmakers like Pfister and Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron and Neil Blomkamp can explore new ideas and original scripts, instead of squeezing out the 47th Spider-Man reboot for Disney. Even when the finished product is messy, moviegoers have to be happy that a studio gave someone the chance.

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