It’s Johnny vs. Jesus at the box office this weekend, but which should you see? Depp dulls in Transcendence, but Greg Kinnear makes a real case for Heaven.
Unfortunately for Johnny Depp, he is not Her. That is to say, his largely vocal performance as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence pioneer who uploads his mind into a computer, isn’t nearly as evocative and rich as Scarlett Johansson‘s in last year’s similarly themed Spike Jonze film. Where Johansson was effervescent and engrossing as the operating system Samantha, Depp’s Caster seems bored and detached – but that may not be entirely his fault. Her wisely drilled down to a single question: How will we connect as human beings in our digital future? Transcendence, on the other hand, is a mishmash of a tech drama/romance/disaster flick/eco-thriller that you’ll probably struggle to remember a week later.
The race to perfect Dr. Caster’s work in artificial intelligence is on once a group of anti-tech terrorists set off a series of attacks at labs across the country. While Dr. Caster survives the day, he’s poisoned by a radioactive isotope that leaves him only weeks to live. Spurred by grief and idealism, his partner in life and work, wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), suggests trying to upload Will’s mind onto their mainframe, over the strenuous objections of their friend and fellow futurist, Max (Paul Bettany). Once Will is on the internet, though, it seems that no one can stop him – not Max, not the terrorists (including Kate Mara), not even the government. But is that an inherently awful thing?
Transcendence capitalizes on our shifting fears about technology. It’s scary when Will and Evelyn take over a tiny town east of nowhere and turn it into their digital mecca, complete with its own superhuman army. The couple claims they’re using technology to perfect mankind and save the planet, but are they really? Isn’t absolute power absolutely corrupting? These are interesting questions, but the movie stumbles in exploring them, as it swings between Evelyn’s fierce love for Will and her growing fear of him, while Max gets cozy with the terrorists and Morgan Freeman (as another egghead) mainly stands around looking very anxious about the whole business.
Which isn’t to say that Transcendence is a total loss. Hall is engaging as Evelyn, adding energy and warmth to counter Depp’s disengaged, disembodied Will. The movie largely becomes hers, as Evelyn comes to terms with what she’s helped unleash on the world. Bettany, too, is effective, as a man who may or may not be in love with Evelyn, but who sure as hell doesn’t like the idea of being “improved” by nanobots. Even Mara gets a few nice scenes as terrorist Bree, who actually sounds like the voice of reason in all this madness. But even a string a fine performances can’t overcome the film’s muddled narrative or confused thinking – or the simple fact is that it’s astonishingly difficult to make an engrossing film about computer screens. (Which probably explains why Her was about people.)
Watch It … With Your Kids
If you are a parent who has ever worried about providing for your family, then you most certainly can identify with Sky, the mother bear at the center of Bears. The new DisneyNature documentary, which follows Sky and her two cubs Scout and Amber through their first year as a family, is a fun, kid-friendly affair that doesn’t shy away from the more dangerous aspects of life in the wild. Narrator John C. Reilly (Chicago) brings the right, light tone to the 79-minute doc, which is worth seeing on a big screen if only for the gorgeous views of the Alaskan wilderness.
And don’t assume this is hell on earth
Heaven Is for Real
It couldn’t look like a more painful exercise in holy rolling, but Heaven Is for Real has its heart and its theology in the right place. Greg Kinnear stars as Todd Burpo, a Nebraska minister/electrician/firefighter who couldn’t make two ends meet if they were at the same party. He’s even more broke after a series of health scares, including one that nearly kills his four-year-old son, Colton (newcomer Connor Corum). But Todd’s financial woes are nothing compared to the crisis of faith triggered by Colton, who says that while he was on the operating table, he went to heaven.
Soon, the whole town is up in arms about the boy’s stories. Strangely, the movie (based on the book of the same name) never adequately explains why. It’s particularly odd that a church full of good Christians, including board members played by Thomas Haden Church and the always phenomenal Margo Martindale, would be so discomfited by a little boy’s visions of the afterlife. (Isn’t a belief in heaven kind of a pre-requisite for membership?) But what the film gets absolutely right is the way it presents those visions, and how viewers should take them. If you believe, then embrace that belief, it seems to say. If you don’t, that’s okay too – we can still talk.
It also helps that the characters and cast feel so genuine. The Burpos are like any other young, working-class couple with kids, right down to the active sex life and the struggle to pay bills. Martindale and Church give their characters humor and depth too, as the movie makes them living, breathing members of the community, not just scolds on the church board. Still, no one in the cast, including the compelling Kinnear, or that adorable moppet Corum, can overcome the thinness of the material or lack of narrative thrust (not a lot actually happens after Colton returns from heaven). But for those of faith, or even the merely curious, Heaven Is for Real can make for a comforting, family friendly outing.