10 Years Ago, Johnny Depp Made a Sci-Fi Movie So Bad He Literally Phoned It In

10 Years Ago, Johnny Depp Made a Sci-Fi Movie So Bad He Literally Phoned It In

In 2023, part of the SAG-AFTRA strike was all about actors trying to prevent themselves from getting replaced by AI. But weirdly, 10 years ago, Johnny Depp made a movie in which he replaced himself with an AI on purpose. If you missed Transcendence when it hit theaters on April 18, 2014, what you’ll find is an unintentionally prescient sci-fi flick in which, in an effort to create a cautionary tale about AI, causes star Johnny Depp to be barely present in his own movie.

Transcendence is a bad sci-fi movie, but it’s also a lot of fun to watch today and to think about. Not because the movie was positing anything particularly profound, but because the story feels like it was written 40 years ago, not 10.

Transcendence stars Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall as a husband-and-wife science duo named Will and Evelyn Caster. Fresh from Iron Man 3 (2013), in which she played a reluctant scientist barely tolerating a belligerent genius, Hall was briefly typecast as essentially the exact same character in Transcendence. To make matters stranger, Transcendence is basically a movie about what would happen if a faux Tony Stark died, and stuck his consciousness into Jarvis. In fact, it’s really too bad that Transcendence wasn’t some kind of MCU project. Had that been the case, the comic-booky world-building of this movie might have been more plausible.

Anyway. The Casters are really great at making money off of tech, and Will Caster is down with all sorts of AI. When an anti-tech extremist group called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) shoots Will in the first third of the movie, it’s decided that the only way to save him is to — of course — upload that Depp brain into a computer. From “Spock’s Brain” to 3 Body Problem, this is a time-honored sci-fi trope, and had Transcendence been a 45-minute episode of Black Mirror, this probably would have all been fine. But, even at a breezy two hours, Transcendence feels long, if only because Depp spends the majority of the movie talking to everyone via flatscreens, making him like a bummer version of Max Headroom, or a sad, spiritual sequel to Lawnmower Man 2. How much of this did Johnny Depp film on set? Was Rebecca Hall acting with a flatscreen TV for most of the movie?

Surprising no one, Johnny Depp becomes a bargain-basement Bond villain with a cyberpunk twist. He even creates a weird villain hideaway in the middle of the desert, which feels very much like the location of a bunker that Elon Musk would willingly move into in real life. From there, using Borg-like nanotech, Will starts to try and take over the world in the most vague way possible. Because of the man-behind-the-curtain aspect of Depp’s performance, this super-obvious plot point doesn’t really work for the twin reasons that you’re both not worried about his evil plans working out, and equally unconcerned that the “good” characters will stop him.

Rebecca! He’s right behind you! And...he’s a computer!

Warner Bros

In fairness, director Wally Pfister — Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer on The Dark Night trilogy, Inception, and Memento — shoots all of this admirably. Instead, what makes Transcendence so strange is that very deliberate and artful filmmaking was used to tell a phoned-in story about AI. It’s clear that Pfister shot the town of Brightwood on location — and the New Mexico desert lends the third act of the film a degree of Breaking Bad grittiness.

But, in the end, Transcendence is just a movie about a fairly unlikely character doing unlikable things with AI. In 2014, AI fears couldn’t be articulated quite the way they are now, but even so, the use of science fiction ideas about non-biological sentience seems closer to pulp sci-fi that lived in the shadow of Asimov. Hell, even the AI of Asimov and Philip K. Dick have more nuance than Transcendence.

That said, Transcendence did get one thing right about the rise of tech bros and runaway AI. Will Caster was an a**hole before he got uploaded into his AI creation. And he was an even bigger a**hole later. All AI did was give him a bigger platform.

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