Johnny Depp’s ‘Transcendence’ is a stumble, not a fall; he’ll be back


Maybe it’s the worn-out fedora. Or the tattoos. Or the jingle-jangle of all those baubles, bangles and beads he often wears when venturing out in public.

It might be the way his voice seems to be permanently altered as a mash-up of his two idols — Hunter S. Thompson and Keith Richards. Or that he’s making a fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — no matter what you think of the idea.

Or maybe it’s because he owns an island and you don’t.

Whatever the reason, when Johnny Depp’s latest movie, the sci-fi mind-bender “Transcendence,” opened recently to bad reviews and indifferent business, many observers seemed just a little too happy to proclaim the 50-year-old actor over-and-out as a movie star, continuing the backlash that began last summer when “The Lone Ranger” rode into box-office oblivion. “Young Johnny Depp Would Hate Old Johnny Depp” jeered a headline on New York magazine’s Vulture website. That would be true, I suppose, if a budding actor imagined a career that included three Oscar nominations, more than $6 billion in movie tickets sold and the creation of a genuinely beloved, iconic character as a betrayal of his youthful ideals.


But that’s probably not the case here.

Fact is, since fleeing the TV show “21 Jump Street” and the collateral damage of teen idoldom 25 years ago, Depp has done it his way, pursuing a career as a character actor along the lines of a verse that director Tim Burton composed years ago when they began making movies together. “There was a young man, everyone thought was quite handsome, so he tied up his face and he held it for ransom.”

The most surprising thing about “Transcendence” may well be that Depp isn’t hiding his mug underneath thick makeup or sporting some elaborately constructed hat or costume. His face is front and center on the film’s one-sheet, part of it pixelated to convey the movie’s story of Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher whose consciousness is uploaded onto the Internet. Walking-talking Depp is seen only at the beginning of the movie. For much of “Transcendence,” Depp is disembodied, a ghost in the machine, if that. We’re never sure how much of Will’s essence survived the upload, which, understandably, gives his wife (and research partner) pause. It’s a love story framed as an examination of what makes us human.

It’s an ambitious movie — and not altogether successful in realizing its many enthusiasms. It’s also an odd headlining choice for an actor, particularly one as physically gifted as Depp, since it consigns him to spectral status for most of its running time. But at least it contains ideas. When I caught up with it (along with five other people) at a recent matinee, trailers for half a dozen movies played in front of it, all of them sequels or prominently featuring some combination of spandex and capes. Following that parade, “Transcendence,” even in its most predictable stretches, felt like an act of defiance.

As did “The Lone Ranger,” last summer’s would-be franchise tent pole that, thanks to incessant harping over production delays and budget overruns, arrived in theaters with the stench of failure. But this was a bold movie in every respect, an entertaining, dazzling western made in the spirit of Spielberg and Sergio Leone that looked at the mythology of America’s westward expansion with a progressive sensibility that you wouldn’t expect from either producer Jerry Bruckheimer or the Walt Disney Co. The French loved it (of course) with critic Jacky Goldberg reading “Ranger” as an assertion that “America was founded on the theft and unlawful killing of Indians and the exploitation of Chinese immigrants to build the train.”

That’s one way of looking at it. My kids just dug — hi-yo! — the horse playing Silver and the way Depp gave Tonto a deadpan dignity that brought to mind Buster Keaton, a good two decades after young, idealistic Johnny paid tribute to the silent film star in the beautiful, absurdist romance “Benny & Joon.”

But that career through-line likely went unappreciated by the writer of a recent story on the website Jezebel headlined “Dear Johnny Depp, You Are Ruining Everything and Breaking Our Hearts.” She complained that Depp had “shattered” his “effortlessly managed, meticulously curated persona as mysterious eccentric creative hot thoughtful intriguing super cool guy.” (Commas apparently aren’t super-cool these days, either.)


Which is fine, except Depp, like every other actor lucky enough to enjoy a long career, has made movies good, bad and ugly throughout his career, not just since he started wearing Jack Sparrow’s tricorn hat. It’s just that people didn’t make a stink about misfires like “The Astronaut’s Wife” and “From Hell” because Depp hadn’t become part of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride yet. He was that weird guy who made movies with Tim Burton and other acclaimed directors (Jim Jarmusch, Roman Polanski) and dated Winona Ryder and Kate Moss, sometimes necessitating the alteration of his tattooed landscape.

And guess what? He’s still making movies with Burton (which rankles the haters, even though, again, the quality has varied through the years, not just recently) as well as with other acclaimed directors (people do remember Michael Mann’s fine “Public Enemies,” right?), and he recently announced his engagement to 28-year-old actress Amber Heard.

The two things that have changed are the level of his fame, as well as his age. It’s hard being a mysterious eccentric when you’re past 50, starring in a recurring Disney franchise, making mega-budgeted movies and hooking up with a woman nearly half your age. Yes, Depp is also putting together a documentary about Keith Richards. But so what, right? What’s that guy done lately?

That question, with regard to Depp, might be irrelevant in a few months anyway if he kills it as the Wolf in Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods.” In the midst of the inevitable Oscar campaign for Depp’s supporting turn, critics will welcome the actor back to the fold. But in truth, he never left. Savvy?