Transcendence begins, as movies often do these days, in the near future, when the world as we know it has gone totally kablooey.

"They say there's power in Boston, some phone service in Denver," voice-overs Paul Bettany, who, we soon learn, is Max Waters, part of a visionary cadre of computer scientists. "But things are far from what they were."

Indeed, there's no Internet. None. People are using laptops for doorstops. Apple shares? Is there even a stock market anymore?

Cut to "Five Years Earlier," and this big-idea thriller from cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister (yes, it looks good) and screenwriter Jack Paglen is off and running. Well, off and talking, anyway.

Transcendence presents a sort of messy, giant-screen, effects-driven take on many of the same themes explored in Spike Jonze's Her: that is, the evolution of artificial intelligence and how AI will affect our culture, our lives, our relationships, ourselves. Only where Jonze, with beautiful economy, whittled the concepts down to their core, Transcendence - which stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, a superstar in the field of cybernetics and nanotechnology - brings a trunkload of Hollywood conventions to the table.

And so we have a radical fringe group headed by an intense, brow-furrowed Kate Mara, coordinating a deadly attack on computer labs around the country, setting research and development back years. And we have Morgan Freeman as a cyber sage offering counsel and caution along with that wonderful mug of his. And Rebecca Hall as Will's "partner in science and in life," Evelyn Caster.

SPOILER ALERT (although it's nothing the trailers haven't already given away): Evelyn's enormous grief after her brilliant husband has been taken from her leads her to decide to upload his brain into a massive information system, setting Transcendence on its course. And giving us the opportunity to look at wobbly images of Depp on a video screen, like the floating head of the Wizard of Oz.

An army of construction workers is mobilized to build an underground data center in the desert, with miles of quantum processors powered by miles of solar panels. And soon the worlds of technology and humanity collide - super-medicine, super-intelligence, super-ecosystems, super-confusing!

Luckily, Mara's Bree (who has dyed her hair bleach-blond) is there with her crusty band of "Unplug" extremists, making trouble before Will Caster's nanotechnocracy takes over for good. And bad.

Echoing the lessons learned from HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the message of Transcendence is that computers should not be allowed to become sentient. Or, at least, if they are, we should have the sense to put restrictions on how AI functions. But then, Transcendence asks, is that even possible? Once the databases become "self-aware," is there any stopping them?

And is there any stopping movies like Transcendence that treat AI as just the latest Hollywood bogeyman, albeit a more complicated and less corporeal one?

Transcendence **1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Wally Pfister. With Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, and Kate Mara. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theatersEndText