WASHINGTON — Moviegoers are like general managers at the NFL Draft: so many prospects, so little time.
This week, we have two prospects in a battle of brains vs. brawn. Johnny Depp stars in the science-fiction thriller “Transcendence,” while Kevin Costner stars in the football flick “Draft Day.”
Both feature rookie scripts, so which is the better pick? You’re on the clock.
Your first prospect, “Transcendence,” has plenty of talent on paper.
The film marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who earned four Oscar nominations as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer on “Batman Begins” (2005), “The Prestige” (2006), “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “Inception” (2010), which finally won him the statue.
The cast is equally talented, starring Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a dying genius who uploads his brain into a computer to achieve immortality through artificial intelligence.
“A sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology. In a short time, its analytic power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world. Some scientists refer to this as the singularity. I call it transcendence,” he says.
Will’s successful transfer from human to computer is a welcome miracle for his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and tech colleague Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman).
But it’s viewed as a threat to humanity by an anti-technology group of neo-Luddites, led by a cool blonde hacker named Bree (Kate Mara, “House of Cards”). This group starts out an antagonistic terrorist group with “unplug” tattoos, but one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter.” As Will expands his network with global omniscience, the line between good and evil blurs.
The cast is all quite good, offering the wonderfully weird Depp a chance to play both a mad scientist like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly” (1986) and a creepy robotic voice like HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Golden Globe nominee Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “The Town”) is more than just a damsel in distress, playing the hero’s partner in business and romance, and echoing “Minority Report” by grappling with loss as she returns home to a futuristic house of holograms.
In the supporting roles, Mara shows what she could have done in “House of Cards” if she left Slugline and joined Jimmi Simpson’s underground hacker operation. Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind”) once again makes an effective sidekick, tormented between his loyalty to Depp and his own academic doubts published in scientific papers. And Morgan Freeman is, well, Morgan Freeman.
It’s easy to see why, at first glance, the project attracted such a talented cast. The film puts plenty of points on the scoreboard in the first half, posing fascinating morality questions of technology playing God (i.e. “Frankenstein”). It also unfolds at a refreshingly deliberate pace, allowing our eyes time to scan compositions befitting of an accomplished cinematographer.
But something breaks down during the halftime adjustments. The second-half game plan is unbalanced, unable to decide whether it wants to be an intimate sci-fi romance like “Her” (2013) or a paranoid sci-fi thriller like Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956).
This leads the rookie script to bite off way more than it can chew, reaching for grand “Tree of Life” concepts, but doing so with the crutch of elementary plot choices and special-effects solutions. To paraphrase a joke by Depp’s character, the film isn’t very big on logic, which is ironic.
By the time the fourth quarter arrives, the film must throw Hail Marys to play catchup, but by this point it’s a losing proposition. Wait until this one comes out on cable, then stop it halfway through.
Your second prospect, “Draft Day,” isn’t nearly as impressive on paper, but it works so hard at fundamentals that it ultimately surprises you.
Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager of the long-suffering Cleveland Browns. His late father used to run the team, and now it’s Sonny’s turn to build a winner.
The film opens with the media frenzy of NFL Draft Day, as Sonny is pressured by his meddling owner (Frank Langella) to trade three future first-round picks to the Seattle Seahawks in order to move up to the No. 1 spot in the draft and select a splashy Heisman-winning quarterback named Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), who has P. Diddy for an agent.
However, Weaver’s head coach (Denis Leary) doesn’t want him to mortgage away the future of the franchise, insisting the team already has a hardworking quarterback, Brian Drew (Tom Welling), and urging him to instead draft someone at another position, such as running back Ray Jennings (NFL running back Arian Foster) or linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman, “42”).
Washington Redskins fans will relate to Sonny’s predicament, with a not-so-subtle reference to RG3 at the start of the film. But even non-football fans can relate to this one, as director Ivan Reitman offers the most dynamic use of split screens in recent memory. Split screens can be a risky choice for a director. Woody Allen used them to hilarious effect in “Annie Hall” (1977) and Steven Soderbergh jazzed them up in “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001), but they took away from the action in Robert Aldrich’s “The Longest Yard” (1974), with distracting boxes moving across the screen.
In “Draft Day,” the split screens are used very creatively. At times, a character on one side of the frame will protrude over onto the other side with his arm or shoulder. At other times, he’ll walk entirely into the other split screen. In a world of trades, the crossover makes thematic sense and saves what could have been a series of boring phone conversations of agents sitting behind desks.
Reitman may be known for comedies such as “Stripes” (1981) and “Ghostbusters” (1984), but here he is more reminiscent of his son Jason Reitman, who directed “Up in the Air” (2009), which similarly found the humanity in a corporate world.
Some viewers may not like the vessel for this humanity, Kevin Costner, who’s built up a merry band of haters since “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991) and “Waterworld” (1995). But few can compete with the five years he had from 1987-1991: “The Untouchables” (1987), “Bull Durham” (1988), “Field of Dreams” (1989), “Dances with Wolves” (1990) and “JFK” (1991).
In “Draft Day,” Costner returns to a genre that has always been his strong suit: the sports flick, which in addition to the aforementioned baseball masterpieces also includes “Tin Cup” (1995) and “For the Love of the Game” (1999). And it’s in the realm of sports that the film shines the most.
The subplot of an office romance with his co-worker Ali (Jennifer Garner) and parental disputes with his mother (Ellen Burstyn) are weak compared to the Tom Cruise-Renee Zellweger romance in “Jerry Maguire” (1996) and the Brad Pitt-Robin Wright divorce in “Moneyball” (2011). In fact, a scene involving an urn is just plain ridiculous and feels far beneath Burstyn’s extraordinary talents.
But while the lazy B-story prevents “Draft Day” from being a Super Bowl contender, the A-story front-office plot is playoff-caliber, with thrilling twists and an underlying ethos that values heart and hard work over hype. In a world of Bo Callahans and Brian Drews, sometimes you have to go with your gut.
And so, with the next pick in this week’s movie draft, I’m surprisingly passing on Johnny Depp and instead choosing Kevin Costner.
★ ★ ★
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s 2013 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.