It's hard to feel sorry for a guy who owns his own island. Still, poor Johnny Depp. His sci-fi thriller "Transcendence" should have been one of the biggest hits of the spring... but then the reviews came in.
Pundits lowered their expectations for its debut, from the 30s to between $18 and $25 million. And then, when the smoke cleared this weekend, the $100-million movie opened with just an estimated $11.2 million, debuting in fourth place behind a three-week-old superhero sequel, a two-week-old cartoon sequel, and a Christian-themed movie starring Greg Kinnear. That's gotta hurt.
How did "Transcendence" go from sure-thing blockbuster to limping into a fourth-place debut? Here are some reasons, and unlike the ageless Depp, they ain't pretty.
Making a brainy blockbuster is harder than it sounds. Remember, it's been just 15 years since the Wachowskis first proved it could be done, with "The Matrix," and even they couldn't keep it up (with their two windy sequels, not to mention the movies they've made since). Still, Christopher Nolan has been pretty consistent at it, with his "Dark Knight" trilogy" and "inception" proving that you can deliver the action spectacle that draws crowds without making them check their brains at the door. So it seemed sensible to think that Nolan's cinematographer, Wally Pfister, could do the same with "Transcendence," his directing debut. Alas, not so; critics give it credit for smarts and striking visuals, but not storytelling or pace, which are what get viewers to the ticket window in the first place.
Reviews matter. That's the other issue with the brainy blockbuster. You're generally chasing an older audience, and they do read what the critics say, and they actually base their moviegoing decisions accordingly.
Depp's on a downslide. Domestically, at least. Last year's "Lone Ranger" was a colossal dud at the domestic box office, and it followed weak numbers for such Depp vehicles as "Dark Shadows," "The Rum Diary," and "The Tourist." Unless Depp is wearing the Mad Hatter's hat or Capt. Jack Sparrow's eye shadow, he's not a big box office draw in America anymore.
Even so, there was only a dab of Depp. He was billed as the movie's main draw, but he's actually not in it very much, once the plot has him upload his consciousness into a computer. And while his supporting cast is made up of fine actors (Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara), none but Morgan Freeman has any kind of a ticket-buying following of fans.
It was a busy weekend. "Transcendence" was one of four new wide-release movies this weekend. Plus, it had to compete against some still-strong holdovers, notably, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Rio 2," both of which pulled in more than $22 million this weekend.
Direct competition: Depp vs. Cap. The "Captain America" sequel is one film that has managed to pull off the brainy-blockbuster bid; critics are praising it as a serious and timely political allegory, and when's the last time anyone could say that about a comic-book superhero movie? So it was competing against "Transcendence" not just for older male genre fans but for the food-for-thought viewers as well. Given the film's momentum -- the movie declined just 35 percent from a week ago, a very modest slide for a superhero movie in its third week, to finish in first place with an estimated $26.6 million -- "Cap 2" was going to be the thinking person's blockbuster-of-choice this weekend unless "Transcendence" offered such viewers a much better alternative.
Direct competition: Depp vs. God. The biggest success story of the week is "Heaven Is For Real," an inspired-by-real-life drama about a dad (Greg Kinnear) who grapples with issues of faith when his little boy comes back from a near-death experience with an account of the afterlife. The movie, heavily touted to Christian audiences and marketed with group presales to church congregants, opened in third place with an estimated $21.5 million, for a total of $28.5 million since its Wednesday debut.
And it's just one of three movies currently in the top 10 that have attracted church audiences and mainstream viewers alike by grappling seriously with big theological issues; the others are "Noah" (No. 9 this week with an estimated $5.0 million, for a four-week total of $93.3 million) and "God's Not Dead" (No. 10 with an estimated $4.8 million, for a five-week total of $48.3 million). All three of these movies are chasing the same older viewers that "Transcendence" is. Plus, it's Easter weekend, so viewers looking for a moviegoing experience that lives up to the name "Transcendence" may be more likely to choose transcendence of the spiritual variety than the technological/metaphysical kind.
Again, it's hard to shed any tears for Depp, whose movies still do much better overseas than they do here. "Lone Ranger" earned $171 million, or 66 percent of its grosses, in foreign markets, and already, "Transcendence" has taken in $17.4 million abroad, for 61 percent of its total take. Still, in Depp's homeland, an $11.2 million, fourth-place debut for a $100 million movie that's the latest in a string of stateside flops is not the sign of a healthy career. If he wants to keep making movies besides "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Alice in Wonderland" sequels, he'll have to transcend his recent domestic box office numbers.
Photo courtesy Warner Bros.