With 'Transcendence,' Johnny Depp is Becoming the New Nicolas Cage

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For awhile, it seemed like Transcendence , the sci-fi thriller set to be released on Thursday, would be the one to break the streak. Directed by Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan's longtime right hand, featuring an intriguing, complex plot, and starring a cast that included Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, Transcendence had serious potential. Yet on Wednesday, the movie's first reviews were released — and if the rest of the critiques are anything close, then unfortunately, it looks like Transcendence won't be the movie to pull Johnny Depp's career out of the gutter.

Once upon a time, Depp was one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood. The guy behind Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and the creepiest Willy Wonka ever played famously said that he only chose roles he found interesting, and the results were remarkable. All of his characters were different, but they shared a major similarity: when played by Depp, they were mesmerizing. Even if you didn't love the films, you were drawn to Depp's characters, awed by the actor's ability to so seamlessly transform into someone else, whether that be a demon barber, a chocolate connoisseur, or a foul-mouthed, alcoholic, gold-toothed pirate.

In the late 2000s, though, things started changing. After filming Sweeney Todd, Depp had taken a two-year break, not appearing in another movie until 2009's Public Enemies. The film, starring Depp as a Depression-era bank robber, earned decent reviews and made a killing at the box office. The role was as different from Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands as could be, and as a result of the movie's success, Depp's public image began to change. Now, it seemed possible that instead of Depp being a quirky, eccentric actor who could occasionally play serious, perhaps it was actually the other way around.

At the time, this seemed like a good thing. Movies like Chocolat and Finding Neverland, plus three Oscar nominations, had showed off Depp's immense talent, and there was no indication that he was planning to stop playing "weird" for good. Besides, all actors, even the ones perfect in the parts they're known for, should be allowed to stretch themselves on occasion. Yet in the few years following Enemies, Depp's new persona seemed less "serious actor" than "what the hell's going on with him?" There was Alice in Wonderland, a Tim Burton-helmed blockbuster that soared at the box office, but underwhelmed with critics; The Tourist, a god-awful movie that even Depp admitted he hadn't seen; On Stranger Tides, the fourth Pirates movie and the worst reviewed of the series. There was Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger (below), even a short but painful cameo in Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill. Occasionally, a Depp film was worth seeing — Rango, The Rum Diary — but mostly, the actor spent the last couple of years starring in one terrible movie after another.

And now there's Transcendence, the latest critical flop to add to the list. The projects coming up don't look too promising, either; between the B-list horror movie, the Alice in Wonderland sequel, and the drama led by Billy Bob Thornton, Depp's future films are rather pitiful. It seems that the actor is now choosing to take low-stakes, high-salaried parts over roles that actually have potential to be good. In the process, he's losing his credibility and turning into a joke. In other words, Johnny Depp is the new Nicolas Cage.

Like Depp, Cage used to be a truly respected actor, a formidable talent who took on diverse, complex characters and earned an Oscar in the process. He originally gained notice playing eccentric men in small films like Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona, before finding mainstream success in a blockbuster franchise, National Treasure. In the mid-2000s, though, Cage began to lose some of his prestige, due to his sudden interest in terrible horror films, unexciting thrillers, and cliched fantasy flicks. By 2011, his name was synonymous with D-level action movies and Internet memes, and it was hard to remember the last time Cage had starred in a film actually worth seeing.

So far, Depp seems to be following Cage's path to a T. The Transcendence star's last true good movie was the animated Rango; as for live-action, his most recent success was all the way back in 2007, with Sweeney Todd. Like Cage, Depp's name on the top of a movie poster is no longer considered a reason to buy a ticket, but rather, a reason to walk away. The talent might still be there, but with the film choices he's making, it's as if the Depp of the '90s and early '00s was an entirely different actor.

However, there is hope. Although most of Depp's upcoming films aren't exactly must-sees, a few of them do have potential. In Black Mass, now filming, Depp plays Whitey Burger, the famed Boston mob bass with connections to the FBI. Mortdecai, a crime comedy, co-stars Aubrey Plaza and Ewan McGregor. Into the Woods might not be Oscar-worthy, but with a cast that includes Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick, it'll definitely be fun. None of these movies are as reminiscent as old-Depp as Ed Wood or Willy Wonka, but they're certainly improvements from his recent roles. Perhaps they'll mark the start of a new era of Depp, one that past fans could certainly get behind.

As for Cage, there's possibilities for redemption in his future, as well. Joe , now in theaters, is earning raves and getting called a "return to form" for the actor. Sure, the rest of his upcoming slate is filled with typical action fanfare, but perhaps the acclaim Cage is receiving from Joe will encourage him to think twice before signing on to National Treasure 10. God knows he doesn't need the paycheck.

Image: Walt Disney