The Protagonist Might Be Anyone In Transcendence (Women & Men in the Movies No. 10)

This week I’ll look at how women are portrayed, and how they interact with other characters, in the science fiction thriller Transcendence.

(Find out more about 3 tests I’ll use to guide the conversation in Women, Men, and Movies or just read on.)

Spoiler Warning:

I usually try not to spoil any major plot points in my articles. For Transcendence, however, I found that particularly difficult. The conversational topics often require revealing aspects of the plot. If you want to watch the film without knowing major points along the way, better to watch first, then read.

The Story

A scientist deals with fallout from the quest of her husband (and fellow scientist) to develop artificial intelligence when his consciousness is uploaded and becomes an A.I.

Quick Results

Bechdel:        F

Sexy Lamp:    P

Mako Mori:   F

Chasing Bechdel

(Does a (named) female character talk to another named female character about anything other than a man?)

Who’s Talking To Whom

Women To Women:

No one-on-one conversations between named female characters occur. Women occasionally speak to mixed groups of men and women. (See Women and Men below.)

Men To Men:

Max, a colleague and friend of the main characters, scientists Evelyn and Will Castor, provides voiceovers about:

  • Technology
  • Will’s and Evelyn’s work
  • Advancements in technology
  • Internet blackouts
  • Will’s and Evelyn’s love and garden

Will and Max talk about:

  • Why RIFT does what it does
  • Work that another scientist, Casey, did
  • Will’s work
  • Saving Will
  • Whether Max is as smart as Will and Evelyn
  • Taking care of Evelyn
  • Saving Evelyn
  • A computer virus to stop Will

Max and another colleague/fellow scientist Joseph talk about:

  • Evelyn
  • RIFT (an anti-technology terrorist group)
  • Will
  • Hybrid A.I./humans

Joseph, FBI agent Donald Buchanan, and other FBI agents talk (separately and together) about:

  • A.I. and Will
  • RIFT
  • Use of existing mind to create A.I.
  • Morality and computers
  • Will building an army
  • Shutting down the Internet

Several other short conversations occur that include one or more of the following male characters: Max, Will, Martin (a contractor), male RIFT members, and unnamed male characters. Topics include:

  • Evelyn
  • Will
  • Max’s presentation
  • Greetings
  • Martin (a contractor) becoming reconnected to Will (in his A.I. form)

Women And Men:

Evelyn Castor and Will Castor talk about:

  • Sanctuary
  • Technology breakthroughs
  • Donors and funding
  • Will’s work
  • Mapping Will’s brain
  • Max’s concerns about Will’s consciousness
  • Evelyn’s safety
  • Healing the planet
  • Building an underground data center
  • When they met
  • How people will react to technological advances
  • Nanotechnology
  • Enhancements to Martin (the contractor)
  • “Fixing” people
  • Whether Will (as an A.I.) is destroying or saving the world and lives
  • Max’s life
  • Good that Will (as an A.I.) is doing
  • Staying together

And Evelyn and Max talk about:

  • Saving Will
  • Will’s work
  • Uploading Will’s mind
  • How much of consciousness on computer is Will’s
  • Love
  • How Will changed
  • Fighting RIFT and military personnel
  • Stopping Will
  • Evolution
  • Rain water
  • The end of organic life
  • Changing the world
  • The brain versus the soul
  • Human emotion
  • A virus to stop Will
  • Uploading Evelyn with the virus

Evelyn speaks to an audience (mixed male and female) about:

  • Einstein
  • Intelligent machines
  • Curing disease
  • Ending hunger
  • Will

Evelyn also talks with men, separately or in groups, including Will (as an A.I.), Joseph, and FBI Agent Buchanan. Topics include:

  • Saving Martin (the contractor)
  • Self-awareness
  • PINN (an artificial intelligence Will created while human)
  • Nanotechnology
  • People who are networked to Will (as an A.I.)
  • Building a data center

Bree, a woman who seems to be a leader or key figure for RIFT, and Max talk one-on-one about:

  • The promise and perils of technology
  • Evelyn
  • PINN
  •  Connecting Will to the Internet
  • Scientist Thomas Casey
  • A monkey uploaded to computer
  • Max’s philosophy and concerns about AI
  • What Will (as an A.I.) wants
  • Stopping Will

Bree also speaks with other male characters, including Will (as an A.I.) and RIFT members, Topics include:

  • Uploading a virus
  • Threatening Max
  • Finding and “saving” Evelyn
  • Will being online
  • Fixing what Will and Evelyn did
  • Giving Evelyn a chance to survive
  • Video of Will’s complex
  • Enhanced/hybrid people
  • Shutting down PINN

Evelyn and Bree appear in scenes with groups of men, including Max, RIFT members, and Joseph. Topics include:

  • Uploading Evelyn with a virus
  • Will’s body

Other mixed male/female conversations also occur. They include an unnamed young woman, an unnamed male doctor, Max, Evelyn, Will, Joseph, FBI Agent Buchanan, and a female AI (PINN). Topics include:

  • Greetings
  • Will’s autograph
  • Attacks on computer labs
  • Joseph being at the FBI
  • Cyber defense work
  • Will’s work
  • Protests against transcendence (a.k.a. singularity)
  • Research lost
  • Whether PINN is self-aware
  • Will’s physical condition

Max does a presentation to a mixed crowd of men and women about:

  • Cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s
  • Advancements in technology
  • Will

Will also speaks to mixed audience of men and women about:

  • A.I.
  • Human intelligence
  • Biology
  • Reason
  • Emotions
  • The soul
  • Creating god

A woman newscaster on television (presumably addressing a large audience of watchers that includes men and women) talks about:

  • A series of attacks on computer and research labs, including one on Will

Conclusion

Three named female characters have speaking roles: scientist Evelyn Castor, the A.I. PINN, and Bree (no last name).

Bree wears a lot of dark eyeliner, presumably so we know she’s tough, and seems to be a sort of leader of RIFT, a group that resists technology. But Bree remains silent in many scenes. When she speaks, it’s to men.

PINN only has a few lines to a mixed group of men and women.

Evelyn and Bree never speak to one another one-on-one, though they are in some scenes together with male characters. In those scenes, however, one or the other is silent.

Transcendence fails the Bechdel Test.

Women v. Sexy Lamps

(can a female character be replaced by a sexy lamp without affecting the plot?)

The main female characters are Evelyn and Bree.

Evelyn uploads Will into a computer and assists him in expanding into an A.I. and building his underground complex. She also makes choices that are key to stopping Will as an A.I.

Bree may or may not be driving or leading RIFT, the terrorist organization opposing technology. Her role isn’t clear, but she is the only RIFT member whose name I caught. She appears in many scenes and has some key conversations with male characters, though she interacts little with Will or Evelyn. Some of her choices alter the plot.

Conclusion

Transcendence passes the Sexy Lamp Test.

Mako Mori

(does a female character have her own narrative arc that does not support a man’s story line?)

Evelyn’s storyline supports Will’s. It’s all about trying to keep him alive, to stop him, or to save him. While early on she says she wants to heal the planet, that desire doesn’t motivate her actions in Transcendence.

Bree appears to lead RIFT but we don’t see much of what she does in the organization. The only part of her story that progresses is about stopping Will. We also don’t see any character growth for Bree.

Conclusion

Transcendence fails the Mako Mori Test.

Did I Like It

The first time I watched Transcendence was around 2014, not long after it came out. Seeing these two key women characters who live entirely surrounded by men and only men distracted me from the story. It also struck me as so unrealistic that I started reading about the Bechdel Test and thinking I’d eventually like to write about this issue.

On second watch for this article, I saw additional plot issues.

If you’ve read earlier articles (such as the ones about Ex Machina, Terminator, and Terminator 2), you know plots about technology intrigue me.

Transcendence looks at important themes, including the nature of humanity, intelligence, and God. It also examines, or tries to, how much power one person or A.I. ought to have and what power does. Finally, it considers what it means to love and to be human.

But themes don’t equal story.

Here, I struggled with the story both as I watched and when writing the short description for this article. For one thing, it’s hard to tell who the protagonist and antagonist are.

Will might be the protagonist, yet early on he becomes fatally ill. Evelyn and Max decide to upload him to a computer to save him. That choice and Evelyn’s skills and dedication to it drive the story from the film’s one-quarter point on.

Max also drives much of the plot. His voiceovers begin and end the film. Bree tells us much of RIFT grew out of talks about his philosophy. So maybe he’s the protagonist.

Will seems to become the antagonist later in Transcendence.

His A.I. consciousness expands and begins taking over humans. RIFT, Max, and Joseph begin working against him. Evelyn first helps and then resists him.

Based on the ending, though, I wonder if Will is the protagonist after all and RIFT the antagonist.

The other obvious protagonist choice is Evelyn. While her choices propel much of the story, most of those decisions, however, are made in reaction to Will’s choices or circumstances.

Confusion about the protagonist and antagonist aside, what stuck with me most from the film was the isolation of Bree and Evelyn among groups of men. Much like my feelings about The Last Jedi, here I would have really liked to see the two women confront one another and deal with their differences. Perhaps work together to oppose Will.

But that’s a different film.

As to Transcendence as it is, if you’re fascinated by the questions technology raises you might enjoy it despite what are, in my opinion, significant flaws.

Next Week’s Film: Hunger Games

Why? Because I love it. And because I expect it to pass all three tests, but sometimes I expect that and am surprised.

You might also like:

Avengers: Infinity War – Women Talk, Men Talk More, & Everyone Fights (Women & Men in the Movies No. 7)

 

The Terminator: Men Talk, A Woman Fights (Women & Men in the Movies No. 5)