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Transcendence •

Transcendence2014PosterStarring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman
Director: Wally Pfister
Screenplay: Jack Paglen
Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: April 18, 2014
Evelyn: Single, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Castor: Single, P-N Moral, Ant (Fallen Lone Villain)


reel-1 villain-1villain-half h-logo-2h-logo-half

Scott, it’s time to rise above it all and review Transcendence.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Rising is the yeast we can do. Let’s recap.

We meet quirky, super-smart computer scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp). He has a plan to make super-smart computers that are self-aware. This is a state that Caster calls “Transcendence.” No sooner does he unveil his plans than he is shot with a bullet laced with a radioactive substance that gets into his blood. He has a mere matter of weeks to live.

Caster’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) devises a plan to immortalize Caster by uploading his brain and consciousness onto a computer. The plan works, but the same terrorist organization that shot Caster is now intent on thwarting Evelyn’s plan. She barely manages to complete the task and she evades the terrorists, but her good friend Max (Paul Bettany) is not convinced that the uploaded version of Caster is actually him. The rest of the movie consists of Caster expanding his powers in big, frightening ways.

Scott, Transcendence was a disappointing rehash of a number of science fiction tropes. With Caster becoming “one with the computer” he becomes more powerful than anyone can imagine. And since he is wired into the internet, he can be everywhere at once. We saw this played sweetly in last year’s Her where Scarlett Johansson voiced a computer operating system that eventually grew self-aware and left Earth for places unknown.

However, in that movie, the super-aware computer didn’t become a fearsome monster. It seems that people fear technology growing more powerful than man’s ability to control it. You can go all the way back to the original Godzilla or even to 1927’s Metropolis to see examples of this. There was little of interest in this movie and even Morgan Freeman’s presence couldn’t save it.

I agree, Greg. Transcendence fails to transcend; in fact, the movie should be called Regression. There’s no new ground here, just some recycled ideas from Star Trek, such as the idea that (1) consciousness can be imported to a computer, (2) an enhanced race of super-humans can be developed and deified, and (3) a menacing race of villains with a “collective‘mind” can threaten earth. And as you mention, we have a re-hash of last year’s Her, another movie that treats these issues with more originality and style.

What is new is the idea that nano-technology can infiltrate the natural world, affecting clouds, weather, soil, and water. This added menace certainly takes the disturbing abuse of technology a big step further. But the idea isn’t developed or pursued at all. One other criticism: the movie is slow-paced. It takes quite a while for the plot to move forward, and so when we finally get to the meat and potatoes, and we are disappointed to see that the meal is the same one we’ve been served before, although not as tasty as before.

I’ve noticed a lot of your metaphors deal with food. I should feed you before we write these reviews. The hero in this story appears to be Caster’s wife Evelyn. She is the one whom we follow from the beginning to the end of the story. As such, she’s a pretty weak hero. She displays a lot of the characteristics of the hero including selflessness and caring. But she just follows Caster’s direction without much thinking about the ramifications of the ideas. And she doesn’t really have any missing inner qualities to transcend either. She pretty much just sleepwalks through this film.

The Max and Tagger characters (Freeman) are also heroic in their attempts to stop Caster. Max is the only one who transforms in any significant way as he realizes that Caster isn’t the man he once was. As Max is quite the secondary character I don’t count him as a hero.

Greg, I think we can agree that the movie starts out as a buddy hero story, with Caster and Evelyn serving as a duo working together to promote positive uses of technology. But as you note, Evelyn emerges as the lone hero while Caster evolves into the villain. The heroes and villains flip-flop half-way through the movie, with Caster turning evil and the terrorists’ anti-technology position looking increasingly smart and reasonable.

Johnny Depp seems out of his element here, as he’s miscast as a scholarly intellectual. Depp is effective in dark, mysterious, quirky roles but he seems out of place here. I felt badly for Morgan Freeman, who as you say is a good man and good actor trapped in a bad movie. The secondary characters do a pretty good job with their roles but there is so much that is derivative here that my attention was shot to hell half-way through the movie.

You make a good point, Scott. The villains at the beginning of the movie were pretty villainous. They shot and killed a man (Caster) to prevent what they thought was universal armageddon. That’s a pretty heinous act. Then about halfway through they emerge as the good guys in the face of Caster’s greater villainy. I found it hard to overcome their terrorist acts and see them as heroes.

Caster as a villain really took a while to emerge. As you point out, we have seen this sort of villain even recently. Dr. Zola in last week’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier was another scientist transferred into a computer system. And Caster was a pretty weak villain at that. One good thing about this villain that we haven’t seen up to this point is the fact that we get a backstory to him. We saw that he was a good guy until his consciousness was transferred into the computer. Then the wealth of worldwide computing power corrupted him and he was bent on worldwide control. It’s pretty rare for us to get a look at the “Villain’s Journey” in a movie.

Transcendence is a derivative story of technology run amok. It’s science fiction that would delight and amaze us only if we lived in the 1950s. The film is mildly entertaining in places, and it did make me think, albeit briefly, about the consequences of nano-technology taking over the natural world. But there’s precious little new ground broken here, and with Depp miscast as a scholar, I had trouble swallowing much of the story. I can only muster up one single solitary Reel out of 5.

The hero story is interesting insofar as we see our initial hero, Caster, devolve into a villain character. His wife Evelyn then assumes the role of the lone hero, but she’s ill-equipped for the task, showing an inability to think critically about her husband’s unbridled ambition. She’s not much of a hero, and so all I can give her is a puny 2 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, you are absolutely right about the one strong point of the movie being its focus on the step-by-step development of a villain from scratch. We must also ask ourselves whether Caster made bad choices or if his turn to evil was solely a product of his digitization. We know that power corrupts and so the answer may not be clear-cut. Because of this in-depth treatment of villainy, I’m going to give Caster 3 Villains out of 5.

Movie: reel-1 Heroes: h-logo-2 Villains: villain-3

There’s not much for me to add. This was a pretty terrible movie and I don’t see any reason to give it more than one Reel out of 5.

The hero Evelyn was lost and waffling for most of the story. She pretty much does the bidding of the computer/scientist until the very end. It’s a pretty dull hero’s journey which I can only give 1 out of 5 Heroes.

And finally, looking at Caster as the villain I was going to give him a score of just 1 Villain. But I’m incrementing it to 2 Villains out of 5 because we see a bit of the villain’s journey for the first time this year.

Movie: reel-1 Heroes: h-logo-1 Villains: villain-2


  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Depp has had some atrocious luck as of late with movies….

  2. emmaglitch says:

    I’m having a wow this sounds like a terrible movie I must watch it moment. Yeah, terrible, but wait a minute: Paul Bettany! From A Knight’s Tale to Wimbledon, there isn’t much I wouldn’t watch if it features Paul Bettany!

  3. emmaglitch says:

    I’m having a wow this sounds like a terrible movie I must watch it moment. Yeah, terrible, but wait a minute: Paul Bettany! From A Knight’s Tale to Wimbledon, there isn’t much I wouldn’t watch if it features Paul Bettany!

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