‘Interstellar’ Is a Perfect Antidotal Sequel to ‘Transcendence’

By  · Published on November 7th, 2014

‘Interstellar’ Is a Perfect Antidotal Sequel to ‘Transcendence’

Paramount Pictures

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the movies Interstellar and Transcendence.

The near-future setting of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is unlike most we’ve seen lately. There are no smartphones, let alone ones with personalities to fall in love with. There aren’t even many computers, save for a laptop used by Matthew McConaughey’s more tech-friendly character. Look at the emptiness of an administrator’s desk when he has a meeting at his kids’ school. In the same scene, a teacher spouts an exposition-laden belief that people of the 20th century were wasteful and excessive and spent too much money on “useless machines.” Given the dialogue and the apparent dependency on textbooks with a rewritten history of the (faked) Apollo program, we can assume there is no longer any Wikipedia, or any internet whatsoever. Outside of the secret NASA facility, it’s a fairly analog world, one in which almost everybody is a farmer.

It’s also a world that’s awfully close to the one we’re left with at the end of Transcendence, a movie that Nolan produced and which was directed by his usual cinematographer, Wally Pfister. Also set in the near-future, Transcendence is about technology getting way out of hand. Johnny Depp plays a scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, and he eventually has his consciousness uploaded to a computer server, and subsequently the internet. His digital transcendence leads to the development of useful machines employing nanotechnology to help sick people far beyond even the MRIs that McConaughey’s character in Interstellar defends. But Depp’s computer-dwelling character becomes too powerful, godlike even, so he’s killed with a virus, one that has to shut down the whole internet in the process. The movie concludes with the world in a fairly analog state.

There’s no arguing that Interstellar perfectly fits as a direct follow-up to Transcendence, but we can think of it as a spiritual sequel, at the very least. But it’s not a sequel that continues the thinking of the first movie. Nolan’s directorial effort plays like a response, an antidote to the feature he produced and released half a year earlier. With Interstellar, Nolan is still clearly a fan of analog, especially in the making of the movie, shooting on film and preferring practical special effects. Yet he also favors scientific progress enough to push for the idea of space exploration. He promotes tech that benefits human survival, not just in the form of ships taking us to other habitable planets after we’ve ruined Earth but also the repurposing of solar panels from a military drone to provide power to a family in need. Also, artificially intelligent robots that have manual controls.

Another interesting contrast between the two movies is how they treat the concept of love. In Transcendence, Rebecca Hall plays another scientist who is married to Depp’s character, and after he becomes a body-less machine she continues to love him in spite of there being no certainty that the guy on the monitors is really him. The test of identity and the test of love are at the core of the movie, which doesn’t conclusively try to answer the question of what it means to be human or what it means to feel that highest human emotion. Interstellar is also concerned with a lot of questions about humanity, particularly its survival, but it is especially interested in the idea of love, implying that it’s not just an emotion but maybe a whole other dimension – or at least it’s an emotion that can transcend dimensions. There are also monitors involved with the love connections in Interstellar and a struggle by Jessica Chastain’s character to trust that there’s someone on the receiving end. Here the character is the skeptic and the film tells us to have faith, rather than vice versa.

Near the end of Interstellar, McConaughey’s character is sort of uploaded – in body as well as consciousness – to a kind of inter-network that allows him to float between time and space, and there is a comparison to be drawn between its capabilities for omniscience and omnipresence and those of the computer net that Depp’s character exists in in Transcendence. The fact that Interstellar’s is visualized as a bookcase full of texts, though, links it again to an idea of analog mechanics and elements. Both characters are ghosts, in their own way, Depp in a machine and McConaughey in a more natural, more real manner.

The parallels of antithetical approach to a lot of the same themes is fascinating, and maybe there’s no conscious reasoning behind these connections between Nolan’s two movies of this year, but I think what Interstellar does opens up new significance and value for Transcendence, if anyone else is interested in going back and suffering its goofier parts. Were it made at the same studio as Nolan’s new movie, Transcendence – which was a box office failure the first time around – would surely deserve a re-release, possibly as part of a double feature with Interstellar. I invite anyone who skipped or dismissed Pfister’s movie to rent it this weekend and then go see Interstellar again immediately after. And then feel free to call me crazy if you don’t agree that there is something going on, a conversation through cinema, between the two differently minded sci-fi titles.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.