Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a film that sits comfortably on the shelf next to its most closely related films; Stanley Kubrick’s classic trip, 2001  and Robert Zemeckis’ Contact . A little too comfortably actually, as it leeches ideas and material from both of these two major works of the “quasi-mystical space quest” SF sub-genre, mutating them to serve in its own plot.
Held against the recent piece of clear anti-space propaganda, the “life in space is impossible” of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, it functions as a much needed response, but overall comes off as a less focused work.
Starring Matthew McConaughey – who played a Christian philosopher in Contact and was most recently seen on TV’s True Detective as the grim Rust Cohle, a role heavily influenced by the “cosmic pessimist” philosophy outlined in Eugene Thacker’s book In The Dust Of This Planet – as Cooper: a former NASA pilot, engineer and reluctant farmer in a new Dust Bowl America of unclear proportions who is chosen by outside forces for a most optimistic cosmic, covert mission; to save the human race.
Put simply, it’s not a great time to be alive. This is the near future of economic and ecological collapse and near-term human extinction; a similar setting to the recent Autómata. It’s hinted that the Earth’s population has been decimated, though no exact facts are given… in fact, the truth is a casualty of the times. One of the most powerful scenes early on involves an earnest young school teacher repeating the line of the ‘updated textbooks’: the Moon landings were faked in an effort to bankrupt the Soviet Empire by making it spend all its money on all that unnecessary spacecraft. This is a “caretaker generation” that has long since stopped looking at the Heavens and is focused purely on the dirt and the muck of Earth. No ambition (unlike the ESA), just grit-teethed, dumb-minded stoicism – as embodied in the film by Cooper’s son.
Cooper’s daughter, Murph, is a dreamer. Reading his old textbooks, getting into fights in defence of her beliefs, seeking the wondrous in the world. There’s a ghost in her room that she’s convinced is trying to tell her something. It’s Coopers eventual interpretation of this message and act of faith in following it that sparks his quest to another galaxy, in search of a new homeland for his species.
This world’s a treasure that’s been telling us to leave for a while now.
Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.
Without getting too much deeper in the details of the plot (trailer below) – they travel through a mysterious wormhole, investigate potential planets, whilst racing against a ticking clock for a dying Earth – it is interesting to note some elements of the story and their relation not just to the films 2001 and Contact, but also to conspiracy theory.
Starting with the thesis that Kubrick was hired to fake the Moon Landings for NASA, as put forward by Jay Weidner in Kubrick’s Odyssey and elaborated on at the Secret Sun.
The NASA of the film is being unknowingly funded by the citizens of an America where all other institutions seem to have long fallen; it is in essence a secret space program.
Interstellar’s wormhole (a star gate) has been created by an unknown, presumably higher dimensional race next to Saturn. Which is where, not nearby Jupiter, the Monolith is positioned in the novelisation of 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke, based on the early scripts of the film.
The eerie, poltergeist-like behaviour in Murph’s room is similar to the opening of its sequel, 2010.
Happily, a point of departure for Interstellar involves its depiction of AI-human relations. 2001 becomes a survival horror story when the self-aware computer, HAL, is driven mad – or at the very least, antagonistic – by its inability to reconcile its secret, core mission with the activities of an unaware crew following only the cover story.
The oddly blocky, new-aesthetic’y companion robots TARS and CASE – that look like they emanated directly from some wireframe algorithmic simulation or Minecraft server – prove ideal and loyal companions, and are the principal source of comic relief (complete with adjustable humour settings!) in Interstellar. Instead it is the weak mind of a human that becomes subject to “space madness” over the weight of its mission and ability to fulfil it, and becomes a grave danger to others.
It is through Cooper and TARS acting together in a grand sacrifice at the film’s climax that salvation is found, and later, like Luke and R2D2, they set forth as a team on further adventures. A compelling image for the “human-machine-coevolution future”, of which I am a firm believer in.
Where the film falls flat in between all this is in the hand-waving use of quantum physics and higher dimensional activities to resolve its emotional and mythic arcs; the love between Cooper and Murph, and the supernatural elements of the story’s beginning.
Relativistic time is used excellently to create tension during the off-world exploration scenes and to resolve plot points but… Contact – a story driven by a daughter yearning for the return of her father, just as Interstellar is in part, reaching out into the cosmos for answers to its mysteries – worked the theme better, with its memorable higher dimensional encounter scene that balanced the need to provide enough resolution for the central character to continue on in their journey, while leaving the audience with larger questions to contemplate. Whereas Interstellar is constantly (at times figuratively, at times literally) falling back on blackboards full of chalk drawn equations, as if the Nolans – the film is co-written by machine future advocate Jonah Nolan, creator of TV’s Person of Interest – are eager to impress on the audience just how much homework they’ve done in preparation for making it. It distracts from the drama, as you’re trying to mentally follow along with their workings, rather than just feeling the heart of the story be revealed.
Which isn’t to say that the actual moment that closes the loop of the story – and we’re back to True Detective and its refrain of “time is a flat circle” here – isn’t visually stunning, as are all the renderings of the wormhole and black hole utterly gob smacking (especially in 70mm). It just lacks a certain something overall in its delivery. Put frankly, two Nolans do not make a Kubrick and this is nothing on the White Room scene in 2001.
Nevertheless, this is the most culturally relevant film Christopher Nolan has yet directed. Inception (and Memento before it) was just as intent on showing how clever it was, though it unfolded more organically, and also featured Michael Caine being emotional and scribbling on chalkboards, but, crucially, said nothing beyond that. As a response to the incredibly popular Gravity, Interstellar loudly proclaims LIFE IN SPACE IS POSSIBLE! That instead of becoming naught but dust on the wind, we can be instruments to populate a living universe. Placed with the recent Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming film from the Wachowskis, Jupiter Ascending, it’s hopeful to think we’re entering a new golden age of the space opera. That humanity is summoning its courage and looking to stars again.
As Michael Caine frequently repeats, reciting the lines of the Dylan Thomas poem, not just to the mission crew and Murph, but to us all, to a world in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, looming economic and ecological collapse:
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.