The Genealogy of Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was one of my most anticipated films of the year. It was like a checklist of things that I wanted to see in a movie. A group of explorers who travel through a wormhole to find a new world for the dying remnants of humanity. References to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mindblowing spectacles. Physicist Kip Thorne as an executive producer. Michael Caine reading “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” And starring Matthew McConaughey. Needless to say, I had high expectations. And, thankfully, I wasn’t too disappointed.

The film certainly doesn’t break new ground, but originality has become a rare commodity under the weight of the genre’s back catalogue. Instead, the delight for me in watching Interstellar came from discovering how Nolan has combined numerous tropes and styles from other texts, creating a poignant homage to Golden Age science fiction. This is the hallmark of a good science fiction film: one that’s in dialogue with those that came before, while adding something new to the conversation. So rather than writing a review of Interstellar, I thought I would take a brief look at the myriad texts that have influenced the film, and construct a kind of genealogical chart.

Spoilers ahead!!

Interstellar

The most immediate influence is undoubtedly Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Nolan’s reliance on practical effects means that his film has the same aesthetic qualities as 2001, with the ships feeling more realistic than any CGI creation. The ponderous shots of spaceships docking in orbit only cements this comparison. And where Kubrick had some spectacular shots of ships descending towards the lunar surface, Nolan has scenes where his tiny ships are dwarfed by planets or black holes. In both cases, we feel the insignificance of humanity.

But it’s not just the aesthetic qualities that link these films together. They are both focused on the potential of human evolution, and our encounter with beings who are significantly more advanced than us. The plot of both 2001 and Interstellar can be summed up like this: Humans travel through a Star-gate type artifact in orbit around Saturn and are transported to an extra-dimensional place where they witness the future of human evolution. They return to Earth and are able to save the planet from the dominant eschatological threat of their respective eras (nuclear war in 2001, climate change in Interstellar).

In fact, the film is enormously indebted to Clarke’s whole Space Odyssey sequence. The hints of extra-dimensional beings who are guiding humanity towards some sort of apotheosis is similar to Clarke’s depictions of the Firstborn. The last few minutes of Interstellar, as Cooper is revived in a space habitat, recalls the plot line of 3001: The Final Odyssey, as Frank Poole is revived in the titular year. And the idea of having a mysterious alien artifact in orbit around Saturn is so directly a reference to 2001 that I felt Nolan was beating me over the head with the comparison. Alright, I get it!! Even your robots look similar to Clarke’s monolith.

Parts of the film also reminded me of Stephen Baxter’s novels, particular Titan (1997), which (like 2001) shares many common plot elements with Interstellar. The characters go through some pretty harrowing experiences, out there on the frontier. None more that Anne Hathaway’s character, Amelia, who seems to be unduly punished for a mistake she makes. But it does a good job of depicting the realities of space exploration – the isolation, the frustration, the madness. It also delivers one of Hollywood’s best treatments on the alienating effects of relativity (even though its attempts to explain relativity remain a bit hamfisted), and here it deserves comparison to the works of Joe Haldeman.

As much as the film owes to Clarke and 2001, it owes even more to the stories of Robert A. Heinlein. Characters in Clarke’s oeuvre are swept along by forces outside their control – alien forces, cosmic forces, evolutionary, religious, or political forces. They are usually passive observers as events take shape around them. Not so in Heinlein’s novels. His characters are strong and deterministic, actively challenging their environment in an effort to tame nature. The universe bends to their Will.

The first half of Interstellar feels like one of Heinlein’s early novels, something along the lines of Farmer in the Sky. Our hero is an engineer-farmer who is chosen to save humanity. Throughout the entire film, the threat of extinction is a problem that can be overcome with judicious application of Willpower, as well as good old-fashioned engineering know-how. There’s little doubt that the characters will succeed, because they want to succeed.

Part of the enjoyment of Interstellar comes from its nostalgia for Golden Age Science Fiction. The scenes set on other worlds have a truly alien feel. Aside from the obvious parallels to Clarke and Heinlein, Nolan is also channeling the “sense of wonder” invoked by Blish and Asimov.

I’ve always maintained that science fiction films should involve an element of spectacle, in order to replicate the sense of wonder inherent in their literary counterparts. And Interstellar really delivers with spectacle. The shots of the wormhole, as well as the black hole, are utterly breathtaking.

Space!
Space certainly doesn’t look this good from Earth.

It’s worth mentioning the parallels with Carl Sagan’s Contact, particularly the 1997 film version. And not just because Matthew McConaughey delivers a great performance in both films. But the father/daughter relationship is strikingly similar, with themes of the absent father resounding through both. Interstellar isn’t quite as successful as Contact in creating a sense of scientific verisimilitude, especially in the dialogue, but the cynical part of me wonders if that’s because Hollywood has begun dumbing down their movies to target a wider audience. Quite possible.

The scenes on Earth, with the crop failures and dust storms, recall some of the better environmental novels of the 1960’s, such as J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. There’s even some Malthusian theory thrown in there – John Lithgow’s character has an excellent line about the six billion people on Earth living beyond their means.

Some audience members may have been put off by the film’s more saccharine sentiments. The overuse of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” to rouse the characters almost drove me to madness. And the idea that love is a certifiable force in the universe certifiably had me rolling my eyes at one point, mainly due to the clumsy exposition and the attempts to frame it within quantum theory. However, I’m not too critical of the idea of love as a guiding force – it’s been a recurring theme throughout science fiction since the early days of the genre (Frankenstein, anyone?), despite ardent denial from many hardcore fans. Love is at the core of what it means to be human. And in the end, Interstellar is a film about retaining our humanity in the face of overwhelming despair.

And that’s why I’ll end this piece with the closing lines of Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece Star Maker, in which he contemplates what humanity needs to face the coming centuries. I feel that it’s particularly appropriate to what Nolan was trying to achieve in Interstellar:

Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars, symbol of the hypercosmical reality, with its crystal ecstasy. Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even the possible defeat of our half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less, urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness.

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6 comments

  1. I was immediately reminded of Stephen Baxter as I watched. The whole paradox thing where he sends a message to himself, like bringing himself platnerite in The Time Ships. And… His love affair with NASA. Great film all in all.

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