Interstellar: The Soulful Odyssey
Let’s get something straight, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is not an attempt at doing a 21st century version of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obviously, there is common ground - or should we say: space - but mainly in visual moments of one deliberately paying homage - not copying - the other. Aside from that, each movie is very different in story, narrative style and approach. And the fact they were made in completely different eras of both Hollywood and space exploration, pulls their center of gravity even further apart.
Yet in the wake of Interstellar’s theatrical release in November of 2014, certain film critics and fans insist on comparing the two as if the latter were an inferior copy of the former. In some cases, their arguments have all the sophistication of a third grader trying to prove which baseball player or video game is better. In others, the observations are a bit smarter, but still miss the only meaningful connection between the two films: the theme.
But hold your thrusters, it’s not a direct connection either.
Chistopher Nolan’s film - co-written with his brother Jonathan - is basically a family drama set in an end-of-days world, where super science with a kick is our only gateway out of the mess we’ve made. A Hollywood movie by definition, albeit one piloted by a director with a vision that cares for every detail. And yes, we in the audience are meant to care about the characters and enjoy the damn ride. Whether we do or do not depends on who we are as moviegoers.
Yet the drama thing in the movie, which yes, gets emotional and will have us concerned for how things turn out, doesn't weigh down the story as it progresses toward its conclusion, as some have suggested. In fact, it is rather well-embedded into an important aspect of the plot. The science.
By science, we mean that freaky science thing called astrophysics, which is all over the story. I mean, these characters personally experience and endure relativity, wormholes and black holes like characters in no previous film have ever done. And their choices regarding each one deeply affect their relationship with one another: yes, the drama. In fact, Einstein’s theory of relativity drives the main conflict that Cooper (played by Mathew McConaughey) - who leads the mission to find a new home for humanity - has with his daughter Murph who stays back on Earth. So thanks to what we know from Einstein - and not some cheap shot at melodrama - she grows older faster in relation to the slower passing of time for her father who is light years away.
Still, this is a science fiction movie, so there are also elements of the plot - that take things to a higher dimension - based on that other freaky science thing: the imagination of its writers, which in this case is based on more speculative aspects of quantum physics . Now if you're inclined to complain about this, please remember there's a reason it's called science fiction. And if you seriously expect science fiction to strictly adhere only to theories that have been fully demonstrated, then maybe your expectations are in another dimension, just not sure if it's a higher one.
Yet despite the science, Interstellar, unlike many sci-fi Hollywood films, comes with the theme tank fully loaded. Its most urgent theme is clearly defined by Cooper when he sells his father-in-law on why he must go on the mission, “Mankind was born on Earth. We were never meant to die here”. This concept defines the heart and soul of the movie. Whether it resonates with us or not is another story.
So where does all this leave the comparison with 2001?
First of all, Kubrick was not really interested in character drama of any kind when he made his space movie. He was on a totally different mission. His is not even a Hollywood film by most parameters, but rather a perfectly executed visual philosophical treatise on the evolution of intelligence. This can be appreciated from the opening when neanderthal primates learn to use a bone as a tool, to the moment artificial intelligence becomes sentient and defies the humans it is meant to serve, and all the way up to the ambiguous star child ending perhaps suggesting the beginning of a new era. This is not only a cerebral movie through and through, but a visually exhilarating one, and the latter has made it one of the cultural icons of modern times.
But the fact remains that Kubrick deliberately made this a film without a conventional plot. It’s really just a series of events connected by the search for an artifact: the enigmatic monolith. And actually, with the exception of the paranoid artificial intelligence HAL 9000, all other characters are only part of the scenery in that search. They don't feel much and have nothing important to say. But hey, that's exactly the way Kubrick intended it.
So without a plot in the real sense, the film is all theme. We contemplate this theme as Kubrick provides meticulous detail of what the future of space exploration looks like. His vision was so powerful that it shaped what was ahead for science fact as well as science fiction. But the visionary film was released in 1968 and we now know how things really turned out for space exploration, as well as for the evolution of human intelligence.
Today, 13 years after the year 2001, we live in a world where the path of least resistance is the one preferred by a significant part of civilization that mostly worships itself and looks little outward. So one can only wonder what an updated epilogue to Kubrick's film about the evolution of intelligence might look like if it were made today.
It probably wouldn't be Interstellar, at least if it were done in Kubrick's style. But then again, even if Spielberg went up to studios to do something like 2001 today, there is little chance it would get the green light.
So then, what is the true connection between 2001 and Interstellar? And why do we say it is indirect? Basically, because where 2001 was all about how we have evolved from primates to AI, Interstellar focuses on how it is within our very nature to be explorers. So one is about how we think and the evolution of our intellect; the other about who we are on the inside, our hopes, our dreams, as well as who and what we care most about. Two sides of the same coin. Maybe if we add them up, we get the whole. That's why we say that with very different styles, the theme of one picks up where the other one left off.
Coop sums it up nicely. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars (the situation we see in 2001), now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt (the situation that sets the plot of Interstellar in motion)". Putting both movies together, we could say: our brain once took us to the stars. But our soul will take us back.