Note: This post contains Interstellar spoilers.
Let me be clear: Interstellar is not a modern 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, the Christopher Nolan-directed film does bear some superficial similarities to Kubrick’s masterpiece. Both films feature a crew of astronauts flying through space on a rotating ship. Both feature artificial intelligences as named characters. In both movies, the missions involve traveling to our solar system’s outer planets, there to be launched across the universe for a mind-bending encounter with the infinite.
But those are pretty superficial similarities, and once you dig down beneath the surface to the heart and soul of the film, it becomes clear that Interstellar is a completely different animal. 2001 it ain’t. Kubrick’s film is austere, chilly, restrained almost to the point of audience alienation—but Nolan’s is noisy, emotional to the point of melodrama, and heavy-handed in its exposition of plot and themes. Where 2001 inspires awe by the sheer grandeur of its imagery and its classical score, refusing to beguile its audience, Interstellar laps at the audience’s heels like an eager puppy, underlining every moment of feeling, peril, and reflection with a bit of explicatory dialogue or the swelling strains of Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score.
Of course, none of this is to say that 2001 is good and that Interstellar is bad. Simply that to compare them on some level does a disservice to both films—both devaluing Kubrick’s achievement in 2001, and mistaking the real nature of Nolan’s real project in Interstellar and his strengths and weaknesses as a director.
But if not 2001, then what? What other films can we use as reference points for Interstellar? Here are 3 movies that, in my opinion, give a better sense of what Nolan is really up to in this film, for better and for worse:
1. Contact (1997)
Contact is epic in ambition but intimate in execution. The film’s premise of humanity being summoned to the stars to learn something about itself couldn’t be bigger, yet the human scale of the story could hardly be smaller, and it’s this distance—the expansiveness of the canvas compared to the emotional intimacy of the storytelling—that makes Contact a great analogue for Interstellar. Directed by Robert Zemekis as a follow-up to Forrest Gump, Contact takes all the gooey sentimentality of that earlier film and basically thrusts it into space.
Ellie (Jodie Foster) is a scientist obsessed with making contact with alien intelligences—she’s also an atheist who’s haunted by the memory of her dead dad. (Not the last time daddy issues will make an appearance on this list.) The plot is pure sci-fi, involving a signal from deep space with blueprints for a spacecraft. The subtext, however, is completely emotional: in order to really understand what those aliens are trying to tell her, Ellie will need to learn how to Let Go, and Believe, and Love, and other things we’re meant to believe are Essential To Humanity—all sentiments that would be right at home next to Interstellar‘s observation that “love is the only thing that transcends time and space.”
And when Ellie does launch off to the edge of the infinite, it’s not a monolith she sees, but her dead dad, in a scene so sparkly it may as well be a Hallmark card. I can’t help but think that Nolan had Contact in mind when the time came to script his own daughter/ghost dad encounter at the edge of the universe in Interstellar.
2. The Fountain (2006)
The Fountain is a frustrating film—it contains some of the coolest, most original sci-fi imagery ever committed to film, and the script’s tripartite narrative structure is really fascinating. But the movie is also goofy as hell. The Fountain gets on this list for its utter determination to blow our minds: a goal it occasionally pursues, like Interstellar, to eye-rolly and even campy ends. Basically, if you can look at the following gif without laughing, then The Fountain is a movie you can get down with (I couldn’t):
But still: the ambition is there, and it’s hard not to love a movie that shows you so many images you’ve never seen before. The Fountain and Interstellar want to reach to higher planes of spiritual enlightenment—and even if they unintentionally make us laugh a few times along the way, you’ve got to admire the attempt.
3. Armageddon (1998)
The Nolan fanboys are going to kill me for this one, but I honestly don’t mean this as an insult. Plus, did you know that Nolan is a Michael Bay fan? It’s true.
Tony Zhou has said that Bay’s idea of a good movie is “3,000 dynamic shots, no static shots.” Bay’s key method is to make every moment of every film over-the-top awesome, packed to the gills with visual information and movement. He’s not a bad director, per se—he just doesn’t make choices. Every shot, every moment, tries to be huge, without regard to content or meaning. The result is sometimes thrilling, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes deadening.
Nolan is a more intelligent director than Michael Bay, to be sure—but like Bay he seems to want every moment of his movies to land like a megaton bomb. Sad moments are punctuated with broad displays of emotion; excitement is punched up with that relentless Hans Zimmer scoring; moments of reflection are underscored by expository dialogue that elucidates the thematic undercurrents but doesn’t sound remotely like human speech.
Armageddon bears some superficial similarities to Interstellar: both center around a regular Joe plucked from his everyday life and launched into space to save humanity. Both crosscut between Earth and space; both feature a hero dad who sacrifices himself at the end. But the real thing that links these two films is a commonality of method: both want to be epic in each moment, each shot. This isn’t exactly my favorite approach—two-plus hours of it can be numbing. At times, Interstellar‘s method of provoking our awe seems to be first pummeling us into submission until all we can do is stare, wide-eyed, at the screen. But it is certainly thrilling. Interstellar, like Armageddon before it, is a hell of a ride.