This is not the 2001: A Space Odyssey You’re Looking For
Warning: Full spoilers follow.
I went into Christopher Nolan’s new opus expecting our generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most visually and philosophically profound films I have ever seen. Indeed, there are only two films that have really come close to capturing (for me, at least) something of the terrifying beauty and force of the sublime (the other being the original version of Solaris). Going into Interstellar, especially having paid extra to see it in IMAX (not, alas, on celluloid), I expected something similar, something that would challenge my sense of self, my subjectivity, if you will.
To my disappointment, I got a film that was beautiful in terms of its aesthetics and impoverished in its saccharine, trite narrative and overused trope that love conquers all. To summarize briefly, Cooper (McConaughey), a retired NASA pilot, is called upon by his former employers to save mankind from an extinction caused by the growing levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere. He sets off with a team, including Amelia (Anne Hathaway), heading through a wormhole (created by 5th-dimensional beings) that will take them to a galaxy that may contain planets that can sustain human life, leaving behind his daughter Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain). Eventually, he is able to get in touch with his daughter and avert the extinction of mankind, and at the end of the film he sets off in search of Amelia, who may have landed on one of the other planets and begun a new colony.
There is much to like about this film. The acting is solid (for the most part), and it seems quite genuine in its attempt to ask some of the larger questions about the nature of time and our relationship to it (see below). At the same time, however, it relied on far too many irritatingly problematic cliches that Nolan of all people should be able to avoid. At one point, for example, Hathaway’s Amelia breaks down into tears and explains that love is what has motivated her choice for which planet they should explore, not the objective science utilized by her male co-pilots. The fact that we as viewers are invited to both question the validity of her emotionality and ultimately take it for granted (she is a woman, after all, and we know what emotional creatures they are), indicates just how shortsighted and annoyingly cliche the film’s gender politics remain. And, of course, in typical sci-fi fashion, the only person of colour is killed off and forgotten (though this happens fairly late in the film, he’s never fully developed as a character). White men, as always, get to save the human race, while the women and people of colour get to stand on the sidelines (or, in Amelia’s case, serve as the biological propagator of the new branch of humanity).
To be fair, though, Interstellar is a beautiful film, with absolutely stunning cinematography and composition. It’s just that the beauty, unlike in 2001, doesn’t really serve to do anything substantive or meaningful, caught up (and bogged down) as it is in the ruthlessly heterosexual love plot that could have come straight out of a screenwriter’s how to manual. I wouldn’t belabour the unfavourable comparisons to 2001 if the film wasn’t so insistent on drawing attention to that earlier work, but I suppose that’s unavoidable in a film of this scope and with this particular subject. If you’re going to make an homage, however, you should make sure that it’s at least as good as the original, even if tackling different issues.
As I said earlier, the film raises some compelling questions about time and about our relationship to ourselves. Perhaps the most fascinating instance of this is film’s use of excerpts from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl, which appear sporadically throughout the film. For those in the know, this generates an uncanny frisson of pleasurable terror, as we gradually realize that the past and the present have come together and that this world, which lives in the terror of the growing power of dust storms, is what will become of ours. In the end, however, the neat resolution of the plot undercuts the philosophical complexity that the film might have raised if it was willing, like its predecessor, to eschew the common expectations of what narratives do. Perhaps, in this era of the blockbuster and the studio assumption that people are idiots who want mindless entertainment, this is all we can expect of a film of this magnitude.
For myself, though, I think I’ll go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey.