The Distance Between Stars – Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey

Whenever we wonder why something is the way it is, sometimes looking at the stars or down at our planet, in those moments we are the universe attempting to understand and describe itself. When we make or watch films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Interstellar (2014), then a tiny part of the universe is using folk tales to try and understand its own nature. We are like a child playing, testing stories, creating fantasies. I can’t tell at this stage if the human race is going to grow up and join the adult universe, or if we’re going to drink some bleach from a bottle under the sink, wiping ourselves out by being stupid.

This theme of humanity reaching a new stage of development was the core message behind 2001, and Nolan revisits it with his new film Interstellar.

My friend Dalia described it as “a conversation with 2001,” which is a perfect analogy. This conversation is at times subtle (“Greetings, I see our protagonists both wear Hamilton watches,”) and sometimes crashing and jarring (Later on, Interstellar gets drunk and says “I like having an astronaut in a loosely coupled airlock too!”). I gave up trying to count Nolan’s shout-outs to Kubrick’s film after about five minutes. Nolan must literally have had a checklist of references he wanted to get in, for there are dozens of them. That’s for a later, more fun, exercise.

(Spoilers begin here)

The stories are similar: both films open with mankind close to extinction, require a visit to the gas giants of our solar system to use a star gate, and end with an astronaut in an higher dimensional abstraction of a familiar environment from their past.

Underpinning this are all the textural references. Spacecraft spin to match rotations. Zimmer uses the same note from Also Sprach Zarathustra to link concepts.  Murph pulls books from a shelf in the same way Bowman pulls the circuit modules from HALs Logic Memory Centre.  The robots are monoliths: formatted 1x4x9, the squares of the first three integers. The robots work here because they are clever and humourous (they involve some of the best interactions of the film), but seeing them move around feels a bit forced, though cool. It was TARS and CASE that made me suddenly see a strong connection with Disney’s The Black Hole (1979), and whilst my 11 year old self enjoyed that film, it’s a unfortunate leap when it happens. Nolan also comes back to explore one of his favourite narrative mechanics, as he pulls a bit of a reverse Memento: Leonard Shelby sent instructions to his future self that he had no way of understanding, here Cooper sends instructions back to his past.

When it’s at its best, and when it remembers to be its own film, Interstellar envelopes you confidently and takes you on a journey. Whilst the stops are very similar to 2001, importantly it feels like an entirely different film. The tone is as different as you can possibly get from Kubrick’s film. The key lies in the characters in Interstellar, and the huge range of emotions they go through. In 2001, Bowman is a cypher — he needs to be — the only thing you know about him is that he enjoys sketching. Cooper has a whole lot more going on with him. The human relationships in 2001 are simple and transactional, in Interstellar they are messy and complex.

It’s the human relationships that save Nolan’s film. Contrast the scene from 2001 where Heywood Floyd calls his daughter about missing her birthday, with the scene in Interstellar where Cooper’s daughter calls him about her birthday. Given that even the video screen formats were the same, it would have been too knowing a nod without the emotional resonance that Nolan adds.

Despite the endless references, Interstellar still stays on the side of homage and never becomes derivative. It’s a very good film in its own right, but in many ways comes across as created by someone who wanted a crack at remaking 2001, but knew that would be heading for a whole load of trouble — and so in this sense Nolan’s film is closer to Soderberg and James Cameron’s remake of Solaris.  They are both huge fans of 2001 and wanted to create something in homage to 2001, but without necessarily going there.

Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s attempt to understand and describe Kubrick’s 2001.  As I said, he’s never truly derivative but this film would never exist without its ancestor. If Interstellar has a weak spot, it’s that it just can’t step away from its source material for long enough to develop its own ideas. It’s a good film, but I think the test will be in 46 years — I doubt if anyone will be making any reverential homages to Interstellar as there really aren’t enough new ideas here to warrant a revisit. My question is, why did all these people get together to do such a like for like reinvention of 2001? Why not do a different film?

I love 2001 beyond all reason, but I want someone to make something just as good, but different, with new ideas — otherwise we won’t develop much further as a species.

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Robin McSkimming

I found out the other day that Robin McSkimming had died on 2011-01-21, and felt the need to write a few words.

Big Mac — as he was universally, and affectionately, known  – made a powerful impact on everyone who met him and was a legend among the staff and pupils at Allan Glens.  Tall and thin, we would have described his appearance as Dickensian if our English teacher hadn’t pretty much guaranteed we knew nothing about Dickens.  Another immediate thing about McSkimming was his energy: I’d never seen so much energy in a person, and he was rightly proud of how active he was.

Teaching at Allan Glens, by then an inner city comprehensive school, in the mid-Eighties must have been tough — it was hard enough being a pupil there — but McSkimming threw himself into it with such passion and commitment that even the hardest and “beyond hope” pupils connected with him and respected him.  Indeed, they respected him because he treated pupils with his own irreverent type of respect.  He didn’t take anyone, including himself, too seriously.  I’m very sure that hundreds of people in their 40s and 50s remember his catchphrases and stories fondly even now.

Another of the reasons he made such a connection with his pupils was because he was genuinely interested in them; the details of their lives and their motivations fascinated him.  McSkimming loved knowledge and was always hungry for information — leaflets brought back from trade fairs, old maps, letters: he described them all as “meat and drink.”  The world was full of wonders for Big Mac and he generously instilled his enthusiasm into his classes and inspired them to look beyond Townhead.

He loved taking classes out in “his” minibus, and hundreds of stories must exist of those trips.  One I remember vividly was a visit to the Gorbals.  McSkimming drove us to a busy shopping centre, stood us in a semicircle and jumped up onto a low wall (he was always jumping on and off things, of course) — thus he began a hands-on lecture on Urban Geography.

“As you can see, this is an area of considerable social depravation,” he shouted through his cupped hands, “with a high incidence of wife-beating and alcohol abuse brought on by grinding poverty.”

We made it back to the minibus, somehow.

McSkimming also inspired devotion in his pupils in seemingly indirect ways: one afternoon, for no reason I can readily explain, I found myself dressed as a nun, going from class to class in a Protestant school, with a bunch of friends raising money for a new minbus.  Big Mac hadn’t asked us to do this, and knew nothing about it, it just seemed like a good thing to do.  No-one tried to kill me either.  I think even he was surprised about that.

McSkimming had a mischievous disregard for authority, which I was only too happy to indulge when I was told to give a Head Boy speech at the end of my final year.  I wrote the speech I was expected to deliver and submitted it to the Headmaster and Deputy.  Once approved, I was in McSkimming’s office.  ”Do you fancy a wee rewrite, laddy?” he suggested.  We sat at his beloved Olivetti and crafted something a bit more interesting.  The speech I went on to deliver at the end of the term was based on a comparison of our Headmaster Smith with another famous Smith, the captain of the Titanic, and I was more than happy to take the blame.

We stayed in touch over the years and exchanged letters on rare occasions; he even called me, out of the blue, last year, and we had a good chat about the world.  His staggeringly sharp mind and curiosity about life showed no signs of diminishing.  I now feel that one of the tragedies of being a teenager is that you have such a narrow range of experience that it is often difficult to understand or appreciate how special and influential the people in your life are at the time.  It’s only until perhaps later when you think back with your adult view and see it.  I was lucky enough to converse with Big Mac as an adult and acknowledge how truly unique and individual he was.  He deserved much wider recognition.

However, it’s an understatement to say that no-one who knew Robin McSkimming will ever forget him — the positive impact he made on countless kids’ lives is immeasurable, and he will be sorely missed.  I owe that man a lot, and it’s not because he taught be about glaciation — it’s because he showed me that the world, and the people in it, are endlessly fascinating things.

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Christmas Tree = Deployed

Stanley checking out the new tree

Stanley checking out the new tree

Possibly a bit early for most Danish habits, but we’ve put up our Christmas tree.  It has become our custom to get it from the local FDF troop — a bargain at 250dkk delivered.  Stanley will now spend the next three weeks living under it.

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I’m sorry, I just had to:

With apologies to Brian Eno

Music for Airports Venn - with apologies to Brian Eno

And I don’t intend to either.

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Monks Crossing

For some reason, this made me think of Anathem.

Pelican crossing in Kolding

Pelican crossing in Kolding

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The Danes have an obsession with all things cosy, and even although they have their own, even better word, hyggelig (more descriptive, subtler) they still like to use the English word.  It pops up everywhere, spelling optional.

Cafe Cozy in Hedensted

Cafe Cozy in Hedensted

Coasy Cut

Coasy Cut

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Google Streetview

Driving along behind the Google Streetview car between Billund and Egtved.  I’m looking forward to seeing this update (which I’m guessing will be in about a year), and will post the reverse angle.

Google Streetview car

Google Streetview car

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This cat bed I got from Amazon came with some free books!

Stanley, sleeping elegantly

Stanley, sleeping elegantly

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Spotted whilst on the way home one night last week.

“Oh what, you need some of those things?  You can order them online at double-you double-you double-you dot r e n d s b u r g e r dash f e u e … no wait, dash f e u e r … um…”

Some German company that presumably makes things made out of zinc.  Or something.

Some German company that presumably makes things made out of zinc. Or something.

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Panasonic Jungle

Thanks, Panasonic — you’ve inspired me to start a new category for this one: “What were they thinking?”

So, Panasonic have launched a new portable console, intended to compete with the iPod, iPhone, iPad, DSi, Android and PSP.   Looks wise…

Panasonic's Jungle

Panasonic's Jungle -"We are online gaming" apparently.

… it says “Really, really clunky” to me.  Too big and heavy to hold just in your hands, too small and fiddly to sit on your lap.

What’s it for?  Playing MMOs whilst on the move.  There is one title announced — the Battlestar Galactica MMO.  Given that Galactica has been off the air for a year or so and did not end all that well, it remains to see how popular that one will be.  Also, you can watch the machinima Online Underground.  Right.

I’m getting overwhelming NGage deja vu.  That and Gizmondo (but at least that had a crashed Ferrari to make that story interesting).  This is a handheld that is trying to solve a problem that does not really exist — I think it more likely that people will want to interact with their favourite MMOs in a different way when on the move, and things like laptops exist now.  And I’d be scared to put this in my bag in case it crushes my iPhone.

Terrible official website

The key selling point is that the screen is allegedly very high resolution — it even has a HDMI out.  Which completely obviates the whole point of being portable, come to think of it. It runs Linux — so that excludes it from most games out there.

Price has not been announced, but it has to be around $200 to stand a chance out there.  However, don’t be surprised if you never hear of this again.

UPDATE: 2011-03-01:

They finally realized it was a STUPID idea and canned it.

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