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.