17 Nov 2014

An Initial Response to Interstellar

By Peter Krämer

This is a report on my experiences with, and initial thoughts about, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As I am writing this on 10 November, I have seen the film twice. The second time was yesterday, in the context of one of the regular ‘Philosophers at the Cinema’ events at Cinema City in Norwich, which included a panel discussion chaired by Vincent M. Gaine and featuring Rupert Read, Elena Nardi and myself.

At my first viewing of Interstellar – it was the first screening on the first day of its UK release (7 November), on a huge, curved IMAX screen - I was at times deeply moved by the film, at other times simply stunned and at yet other times more intellectually engaged – and occasionally rather troubled.

Before seeing the film, I had managed to avoid almost all publicity and advertising, except for short and rather cryptic trailers, thus knowing as little as possible about its story. While watching the film, I was not just following its story and giving in to its audiovisual spectacle, but also mobilising various frames of reference within which I thought one might productively place the film. As someone who has spent several years researching and writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey (See, for example, my Introduction to 2001 here on thinkingfilm), while also having spent a lot of time last year with the films of Terrence Malick, I was bound to consider Kubrick’s film as well as Malick’s work as important reference points.

The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick (2011)
Perhaps it was the appearance of Jessica Chastain halfway through Interstellar which cemented the link to Malick’s films, especially The Tree of Life, which is the first film in which I had ever encountered the actress. In The Tree of Life an intimate family drama is puzzlingly connected to a spectacular presentation of cosmic history, especially the history of life on our planet. Interstellar uses a Science Fiction story to make a similar connection between the most intense human connections and the vastness of the universe. Furthermore, the drama unfolding in the Midwestern scenes of Interstellar increasingly reminded me of Malick’s Days of Heaven – especially the image of endless fields, and the spectacle of a cataclysmic fire.

Days of Heaven, dir. Terrence Malick (1978)
There is much to be said about how Interstellar relates to the key characteristics of Malick’s work as a whole, such as the following:
1) The prominence of voiceovers
2) The use of pre-recorded classical music on the soundtrack
3) An emphasis on extreme long shots displaying landscapes, often with tiny human figures or comparatively small buildings visible within these landscapes
4) The foregrounding of the human transformation and/or destruction of natural environments (through agriculture, buildings, fire, war and chemical pollution),
5) A primary focus on American characters and/or American geography (across Malick’s work, these are increasingly put into an international context),
6) The exploration of incomplete or dysfunctional families,
7) The presence of young children and/or teenagers, often at the very centre of the story (in three of Malick’s films a voiceover associated with a teenage girl dominates),
8) The centrality of male violence,
9) References to spiritual and religious matters (these become ever more explicit and dominant across Malick’s work).
For the time being, I have to leave it to the reader to consider the many parallels to Interstellar (points 3-8) and also the glaring differences (points 1-2 and 9). I do want to note, however, that what is perhaps most strikingly missing from Interstellar is (this would be my tenth point) Malick’s detailed attention to, and celebration of, the complexity, beauty and diversity of the Earth’s living environment (exemplified by his close-ups of streams of water, low angle shots of trees etc.).


2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)
Interstellar’s links to 2001 are manifold. Some of them would appear to be unavoidable, given 2001’s central place in the Science Fiction genre: spacecraft moving towards each other and docking, panoramic views of planets, trips through punctures in the space-time-continuum, the interaction between astronauts and human-like computers/robots – all of these inevitably evoke the iconic images of Kubrick’s film. There is also the overall structure of Interstellar, which is so similar to that of 2001 (although, there are also, of course, important differences): the protagonist leaves home to go on a space adventure during which most of his travel companions die; with little hope ever to be able to make it back to Earth, he then goes on an utterly mysterious journey through space and time which does eventually, and rather magically, return him home. In 2001 this journey is facilitated by the technology of an unknown alien civilisation, whereas in Interstellar it is revealed to be masterminded by humans of the distant future.
Throughout the early parts of the protagonist’s adventure in Interstellar, video messages from Earth serve to remind us (and him) both of his human connections back on Earth and of his separation from the people he loves. Much of this could be said, with some modifications, about the journeys of Heywood Floyd, David Bowman and Frank Poole in 2001. For example, 2001 features one videophone conversation between Floyd and his daughter on Earth, and one video message Poole receives from his parents. In both cases, the subject is a birthday (the little girl’s, the astronaut’s). The video messages featured in Interstellar also involve parents and their children, and one of the most memorable of these messages concerns a birthday (that of the protagonist’s daughter, who is reaching the same age his father was when he left her). Indeed, it eventually turns out that the ‘poltergeist’ whose messages set the film’s story about family separation and space adventure in motion, and also provide the daughter with all the information she needs to achieve a momentous scientific breakthrough, is in fact a future version of the very father who goes on the adventure.

Interstellar has multiple endings – in one the father has a final encounter, and reconciliation, with his dying daughter; in another he is on his way to the woman he has grown to love during his space adventure, the implication being that the two of them will begin to populate an alien planet. The emphasis in both endings is, more or less explicitly, on human fertility: the daughter is surrounded by all her descendants (who are now living in giant space stations), and the woman the adventurer loves is storing hundreds of embryos. The ending of 2001, by comparison, features a foetus returning to the vicinity of Mother Earth – but this foetus is not the result of human reproduction, and its future trajectory is left completely open. (Indeed, the film links this trajectory to that of the audience insofar as the film’s action ends with the foetus turning towards, and staring into, the camera.)

2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Kubrick (1968)
Thus, the link between father and daughter is running through all of Interstellar, and the hole in their lives created by the death of the adventurer’s wife, which is mentioned towards the beginning of the film, is about to be filled (at least as far as the father is concerned) at the end. Throughout the film, the emphasis is on the need to keep the cycle of human biological reproduction going. At the same time, the whole story is shaped by the interaction between father and daughter (with a little help from humans of the distant future). By contrast, 2001 has different protagonists for its different parts, never shows the people who are separated being reunited, focuses on processes of transformation (from pre-human hominid to human, from astronaut to Star-Child) rather than biological reproduction, and shows humans (as well as pre-human hominids) to be subjected to higher forces in the universe, rather than presenting them as being perfectly able to shape their own destiny.


Contact, dir. Robert Zemeckis (1997)
Interstellar also evokes more recent Science Fiction films which were in turn heavily influenced by 2001, notably Contact in which a mysterious message from the stars allows one woman to travel across the cosmos (in a spectacular wormhole sequence); she then encounters an alien intelligence taking the shape of her dead father. Gravity also comes to mind: a woman who has lost her young daughter tries to escape from her grief-stricken life on Earth into space, yet returns to the surface with what appears to be a renewed sense of purpose and a keen appreciation of the beauty of nature and life (cp. http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/gravitys-pull.html). Last but not least, there is Avatar, which features humans leaving Earth to colonise another world, the inhabitants of which, it is suggested, they will destroy in the process of exploiting its natural resources, just like they killed the non-human natural world on their home planet. These three examples begin to hint at what is, at first sight, a rather old-fashioned, even retrograde thematic and narrative emphasis in Interstellar.

The main protagonist is a male adventurer, who is forced by circumstances to work the land as a farmer – which he hates (as the film repeatedly makes clear, from the very beginning to the very end). Then, a sudden shift in circumstances (NASA scientists reveal to him that life on Earth will soon become impossible and he is needed to prepare a future for humankind in space), allows him, even pushes him, to embark on the grandest of adventures, leaving behind his farming work and also his family. Despite all the communicative and emotional connections he maintains with his family, and despite a temporary return to that family, he ultimately leaves family and Earth behind. (Upon his return, he appears to have no interest in connecting with his grandchildren, and he never asks what the situation on Earth is like, now that many humans have moved into space.)

This contrasts sharply with Contact‘s and Gravity’s focus on female protagonists, the processing of the loss of family members, the enduring link with those who have been lost, and the space adventure’s ultimate purpose to enhance the protagonist’s (and indeed, potentially, everyone else’s) life on Earth. Perhaps not coincidentally, Matthew McConaughey, who appears as the female adventurer’s love interest in Contact and is excluded from the space adventure there, takes centre stage in Interstellar. Relatedly, in Gravity George Clooney plays a character that one would expect to be at the centre of a space adventure – and who then becomes a ghostly presence in the adventure of a female protagonist. Interstellar puts the male adventurer firmly back at the centre.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)
Another curiously retrograde element of Interstellar is its exclusive focus on the United States and Americans. Both on Earth and in space, we only ever encounter Americans (Michael Caine’s performance as Professor Brand suggests that he might be a former Brit who has lived in the US for a long time). Indeed the scenes on Earth are presented in such a way that one might think that only Americans have survived the catastrophe (which appears to be a combination of war, naturally occurring – as well as perhaps weaponised - plant diseases and general environmental degradation, mainly to do with soil erosion) that has befallen life on Earth. This contrasts sharply with the global effort made in Contact to build the alien machine (although here as well Americans are absolutely central to this effort), and with the emphasis in Gravity on the international nature of space exploration (the film features the International Space Station and also a Chinese space station).

When comparing Interstellar to Avatar in this respect, we find that in James Cameron’s film the human characters also appear to be Americans – yet they are contrasted, and largely found wanting in comparison, with an alien humanoid species. Where Avatar associates Americans (and an American-identified military-industrial complex) first of all with the destruction of natural habitats and ways of life, even of Mother Earth itself, Interstellar emphasises that Americans are the only ones who can even try to save the day – through science, technology, ‘bravery’ and exploration. What is more, the mysterious force that drives the narrative in Interstellar is, as already mentioned, ultimately claimed to be a future version of humanity, or rather: the American people – whereas the story of Avatar is largely controlled by a kind of planetary consciousness in the form of Eywa who is worshipped as a goddess by the natives (See collective member Rupert Read's discussion of Avatar on thinkingfim here).

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
Going against important trends in recent Science Fiction cinema, then, Interstellar would appear to put the heroic and expansionist American male back at the centre, telling a story about the need to abandon efforts to take care of the Earth (because it is too late for these), and about the possibilities of finding alternative living arrangements beyond the Earth (in the form of huge space stations and other planets). The time travel element of the story allows for a fantastic (and deeply paradoxical) kind of self-reliance and self-help: The future version of the adventurer travels back in time to make himself go on the big adventure, and to provide his daughter with all the necessary information for her to be able, much later on, to unravel the mysteries of the universe which in turn allows NASA to launch its space stations.

The above three sections were written before I saw Interstellar for the second time. Seeing it again on a much smaller screen and knowing exactly what to expect, I was quite detached for much of the film. During my first viewing, I was initially quite moved by Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Coop, a reluctant, yet apparently quite competent farmer, who is obviously very close to his daughter but also gets along well with his son and his father-in-law, is easy-going and patient when dealing with the challenges of everyday life (bad dreams, a daughter who talks about a ghost, a flat tire), and also has experienced great loss (an accident in the skies appears to have cut short his career as a space pilot, his wife is dead). The second time, I knew from the outset that the film was setting him up as an outward (and upward) looking, expansionist American hero, and setting him against all those who think that directly taking care of life on Earth is people’s primary responsibility. As a consequence, I felt little empathy with, and even less sympathy for, him.

Interstellar, dir. Christopher Nolan (2014)
The strange early scene, in which an Indian drone, left over from what may have been a global war, crosses his path, and he chases after it in his truck, recklessly ploughing through the fields, now came across less as a nostalgic evocation of a by-gone high-tech era and also perhaps an ominous reminder of his former life as a pilot (which foreshadowed his return to that life); instead I just saw his careless destruction of parts of the harvest which it is his responsibility as a farmer to bring in. Similarly, I no longer found his discussion with a teacher and a school administrator about the problems his daughter Murph is having at school at all humorous, because it was so obvious to me now that the purpose of this scene was to characterise those who made farming an absolute priority so as to feed the remnant of humanity that has survived, in an extremely negative manner. They deny his son what he regards as a proper university education (because what is most needed are farmers); persecute his daughter because she knows and speaks the truth whereas the new school textbooks revise history in an Orwellian fashion (claiming that the moon landings were just a hoax); and are so ignorant or deluded that (once again in an Orwellian fashion) they believe their own lies. Indeed, because of their obvious bias against science and technology (unless it is in the service of food production), he holds them – and people like them – responsible for the death of his wife, whose medical condition could have been diagnosed with an MRI scanner, if such scanners had still been around.

This negative characterisation of farmers and those who support them continues in the rest of the film. Along the way, as an audience we are invited to agree with Coop when he states that ‘we’ (human beings? men? Americans?) were meant to be explorers and adventurers, not ‘caretakers’ (this last word uttered very dismissively). There is also, from the outset, a big question mark around his son, who is – as everyone acknowledges – very good at being a farmer (although Coop thinks that he could and should aim higher). It turns out that, as an adult, he becomes so wedded to the farming way of life that he ignores the welfare of his wife and children. Even after his first child has died, he is unwilling to grant his second child and his wife, both of whom are dying from the dust in their lungs, any medical care. He is last seen in an embrace with his sister, apparently accepting her revelation that somehow their father’s bold adventure in space – rather than the work of farmers on Earth - has saved them and the rest of humanity. Afterwards he appears to be forgotten – by his sister, his father, the film.

Following various conversations after my second viewing of Interstellar, I also began to wonder about the father-daughter dynamics in the film (and about the absent mothers). When Coop says goodbye to ten-year old Murph, who is devastated by his imminent departure, he mentions, rather thoughtlessly, that due to the time-distorting effects of relativity, upon his return he might be the same age as she – in other words, he admits that he might be gone from her life for as long as whatever their age difference is (presumably about thirty years). Afterwards she refuses to look at him again, and she also refuses to send him video messages once he has embarked on his journey into space – until the day at which she reaches the age her father was when he left her. She does not want to reconnect with him, but merely to remind him of the fact that he cruelly abandoned her. When Coop receives the message, he is still close to the age he was when he left (due to the enormous stretching of time he experienced while landing on a planet near a black hole) – as a consequence, they no longer look like father and daughter but more like potential romantic partners.

Young Murph (Mackenzie Foy)
Adult Murph (Jessica Chastain)
In an inspired piece of casting, an impressive match is established between the facial features of the young Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy) and those of the older version (Chastain) – but, it was pointed out to me by other viewers of the film, this match also extends to an uncomfortable degree to Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the woman accompanying Coop on his journey, indeed the woman he will fall in love with. At the end of the film, the dying Murph (Ellen Burstyn) tells Coop, who still has not aged very much, not to stay at her deathbed (because no parent should see a child of theirs die) but instead to return to Amelia; the way she says this strongly implies that she expects the two of them to form a romantic couple and, presumably, to have children together. So what we have here is the story of a man who loses his wife, forms a perhaps unusually intense emotional bond with his daughter (who, for a while, is the same age he is) and then gets her advice to ‘marry’ a kind of lookalike.

Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway)
Amelia Brand’s relationship with her father also is rather peculiar. Presumably, he was instrumental in getting her a scientific education (which, the film tells us, is hard to come by). This is the foundation for her inclusion in the mission to find another planet for humans to live on. The elder Brand talks about his two plans for saving the species (Plan A: to work out how gravity can be suspended so that huge space ships can be moved off the surface of the Earth and then towards an inhabitable planet; Plan B: to establish a human colony on another planet with the help of hundreds of frozen embryos). But he is convinced that only the second plan has any chance. He thus envisions his daughter being the only adult female on another planet, growing human embryos in a vat, but also, at some point, having to raise them as if they were her own children. Of course, she is also likely to form a romantic relationship with one of her fellow explorers, most likely Dr. Edmunds, the man she loves, who is stranded on one of the planets that might be suitable for human colonisation, or, failing that, perhaps Coop, who Professor Brand knows, and clearly admires, from his days as NASA’s most gifted pilot. In other words, there is a sense that Brand gives his daughter to Coop, potentially so as to fill, one might say, the void created by his separation from Murph (and the death of his wife).

At the same time, Murph has been raised by Coop to become a scientist. After Coop, having worked out that the ‘ghost’ communicating with his daughter has left behind geographical coordinates, has stumbled on a base where NASA continues to operate in secret, Murph meets both Amelia Brand (who immediately adopts a quite maternal attitude towards her) and her father. Once Coop has left the Earth, Murph is visited by Professor Brand who eventually takes her under his wings, making it possible for her to get a scientific education and becoming his closest collaborator, indeed the person who appears to be closer to him than anyone else, so that it is she who sits at his deathbed (on which he reveals that he never believed in Plan A, thus having fully intended to send his own daughter and Murph’s father away forever). In a sense, then, Professor Brand takes over Murph from Coop so that Brand can fill the void that Coop’s departure has left in her life and she can fill the void that Amelia’s departure (and the curious absence of her mother) has left in his.

Thus, while the absence of Murph’s and Amelia’s mothers is never properly dealt with, the film shows daughters slipping into the position of their mothers and then being exchanged between their fathers, destined to become mothers themselves (at the end Murph is shown in the midst of many descendants and Amelia is closely associated with the embryos she will use to populate a whole planet, with a little help from Coop).

There is so much more to be said about Interstellar. One might wonder, for example, about the symbolism of ‘wormholes’ and ‘black holes’. These are ultimately used to facilitate a kind of birthing process: they allow humans to travel across the universe so as to relaunch the species on another planet; more particularly, they eventually enable Coop to return to the past so as to facilitate both his own rebirth as an adventurer and the rebirth of humankind off the Earth. Is there some symbolic connection, then, between these ‘holes’ (which are pictured as tunnels) and the female reproductive system? This would put an interesting slant on the fact that the plans of the predominantly male scientists and adventurers revolve around penetrating these holes - which requires them to be, temporarily, fully immersed in them: cosmic intercourse thus also appears to be a return to the womb; the path to rebirth would seem to be a backwards journey through a giant birth canal.

Interstellar, dir. Nolan (2014)
There are other elements in this film which could be seen as a counterweight to its emphasis on male, and masculine, agency. To begin with, there is the opening narration: an old woman (who later is identified as old Murph) starts talking about her father, directly addressing the camera. This initially suggests that what we are about to see arises from her memories and narration. Of course, she is soon displaced from centre stage by images of her father’s aerial accident and by other people remembering the old days, and it is eventually revealed that the recording we saw is on display in the reconstruction of her (and her father’s) home on a space station – yet she is first established as the storyteller behind the story we will see.

Similarly, despite the fact that the ‘ghost’ that young Murph is so curious about at the beginning of the film is later revealed to be (a future version of) her father giving her vital information, on first viewing Interstellar, we see that she is indeed the one who gets the story going. Her openness to what appears to be a supernatural phenomenon, her willingness (after getting some advice from her father) to approach this phenomenon scientifically and thus to determine that it may contain crucial information (an idea her father then picks up on when decoding piles of dust so as to get the coordinates for the secret NASA base) – these are crucial for the male adventure to come, and also for her own intellectual adventure. By returning home, as an adult, to reexamine the traces the ghostly presence has left in the room, she eventually is able to make an unprecedented scientific breakthrough which saves the lives of many thousands of people.

There is also the rather awkward moment in which Amelia responds to Coop’s accusation that her judgment about which of two remaining planets to approach is clouded by the fact that she is in love with Dr. Edmunds, who landed on the planet she suggests they go to. Instead of just claiming that she can retain her scientific objectivity despite her emotional involvement, she argues that ‘love’ itself is a powerful reality that transcends space and time and higher dimensions, and may reveal important truths about the physical universe. Although Coop decides that they should spend their remaining fuel to go to the other planet, later developments would seem to confirm Amelia’s claim. The planet they go to has no life, because Dr. Mann (!), who initiated the original project of searching for inhabitable planets, has been faking data so as to be rescued. What is more, he eventually tries to kill his rescuers in the hope of being able to relaunch humanity all on his own (with the help of nine hundred frozen embryos). This does put the masculinist, expansionist, high-tech vision underpinning the film’s main adventure in a very negative light indeed. By contrast, after Dr. Mann dies in an accident he himself is responsible for, Amelia makes it to Dr. Edmunds’ planet which does indeed have breathable air and plant life. What is more, when Coop enters the black hole (so as to give Amelia a chance to make it to Dr. Edmunds’ planet and also to explore the black hole’s inner workings), he is drawn back – presumably by his intense love - to the childhood of his daughter, which then enables him to close the temporal loop and give her the information she receives at the beginning of the film. It would appear then that love does indeed conquer all, a curiously feminine twist in what is otherwise such a macho tale.

Many more issues remain to be discussed with regards to Interstellar:
- the paradoxes of time travel, the idea of a completely predetermined universe and the alternative (but equally troubling) vision of an infinity of parallel universes;
- the significance of Murph’s name (Murphy’s Law being referenced on several occasions, in two variants: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong; everthing that can happen, will happen);
- the importance of faith (Professor Brand has long lost faith in making the scientific breakthrough necessary for Plan A, Amelia keeps her faith in the possibility of this breakthrough and does achieve it);
- the ability of human beings to make sacrifices for others (for their own children, for all of humankind on Earth right now, for future generations, for the human ‘species’ – there is considerable disagreement between characters in the film about who and what humans are willing to make sacrifices for).
But I will have to leave the discussion of these issues to other writers.

Interstellar, dir. Nolan (2014)