23 Mar 2016

Blade Runner short thought

By Vincent M. Gaine
Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott (1982)

The films we discuss on this blog are often an individual view of the philosophy in [insert title here]. But we also have public discussions - Philosophers at the Cinema is a regular season of screenings at Norwich's delightful Cinema City. Recently, collective members Vincent M. Gaine and Rupert Read went on Radio Norfolk to discuss this programme and our latest showing, Blade Runner. The screening was followed by a discussion around the philosophical points of the film, which included such points as the environmental damage depicted in the film, and the importance of animals in relation to empathy and the loss thereof.

Blade Runner is a film that prompts a plethora of interpretations and debates, the least interesting of which is "Deckard - replicant or not?" Of particular interest to me is the film's future world (now only three years away), in which technology, capitalism, consumerism and advertising has completely taken over. It is testament to the film that its Los Angeles expresses so much through suggestion and implication, not explicating why large buildings are deserted, why it rains so much, what happened to all the animals. Omnipresent advertising bombards the inhabitants of this city at every turn, promoting "A better life" that seems perpetually out of reach.

Blade Runner, dir. Scott (1982)
It is unsurprising that replicants - artificial people - have become indistinguishable from humans in a world where artifice is so predominant. A key philosophical question, as discussed by Locke and Dennet, is what constitutes a person. While one can ask these questions about the replicants, it seems appropriate to ask them of the (presumably) human characters as well, not only Deckard but also Bryant, Sebastian, Tyrell and Gaff. If a key element of being a human/person is empathy, Bryant and Gaff at least are largely impersonal. Bryant refers to replicants as "skin jobs," while Gaff regards Deckard's work of licensed executioner as "a man's job." Tyrell is far from empathetic, indeed his intellect seems to have divorced him from emotion. His creation and then rejection of Rachael is irredeemably cruel - he created an entity that can think and feel, then discards her when she becomes inconvenient. Roy fares no better - his brief lifetime little more than an academic discussion for Tyrell. Tyrell's death is therefore fitting, his head crushed by Roy while (in the Director's Cut) the viewer sees the impassive and unconcerned owl. Much as Tyrell has no concern for the replicants, this artificial bird has no concern for him. By implication, nor does the film or its world. Personhood is deemed insignificant by the omnipresence of consumer technology, the agony of Tyrell evincing as much sympathy as the swift retirement of Leon. Blade Runner therefore performs philosophy through its prioritisation of commerce over humanity, as salient a message today as when the film was first released. 

Blade Runner, dir. Scott (1982)

31 Jan 2016

The 3-D Experience and Hero’s Journey of Avatar

By Peter Krämer

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
Great Expectations

In April 2009, an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Fan Fever is Rising for Debut of Avatar’ opened with the following statement: 

In an old airplane hangar …, James Cameron has been working feverishly to complete a movie that may
a) Change filmmaking forever
b) Alter your brain
c) Cure cancer.

The writer was obviously having fun with these exaggerations, which were inspired by the larger-than-life persona of the filmmaker and by his many public statements about his latest project, ever since it had been announced to the press in January 2007: ‘Mr. Cameron has done his share to feed the hype with his repeated assurances that a coming wave of 3-D cinema … would have the power to penetrate the brain in a way that movies never have.’ The writer’s choice of words here is interesting, perhaps designed to evoke the colloquial term ‘mind-fuck’, while also mocking Cameron’s machismo (only a very special kind of man would want to ‘penetrate’ people’s brains). 

Yet, beyond its humorous hyperbole, the article also appeared to register a widespread and sincere belief in the possibility of radical change. Referencing both the religiosity of American society and the recent election of the country’s first African-American president, the article stated that Avatar was ‘stirring up a kind of anticipation that until now had been reserved for, say, the Rapture’, and that the film’s ‘technological wizardry is presumed by more than a few to promise an experiential leap for audiences comparable to that of The Jazz Singer, the arrival of Technicolor or an Obama campaign rally.’

When Avatar, which had originally been scheduled for a May 2009 release, belatedly appeared in cinemas around the world in December that year, it certainly told a story about dramatic change: parts of a distant moon’s ecosystem are severely damaged by the operations of a mining company; a humanoid alien tribe has to deal with the destruction of its ancestral home; for the first time in many generations the moon’s scattered tribes unite so as to be able to confront the threat; the neural network of trees, which constitutes a kind of brain for the planet’s ecosystem and is revered as a Goddess by the natives, gives up its usual practice of non-interference and helps to eject the operatives of the mining company. All of this is explored through the central storyline of one of the employees of the mining company who uses a specially grown body as his avatar in the world of the natives, then takes their side in the conflict before he finally abandons his human form for good so as to be reborn in the alien body. 

In addition to telling this complex story about dramatic change, Avatar also initially lived up to the expectation that it might in fact change cinema. In the run-up to its release, there had already been a marked increase in cinemas with 3-D projection capabilities around the world; some of this expansion had clearly been fuelled by the announcement of a live action 3-D release (almost all 3-D releases in recent years had been animated) by one of the world’s most successful filmmakers. When Avatar then went on to break all existing box office records, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, with a particularly strong performance in 3-D cinemas, there was a perception that the popular habit of cinemagoing, recently under a particularly strong threat from alternative leisure time activities, had been given a new lease of life, and, furthermore, that it had been transformed forever, insofar as 3-D could now be expected to become a new standard, rather than the exceptional attraction it had been heretofore. 

Now, if one were to claim that cinema was reborn through the 3-D technology of Avatar, which allowed audiences to inhabit cinematic space in a compelling new fashion, such a claim would constitute a curious echo of the very story the film tells about its protagonist being reborn through the avatar technology which allows him to inhabit a new body and through it a new world. Such echoing can also be observed when the circumstances of the film’s release are considered. Its original May release date derived from Hollywood’s practice to set up its major releases for a high impact before the summer holidays which will hopefully translate into a long run during these holidays. Once it became clear that Avatar would not be ready for this early date, the only obvious alternative was a release in December which would allow the film to profit from increased cinemagoing during the Christmas holidays and also set it up for consideration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other organisations handing out awards in the first few months of the new year. 

Logo for the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009
In the end, the precise release date chosen for Avatar coincided with the final stage of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, which was widely regarded as a catastrophic failure. Thus, as a film about environmental issues, Avatar could, in very general terms, be said to have profited from the public interest in, and intense media reporting on, climate change across 2009 which culminated on the very weekend that the film was first shown around the world. More specifically, the film’s story echoed real-life developments in at least two striking ways, first by imagining a future humanity which has destroyed the ecosystem of its home planet and now sets out to do the same on another planetary body; secondly by imagining an alternative way of life. Here, human-like beings are shown to live in harmony with nature and to achieve a kind of global unity in their attempt to defend themselves and the ecosystem they are part of against destructive forces. 

The most high profile attempt yet to achieve global unity so as to take action against global warming fails at the very moment that Avatar begins to draw audiences all over the world into its story. One might go as far as saying that, whereas politics fails to achieve global unity and bring about necessary change, this film does not only offer a vision of such unity and change, but through its impact on individual viewers and its international success also laid the groundwork for potential real-life personal change and unified global action. At the very least, a substantial proportion of the world’s population now shares the story that Avatar tells. It is conceivable that such sharing will contribute to an awareness of the shared fate of humanity and indeed of the Earth’s ecosystem, and perhaps even to the willingness to take action on its behalf. 

Audiences and Their Avatars

The title of James Cameron’s science fiction epic resonates with ancient myth and with contemporary cultural practice: an avatar is the shape an Indian God takes when walking among humans, and it is a player’s audiovisual representative in the electronic world of a computer game. In the film’s story, Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-marine, is employed by a mining company to enter the dangerous jungle outside the fortified human compound on the distant moon Pandora. This is achieved by projecting his consciousness into an artificially grown body, which mixes human DNA with that of Pandora’s intelligent humanoid species, the Na’vi. In this way, Jake, who has come down from Pandora’s heaven as one of the ‘sky people’ - the Na’vi designation for humans - can walk among the Na’vi, and he can temporarily lose himself in the adventures he experiences in their world. In the course of the story, Jake learns a lot about the capabilities of his new body and about the Na’vi and the other life forms he interacts with, and this provides him with an increasingly critical perspective on the human world he comes from. In the end, he is willing and able to leave his human body behind so as to live permanently as a Na’vi on Pandora. The player thus exchanges what he took to be his reality for his game world; the one who came down from the sky joins the web of life on this new Earth.

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009)
Through its mythical and gaming associations, the film’s title also comments on the very nature of the cinematic experience. As viewers and listeners, members of the audience descend from their own reality into the fictional world of the film, using its protagonist as their avatar. Like gamers, they may concentrate on learning about this world and confronting numerous challenges within it, which in turn allows them to engage with it ever more intensively. While they have no actual control over the actions of their avatar, like divine beings audience members may feel that this whole world is at their service, and that everything is ultimately organised for their avatar’s convenience. So what are the implications of Jake’s decision to switch permanently into his avatar’s body and thus stay in his gaming world? Where does this leave the audience for whom Jake is an avatar?

Similar questions are raised by the film’s opening sequence. The film begins with the camera flying over a dense forest, and a voiceover explaining that this was a recurring dream the protagonist (Jake Sully) had when he was in a veterans’ administration hospital. Given that this is a 3-D movie and that initially it was shown on the largest available screens (including many IMAX screens), the opening emphasises one of the main attractions of widescreen and 3-D technologies, namely the possibility to create a heightened sense of movement through space. Jake’s dream has been the dream such technologies have pursued ever since they were widely introduced in the 1950s. Right from the get-go, Avatar confirmed to viewers that this dream has now become a reality.

At the same time, the opening scene offers references to a particular tradition in Hollywood filmmaking. In recent decades, thoughts of war veterans and jungles are most likely to evoke the Vietnam war and in particular Hollywood’s numerous representations of that conflict in films primarily of the 1970s and 1980s. If one makes this connection, then the dream flight over the jungle landscape represents more than simply the age-old human dream of flying, or the specific desire of an injured soldier to compensate for his restricted mobility in a hospital with the heightened mobility of flight; it also entails a potential threat, because American soldiers might just start firing into the jungle, dropping bombs and setting fire to it (which of course they do later in the film).

Finally, the opening scene is presented as arising from within the protagonist’s consciousness, and it does so in two ways: first it is said to be a dream of the soldier lying in a hospital, secondly the voice-over narrator explains that it is a dream he used to have in the past; even the dream is now only available as a memory. Hence the flying scenes are twice removed from narrator’s present reality: they are memories of past dreams. Yet, for the viewers (especially those in a 3-D IMAX cinema) they take place very much in the present and may well have the power to affect them physically. There is a gap, then, between the narrator’s highly mediated connection to the flying scene and the viewers’ immediate experience of it. One might expect that this gap will be closed in the course of the film (as indeed it is). 

This expectation is also raised by the conventions of Hollywood storytelling: We can assume that, if a dream is so clearly stated at the beginning, the protagonist who has this dream will strive to make it a reality, and that eventually he will achieve this. We can also expect the distantiation created by the voice-over to fade in the course of the film, so that the sense of present tense overrides the fact that everything presented in the film is in fact a memory. In this way, then, Jake’s experience of his own dream will catch up with that of the audience. (Indeed, the voiceover of the protagonist looking back into his own past can in places be mistaken for, and is eventually dissolved into, the present-tense commentary that Jake records for his video log.)

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009)
A Hero’s Journey in 3-D

Let’s take a closer look at the kind of change the story of Avatar focuses on. Hollywood cinema is centred on the transformation - the personal growth, psychological maturation etc. - of the stories’ protagonists.  According to script guru Christopher Vogler, filmic protagonists go on a journey (a hero’s journey) into a ‘special world’ which mirrors, in a highly exaggerated and fantastic manner, the everyday concerns of their ‘ordinary world’, and which allows them to resolve internal and external tensions and conflicts, so as to emerge from this adventure as more rounded, more socially integrated individuals. 

Films such as Avatar first establish an ordinary world for the protagonist - a world of family, community, work, which is comparable to our own world. This world is full of problems. In Avatar’s case, it is characterised by Jake Sully’s low social status, his inability to carry out his previous job due to partial paralysis and his lack of qualification for the new job he is given, his loss of the cameraderie with fellow soldiers and the initial hostility of his new boss, the death of his brother, and the absence, or active destruction, of natural surroundings. Once this ordinary world is established, the film transfers Jake to, and immerses him - and us - in, the special world of the jungle of Pandora. Cutting-edge film technology is used to make the ‘special world’ as extraordinary as possible.

How does 3-D technology function with regards to the hero’s journey? And how does the film itself reflect on that technology and that journey? It is certainly the case that 3-D effects allow viewers to immerse themselves deeply in the natural world of Pandora, and motion capture (or ‘performance capture’) and computer generated images bring its alien beings to life. However, a word of caution about the importance of 3-D for the film’s impact is in order: Both in cinemas and on DVD and television, the vast majority of the film’s viewers worldwide saw the 2-D version. And although Avatar was by far the most successful 3D-Film in history, the expectation that its success might make 3-D a new standard for Hollywood releases has not been fulfilled. Nevertheless, I want to concentrate on the particular contribution that 3-D makes to the experience of the film.

Before entering the cinema auditorium, we are given 3-D glasses, which we have to use to cover our eyes so as to be able to enter into the world of the film which is going to be projected onto the screen. If we were to refuse to wear them, watching the film would be an exceedingly unpleasant experience. Putting on the glasses reminds us of how utterly dependent our cinematic experience is on technology. It also constitutes another threshold we are crossing in the transition from our everyday world into the world of the film adventure (other such thresholds are the departure from our homes, the purchase of the ticket, entering the auditorium, the lights going out). Each threshold serves to emphasise how different our cinematic experience is going to be from everyday life. At the same time, the donning of glasses brings us closer to the people who are going to share this experience with us. Not only are we all converging on this particular cinema auditorium at this particular moment in time, but we also cement our connection by all donning these glasses, creating a uniformity of appearance. But the glasses also serve to distance us from each other, insofar as looking at each other rather than at the screen is discouraged by wearing them.

3-D IMAX cinema audience
Now, in the story of the film, after a long journey across space, a group of people arrive on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere. Before they set foot on this planet they are told that they have to wear a mask on their face which will enable them to breath. The mask is a reminder that their presence on this planet is heavily dependent on technology, and that they have moved far away from their previous existence. It also serves to emphasise their shared humanity in contrast to the natives who require no such technological support to breath. Of course, they are not required to wear the mask all the time because they can move within the man-made environments constructed on the planet; in other words, instead of wearing a mask, they can inhabit a technological construct that is like living inside a giant mask. Still, whenever they cross the threshold between their built environment (buildings as well as vehicles) and the outside world, they all have to wear the mask, which makes them look alike and also creates a distance between them, a physical barrier between one face and the next. The necessity for human characters to wear a mask thus echoes in quite a profound way the necessity for viewers of the 3-D version to wear glasses. 

At the same time, the wearing of the mask expresses the tension at the very heart of the film’s narrative: in it humans confront an environment that is dangerous to them, developing a range of strategies for how to deal with that danger. Broadly speaking, there are two strategies: first, the mask and the built environment; second, the avatar programme. Both are heavily dependent on human technology. In a surprising twist, towards the end of the film, a third strategy arises which is no longer dependent on human technology: the permanent transfer of a human mind into the avatar, brought about by the planet’s neural network. The avatar programme thus constitutes a transitional stage - inbetween the initial stage of a fundamental physical separation between humans and environment, and the final stage of full human immersion in that environment. One might even say that the avatar programme marks that moment when a cinema audience, awkwardly conscious of the glasses in front of their eyes and thus of a physical barrier between themselves and their surroundings and also of their dependence on cinematic technology, loses itself in the 3-D cinematic space their glasses allow them to see and in the story unfolding in that space, with the film’s protagonist acting as their own avatar. 

While the transition from an awareness of one’s own body, of a technological process, of the real space of the auditorium and the people in it, to an immersion in fictional space and story is typical of all cinema experiences, the 3-D technology enhances the transformative nature of this transition. The use of the word ‘avatar’ in the film’s title, and the way it is literalised in the story, marks this heightened sense of transformation by suggesting that viewers can physically enter into a different world (as gods walking among mortals, as players in a computer game). Yet, the term also is a reminder of the fact that this entering into a different world is only a partial and temporary experience (the gods will eventually return to the heavens, the players never actually leave the physical world around them and they can not play on forever). 

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009)
All of this is mirrored in the story of the film. On the one hand, the story emphasises how physically liberating and stimulating it is for the protagonist to inhabit the avatar body (here his disability serves to heighten the difference between his everyday existence - which is, of course, characterised by a restriction on mobility similar to that of the people in the cinema auditorium - and the technologically facilitated experience of the avatar’s world - once again mirroring the viewer’s technologically facilitated experience of the cinematic world). On the other hand, this experience is constantly disrupted (initially in a planned fashion, later through violent outside interventions), and the reminders of the needs and vulnerability of the human body left behind become an increasingly important issue. The story comes to focus ever more on the nuisance and danger of having a human body, and it culminates in its abandonment. 

If the protagonist’s journey echoes that of the viewer, what are we to make of that final transformation? One might say that it simply takes the logic underpinning the cinematic adventure (the transition from the everyday world into an alternative reality) too far so that instead of heightening the vicarious experience the viewer has through the protagonist (and through the 3-D glasses), it actually serves as a painful reminder that such total transcendence of the everyday is simply not available in the cinema. Our connection with the protagonist does not go as far as physically and permanently being able to leave our regular lives and bodies behind. Of course, the film’s action ends precisely at the moment when the protagonist has achieved what is impossible for us to do: The last shot of the film is of his eyes opening and staring at us (and Neytiri - but that is another story); then the story ends (although as soon as the credits begin there is more material from the story world projected on the screen; once again this needs to be considered separately). 

When the protagonist has finally done what is impossible for us to do (to abandon the old body and permanently inhabit a new one), our connection with him has to be severed. After all we are only viewers - and the fact that he stares at us, mirroring our own staring at the screen, tells us that this is all we are, and the contrast between his uncovered eyes and our own eyes, covered by 3-D glasses, confirms our essential difference. At the same time, the protagonist’s face points forward to the moment when we remove the glasses and thus enter into a much more unmediated relationship with our surroundings again. In other words: when Jake awakens in his new body, he prefigures our imminent awakening into the reality of our own body and our actual surroundings. If Jake’s story ends with leaving behind what he has come to regard as a lesser existence, we also ultimately have to recognise that watching a film is a lesser reality than our actual bodies and social connections.

Avatar, dir. Cameron (2009

28 Jan 2016

Sympathy for the (Red-Eyed)-Devil in 2001: A Space Odyssey

By Vincent M. Gaine

2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)
Some time ago, Peter Krämer posted some initial thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film ripe for philosophical discussion. As something of a continuation of Kramer’s piece, I offer some thoughts inspired by discussions about the film, especially in relation to other viewers’ negative responses.

2001: A Space Odyssey regularly appears on greatest films of all time lists, including my own (nascent) list, as I (arbitrarily) believe it is the greatest piece of cinema ever made. This is a nonsense position of course, because the number of films I have not seen vastly outnumbers those that I have, but I do regard Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction opus as a truly breathtaking piece of specifically cinematic art. By specifically cinematic, I mean that 2001 expresses its themes and transports the viewer through the features of mise-en-scene, editing, cinematography and an exquisite balance between these visual features and its use of music and sound effects (including silence during the space sequences). These features are far more detailed than the more “literary” features of plot and character, and herein lies a major issue for the film’s detractors. The plot of 2001 is simplicity itself – dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species – so those looking for complex narratives had best look elsewhere. The other issue is character, that eternal element that for some is of paramount importance.

I have written here previously about my general lack of concern over character and my bafflement over the criticism “I didn’t care about the characters”. In the case of 2001, I do understand the criticism even though I would not make it myself. The principal characters of the film are Dr Heywood Floyd, Dr David Bowman, Dr Frank Poole and the computer HAL. If you insist, we can include Moon-Watcher in the opening sequence, but both he and Floyd disappear fairly quickly, leaving us with Bowman, Poole and HAL. The criticism I have come across time and time again is that Poole and Bowman provide no character to engage with, leaving HAL as the most sympathetic character by default. This is apparently a problem because HAL is a computer and has an unfortunate tendency to kill people, so the film has no sympathetic characters and therefore viewers feel disengaged.

I suggest that this character arrangement is not only a narrative strength but also key to the philosophy of 2001. The famous opening scene features hominids learning to use bones as weapons as well as using them to kill prey and rivals, a sequence that ends with a bone being thrown into the air before the longest temporal match-cut in cinema history replaces the bone with a nuclear bomb orbiting the Earth. This concern with weapons runs through the whole film, and what is HAL if not the culmination of humans’ obsession with violence and killing? The later film Dark Star (1974) may have actually featured a sentient bomb, but HAL’s homicidal actions are consistent with the dangers of technology. Therefore, it seems entirely significant that HAL is the most sympathetic, identifiable and memorable character of the film. He undergoes development and demonstrates at least the facsimile of emotions such as ambition, ego, fear and regret. Small wonder he is more engaging than the unwavering and unchanging astronauts who accompany him.

But what is the effect of the film engaging our sympathy with this machine? If the viewer feels sympathy for HAL, despite his ostensible status as the film’s villain, then the danger he poses is even greater than his ability to kill. He replaces the astronauts from their mission – the most important mission in human history, now supplanted by humanity’s creation rather than humanity itself – and he also replaces the humans from their role within the film. In doing so, HAL becomes the ultimate nightmare, making humans redundant both as narrative devices and as objects of audience engagement. Much as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) supplants humanity by imitating both our form and fluidity, HAL replaces us in narrative and dramatic function. 
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, dir. James Cameron (1991)
Thus 2001 is not only a space odyssey but a human odyssey, because en route to the birth of the Star Child, the film treats us to humanity’s replacement by our own creation. This is not only the Frankenstein notion of creations rising against us, but the supplanting of humanity within the relationship between text and reader. Therefore, the peculiar arrangement of sympathetic characters is integral to the film’s philosophy as it plays upon audience expectations and manipulates us to care about that which makes us unnecessary. What purpose do humans have in the advance of humanity when we do not even care about those who do it? None, the tools we construct for our purposes have purposed us out of the purpose itself.

2001’s lack of engaging characters is therefore a vital element of its philosophy, as humanity triumphs over its creation. Significantly, this is by literal deconstruction, as Bowman takes HAL apart piece by piece, HAL attempting to prompt empathy by singing “Daisy, Daisy.” If the viewer weeps for HAL at this point, HAL has won – we now feel for our dying nemesis. Only once HAL is removed from the picture can Bowman encounter the extra-terrestrial intelligence of the monolith, and evolve into the new life form of the Star Child. For humanity to evolve, the film suggests, we must move away from our creations, and that includes being cautious of how we feel about them.
2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Kubrick (1968)

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)