Whether by pure chance or design, the cinema I was sitting in to see Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic “Interstellar” ran the trailer for the grand daddy of sci-fi epics “2001 : A Space Odyssey” before hand. It was a prescient choice, given that the parallels between the two are obvious. Indeed the trailer, for the upcoming re-release of Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral masterpiece features a quote from Nolan himself, who refers to “2001” as “Pure cinema”.
At their core, both movies share the same basic story; a mysterious, possibly alien, presence compels man to travel to the stars in search of answers. In “2001” the motivation is purely curiosity, but in “Interstellar” there is a more pressing drive. Man must venture beyond this planet because this planet is dying, or at least becoming uninhabitable. The answer to this impending doom lies out there, and man is guided by a mysterious hand from beyond, referred to as “they”.
That is where the similarities end. If “2001” is pure cinema, and it is, then “Interstellar” is Nolan’s attempt at such purity and he approaches it with a scientist’s precision. But cinema is not a science, it is an art, and any attempts to distil its purest form in any kind of formulaic way will end up being sterile and cold, devoid of humanity.
The first half of “Interstellar” appears to be almost entirely exposition dialogue. Almost every line uttered seems to be in service to explaining the situation that the characters find themselves in, clumsily disguised as natural conversation peppered with plot points to note down. And if they are not driving the story, they are instead sign posting the films message with polemic statements about mans place in the universe that are ham fistedly dropped into conversations. It brings to mind the character from “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood” who popped up to shout “message!” every time a character made a John Singleton-esque piece of social commentary. There is nothing wrong with polemic film making, but it can’t feel like you are attending a lecture. Or worse still, a morality play put on a by a local church to warn kids of the dangers of some vice.
Narrative dialogue pervades whole swathes of “Interstellar”. Contrast with the relative sparseness of “2001”’s dialogue. The maxim “show, don’t tell” is completely abandoned here. Everything is narrated by the characters explaining it to each other, and us, the audience. There is, admittedly, a core of humanity represented by the break up of a family as the father goes off to “save humanity”. This core is hindered by clunky dialogue, but saved by excellent acting from all involved.
Once our characters get up into space the film begins to pick up. Nolan can create a thrilling action sequence, and “Interstellar” has a number of them. The mid section of the movie settles into an entertaining enough yarn, and you are carried along by the combination of special effects, roller coaster action and bombastic music. It does “peril in space” well, but I couldn’t help but think of last year’s “Gravity” which took this to its logical conclusion. Still, it thrills and delights for a good extended period. But it feels like slight of hand, a diversion to distract you from looking behind the curtain and finding out there’s nothing there. In time however, “Interstellar” begins to set up its big final reveal, as the mysterious other is unveiled.
Both “2001” and Nolan’s film culminate in the central hero astronaut, having defeated a nefarious interfering menace, confronting the central ‘alien’ mystery. But whereas Kubrick gives the audience space to interpret, ponder and imagine in the incredible “Star Gate” sequence and beyond, Nolan takes you by the hand and begins to point out the pieces bit-by-bit (all driven by external character narrative). “2001” leaves a void in which the audience can speculate, but “Interstellar” literally tells you almost everything, but in doing so unveils a mystery which ultimately collapses under its the weight of its own logic. “2001” gives you enough to fill in the gaps yourself, “Interstellar” gives you so much, you are left with a gap that makes no sense. The sad thing is the central premise of the mystery in “Interstellar” is a great idea, but so literally explained and revealed it ultimately feels silly.
The scientists in “Interstellar” are obsessed with solving an equation which will reveal humanity’s salvation. Nolan appears to look upon film making in a similar way. Like his characters he is looking for all the variables which will complete the puzzle, and he proceeds through them in an objectively literal way. It is no surprise that the man who in “Inception” (which I enjoyed) presented dreams not as the hazy, shimmering experience they are, but as tightly bound rule driven video games, does something similar with the mysteries of a multi-dimensional universe. Like the similarly cosmic and ambitious “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick, the film could have ended 20 minutes before it did and chopped off a whole section of explanation and I would have been left much more satisfied. Fade to white and let us finish it.
“2001” and “Interstellar” are two planets orbiting the same star. But “2001” is a world partly cast in darkness, in the shadow of a monolith which invites us to explore its mysteries for ourselves. “Interstellar” is bathed in the cold light of day, where everything is revealed and its mysteries are exposed in an objective, joyless glare and ultimately is found wanting.