Interstellar (2014)

interstellar bookshelf

“I Should Have Been a Farmer”

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) repeatedly quotes 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Numerous times, Hans Zimmer’s score echoes the former film’s soundtrack. As Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) looks out his window at the dying Earth’s blighted crops, the Interstellar soundtrack crescendos with a chord which lingers, one of the hallmark features of Kubrick’s use of the compositions of Hungarian avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti in 2001. Indeed, the entire sound design of Nolan’s film resonates with its predecessor, down to reinforcing Kubrick’s insistence that, counter to prior and current science-fiction aesthetic conventions, there are not enough molecules in outer space to serve as a conduit for any sound whatsoever. When the camera location in both films purports to be the extra-terrestrial vacuum, the film’s soundtrack goes silent.

Yet, the two films could not be further apart from each other in thematic sensibility. A misanthrope, Kubrick demonstrates the fall of our species into technocratic inhumanity. When Earth’s scientists discover the monolith near Jupiter, the space agency sends the blandest astronauts it can find. The ship’s evil computer, the HAL-9000 has the good sense to try to keep them from serving as our emissaries to an unknown life form, but tragically fails. The sole human survivor, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the red-eyed computer fight it out to the death, Bowman’s victory demonstrated by reducing the supercomputer to the level of an idiot who can only sing the insipid song, “Daisy Bell.” Give me your answer, do not!

The purported victor of this cybernetic showdown, Bowman travels through the film’s equivalent to Interstellar’s wormhole, ending up in an eighteenth century exhibit in some kind of nutty alien zoo. After Bowman dies, one can only guess that the aliens have sent the star child born of his carcass back to the Earth, to destroy or redeem its denizens Kubrick refuses to make clear. For its part, Interstellar puts many of these plot circumstances into play, not to abandon the terrestrials, but instead to redeem them. As the film begins, the dolts living on the Earth of our near future have responded to our decimation of the ecosystem by retreating into an anti-intellectual Luddite simplicity, praising farming by pretending the U.S. moon landing was merely a publicity stunt to defeat the Soviet Union, not the greatest triumph of the twentieth century. However, some good sense prevails: secretly NASA has been working underground to preserve civilization, either with Plan A (launching the entire underground NASA facility and its denizens into space), or Plan B (seeding another habitable world with a trove of human embryos).

Most of the film’s energy is spent on Plan B. The chief scientist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) tells Cooper that while he flies a mission to deposit the embryos onto one of twelve promising worlds they’ve identified in the galaxy on the other end of the wormhole, he will use the resulting gravitational anomalies to solve the problem of getting the gigantic life raft into orbit. Midway through the film, Cooper’s daughter, Murph (Jessica Chastain), who grows up to become the Earth’s most brilliant scientist, discovers that he lied about a viable Plan A, since Brand has no idea how to construct the correct equations to manipulate the gravitational anomalies emanating from the wormhole. Thus, we follow the adventures of Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway), Romily (David Gyasi), and Cooper visiting the best candidate planets for a new home, including a horrific encounter with an insane Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), whose planet turns out to be covered in barren tundra.

However, it is Plan B that ends up failing: none of the initial explorers survive on any of the twelve planets. While Brand’s daughter travels to the only hospitable one, Cooper enters the wormhole with his computer companion, TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), a far more helpful artificial intelligence than the HAL-9000. In a tesseract, a four-dimensional cube, in which multiple times coexist in the same space within the wormhole, Cooper discovers how to manipulate the gravity in the childhood room of his daughter, Murph. Using the gravitational anomalies generated within the wormhole, but which have effects on Earth, Cooper manipulates the second hand of a watch he gave to his daughter to transmit the data needed to execute Plan A and launch the station out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The film’s method of demonstrating this communications success expresses the profound difference in sensibility between Interstellar and 2001. In the earlier film, Bowman’s trip through the star gate lands him in an antechamber on whose walls are mounted second-rate eighteenth century landscape paintings. These images are of little consequence. The aliens seem to have missed the best of human achievements: Charles Eisen’s Shepherd and Shepherdess, a mid-eighteenth century oil painting, is nowhere near the demonstration of human potential as would have been artwork by Michelangelo, DaVinci, or Rembrandt. On the other hand, Cooper establishes the shared gravitational language by his pressing on the back of the bookshelf in Murph’s childhood bedroom. From within the tesseract, Cooper manipulates the archive of human knowledge that will allow Murph to save humanity. The fact that this language emerges out of the importance of books, writing being the greatest achievement of the human species, testifies to the Utopian optimism of Interstellar.

To transform the pessimism of 2001, from its inception, Interstellar quotes a different array of texts beyond the expected science-fiction masterpiece. During the film’s first image, a lateral tracking shot across Murph’s bookshelf, covered in dust, we hear the aged Murph (Ellen Burstyn) talk about Cooper: “My Dad was a farmer, like everybody else back then.” This fictional presentation of Cooper and Murph in the future is intercut with sounds and images of real people talking about the Great Depression, taken directly from a documentary by Ken Burns, The Dust Bowl (2012). At first, we think all of these interviews are merely of the film’s fictional farmers lamenting what has happened to this future version of Earth. However, the end of the film reveals that these interviews take place even further into the future, a part of an interactive exhibit on the space station near Saturn, reconstructing Cooper’s house, to commemorate the birthplace of Murph, the savior of the human race. Whereas Bowman dies alone in the alien zoo surrounded by third-rate eighteenth century art, Murph dies surrounded by multiple generations of family members, having saved all of humanity, having developed those skills by learning to listen to the books that engulfed her in her childhood bedroom.

But these interviews carry further weight than merely via their reconstruction of the Burns documentary. The opening interview with the aged Murph engages a very different film from the Hollywood Renaissance than 2001, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970). That film opens identically to Interstellar. A 121-year old man, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) tells about his family having been murdered by rapacious Indians. However, an academic historian (William Hickey) suddenly interrupts the interview, laughing at Crabb’s exaggerations, and labeling the white settlers’ encounter with the native population genocide. At that, Crabb goes berserk, demanding that the historian turn the recorder back on, shut up, and listen.

As befits a Hollywood Renaissance film, Little Big Man forwards a revisionist intervention into the film Western, calling attention to the competing functions of various tropes of storytelling in documenting the past. For its part, 2001 is the great revisionist science-fiction film, simultaneously replacing the diabolical aliens (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and the intrepid space heroes (1950’s Destination Moon) of the Classical Hollywood Cinema. Interstellar returns the science-fiction film to its classical roots, celebrating the ability of adventurous humans to explore the unknown and overcome its dangers. The closest Interstellar comes to revisionism is when the newly returned Cooper chides his mother for telling everyone that he liked being a farmer. But colonization is never questioned in Interstellar. Indeed, the film ends with Cooper piloting a ship toward Brand, to join her in resurrecting Plan B, embracing the pioneer spirit that both 2001 and Little Big Man knows better than to celebrate.