In the past Christopher Nolan has a track record for exploring art through metaphor in his films. As the most recent release from Nolan I believe you could see Interstellar as the third instalment in an unofficial trilogy from the director in this regard. Interstellar rounds out an exploration of art with a strong bias towards cinema.
The Prestige (2006) was the first entry into what I see as a trilogy and looked at the sacrifice required by an artist required to achieve a performance or piece of art. Through the tale of rival magicians we see the sacrifices required for a great performance, one will go so far as to even maintain the act in front of his wife while the other will actually kill himself every performance to keep the spot light.
Exploring the idea of shared dreams and planting ideas in the minds of others in Inception (2010) could be about nothing other than the world of entertainment. The very concept of performing inception is exactly what any great work of art attempts to do, affect the mind of those consuming it. Like many a director the protagonist finds his own attempts to create haunted by his own ghosts and the heist gang end up being a reflection of a film production crew.
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt” - Cooper
So where does Interstellar fit with in this exploration of art? In my mind Interstellar is firmly about the world with in which art finds itself created. Especially in cinema art can only exist with funding and in the case of the blockbuster massive funding is required.
Our ecosystem is dying. Every year more crops fail. There is less food to sustain humanity, all across the world people are left unfulfilled. Only farmers remain mass producing the same few crops for us to sustain a meagre existence on. Of the handful of types of crops that remain even those will fail us soon. Is there any hope for the future of our species?
“This world’s a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now.” - Cooper
Any description of the premise of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar reads a lot like the situation that Hollywood currently finds itself in especially when it comes it’s blockbuster productions. Of the top ten highest grossing films world wide in 2014 only Interstellar is not based on an existing franchise or intellectual property.
Domestic ticket sales for cinemas in the US have continued in their gradual decline with revenues only increasing slightly due to ticket price rises. Hollywood as with many old media institutions likes to cast itself as being in somewhat of a post apocalyptic situation. The plucky little studios, owned by massive multi media conglomerates, seek to survive as they are harassed by the terrors of piracy, television and the unstoppable march of advancing technology.
While this graphic is imperfect we can see how some genres are coming to dominate production in Hollywood while others are squeezed out. This year only 22 fantasy or science fiction films were screened in the United States. Neither graphic fully demonstrates the situation we are facing but they both should raise concerns. Declining markets as well as declining variety in offerings fit well with the state of Earth shown in Interstellar.
“You’re feeling it, aren’t you? The survival instinct. That’s what drove me. It’s what drives us all” - Dr Mann
Through out the film humanity finds it’s attempts at survival as species foiled by the survival instincts of humans on a personal level, in cinema Hollywood faces the same paradox. To survive within the industry you have to achieve results, no one wants to invest in a film without a guarantee of return. The problem is that the only guarantees of return are with known quantities, in this case existing franchises or intellectual properties. Who will risk their career on the original in a climate filled with consumers that crave only what they have had before?
“In my day we had real ball players. Who are these bums?” - Donald
This instinct to go with the known quantity for secured box office returns has always existed in the Hollywood system. Previously Hollywood has gone through cycles of directors, stars and even studio’s themselves being the guaranteed draw to theatres but this still allowed for originality and creativity in terms of the stories being told. Now Hollywood has become the snake consuming it’s own tail as it is stuck in a cycle of relying on the same few crops.
In Interstellar humanity is faced with two options, try and save the planet and the people that already exist or look to the stars in an attempt to start something new. Film makers themselves are currently faced with a similar choice, do they try to save the system (the Murphy solution) or look to explore one of the new avenues of film making and distribution (the Brand solution)?
“This thing needs to learn how to adapt, Murph. Like the rest of us.” - Cooper
So what does Interstellar suggest is the solution to the lack of originality in modern blockbusters? Nolan is himself a classic example of someone attempting to survive in the current system. Thanks to his work on the Batman franchise (farming) he has given himself the ability to make more original blockbusters (exploring) in a “one for them, one for me” situation. I think that Interstellar reflects this and shows that this choice can work.
In the film the solution to survival of those stranded on Earth is gravity and I think gravity is Nolan’s intended solution to Hollywood’s problems too. Gravity is the force that exists beyond time as do all great works of art. Much like gravity a great film or other work of art is still relevant even when taken out of it’s time.
“Look, I’m glad you’re excited about gravity, bud, but you’re not getting any more answers until I get assurances” - Cooper
In Interstellar the symbiotic relationship between the explorers and the farmers is what allows for the exploitation of gravity and the presumed eventual transcendence of humanity. By using what resources the people on Earth have they can fund the exploration of space and it is that exploration that feeds back data which shows the way for humanity’s future.
In both the Brand and Murphy options failure is threatened by fear. Mann’s fear and desire for his own survival nearly destroys the mission to find a new world. Those left on Earth are nearly abandoned because of Brand’s fear there is no solution to the equation. It is fear of losing money that stagnates Hollywood. Nolan suggests that Earth/Hollywood can be saved with gravity but we have to be willing to look to the stars and dream to do so.
“Cooper, this is no time for caution” - CASE
Hollywood has to be willing to fund creativity despite the hardships or risks that might involve. Only by exploring new areas and taking chances on brave souls can new market trends be spotted and cultivated. At the turn of the century 20th Century Fox was willing to chance $75million on the first X-Men film and now the super hero genre is a staple of the cinematic summer feeding frenzy.
“She’s… out there. Setting out a camp. Alone. In a strange galaxy. Maybe right now she’s settling out for the long nap. By the light of Our new Sun. In Our new home” - Murph
Having taken stock of the lie of the land we are left to consider the Interstellar itself. You can see and hear the finger prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey all over Interstellar. It is not just 2001 that Interstellar draws heavily from with Nolan also citing the less seen silent master piece Greed (1924) as a key inspiration for some elements. I would also say that Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is a keen influence on portions of Interstellar.
To suggest the film is completely original may be slightly disingenuous but standing on the shoulders of giants is not always a crime, you can only ever build on what has come before. I have only touched on the elements that influenced the film we ended up with but no work of art can be produced in a vacuum, everything is a response to, refinement of or synthesis of what has come before it.
There are plenty of valid criticisms you can aim at Interstellar. Like many Nolan films there is a lot of exposition here and the heavy reliance on complicated science will be a strength to some but a weakness to others. Mixing science and faith is always sure to be divisive as well. While I do think that there are plenty of great criticisms that can be made of the film I think a lot come down to personal taste and we should be willing to over look them.
“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.” - Cooper
When Stanley Kubrick first wrote to Arthur C. Clarke to propose working together he talked of attempting to make “the proverbial really good science-fiction movie”. In my mind it is with in the grand tradition of attempting to make the proverbial really good science-fiction movie that Interstellar exists. Unlike so many other big budget Hollywood films this is one that dares to dream.
We may have familiar genre elements and themes strewn through out Interstellar but the film asks plenty of relevant questions about the film industry as well as human survival in general, the nature of parenthood and so much more. We can never doubt that Interstellar has a great ambition even if we feel it’s reach exceeds it grasp.
“We’re still pioneers, we’ve barley begun. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, cause our destiny lies above us.” - Cooper
To survive in a shrinking market Hollywood has to be willing to look to the stars. Sadly to few directors and maybe only one star would be allowed to make a film like Interstellar in the modern climate and even fewer would try. We must support and celebrate those that still think we are explorers.