Christopher Nolan has been hailed as a genuine original, but no one with such a transparent affection for (or reliance on) genre can get by without wearing their influences on their sleeve. “Interstellar” (read our review) has been feverishly anticipated by Nolan diehards and casual fans for years, and the veil of secrecy under which the filmmaker works has only created more hype. Early versions of the script from a time when Steven Spielberg was attached to direct had revealed a plot involving space travel through wormholes, but most of the particulars were kept under wraps, and the rest were rendered moot as soon as Nolan stepped in and began making the film his own from the ground up. *Mild spoiler* warning: article includes basic information about the premise of the film.
Now that we’ve finally seen “Interstellar,” part of the fun is in seeing how it arrived in its finished form. Initially the story of a widowed pilot (Matthew McConaughey as Cooper) trying to raise his family in post-apocalyptic corn country, Spielberg’s fingerprints are still all over the film, and you hardly need us to spell out the tonal connections between “Interstellar” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” For that matter, when Coop falls in with NASA and is tasked with traveling through wormholes in order to find potentially inhabitable worlds to which humanity might escape a dying planet, “For All Mankind” and other touchstones in the depiction of outer-orbit travel are self-evident.
But whether you’re hoping to better prepare for Nolan’s latest epic, or simply just interested in locating “Interstellar” in the constellation of its influences, we’ve assembled a handy guide to the spare parts with which the film has been cobbled together. Some are obvious, some Nolan has even copped to, while others are a bit more of a reach, included here in order to better contextualize the choices that have cohered into the year’s most forward-thinking blockbuster.
“The Right Stuff” (1983)
“You can’t pretend ‘2001’ doesn’t exist when you’re making ‘Interstellar’, Nolan recently admitted to Empire as a way of changing the subject. “But the other film I’d have to point to is ‘The Right Stuff.‘ I screened a print of it for the crew before we started, because that’s a film that not enough people have seen on the big screen. It’s an almost perfectly made film. It’s one of the great American movies and people don’t quite realize how great it is —probably because it’s four hours long!”
In truth, Philip Kaufman’s epic portrait of the dawn of America’s space program runs a “measly” 192 minutes, but time is relative. One of the great entertainments of the 20th century, “The Right Stuff” is inextricably suffused into the DNA of Nolan’s intergalactic adventure. The films share a split focus, threading an abstract emotional through-line between a story in the stars together with one set squarely on Terra firma, the parallel narratives each struggling to locate and hold onto the human element amidst the urgency of scientific progress. However, more surprising are the visual similarities between a 31-year-old classic and a cutting-edge blockbuster spectacle. The geometric effects Kaufman uses to illustrate the moment test-pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shephard) hits Mach 2 invariably spring to mind when the “Interstellar” crew approaches a black hole. Part of that consistency is owed to science, but part is due to Nolan being able to recognize how a predecessor indelibly captured what it might look like to see something just beyond the limits of the world we know.
“Woman in the Moon” (1929)
Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi epic is often cited as the film that introduced the basics of real space travel (i.e. not like Georges Méliès depicted it) to public audiences, thus making it a crucial touchstone for any number of movies made since. But the true shadow of Lang’s hyper-ambitious drama as it hovers over “Interstellar” is in how it conceives of interplanetary destinations of having a practical value for the people of Earth. “Woman in the Moon” tells the story of a professor who believes that there’s a ton of gold waiting to be mined from the moon, and while the film is a touch outdated in a few different respects (for one thing, the movie proves the professor right, and for some reason the air on the far side of the moon is perfectly breathable), Lang had the prescience to understand that humans would travel to the stars in order to do more than sightsee.
“Voices of a Distant Star” (2002)
It’s becoming increasingly clear that at least one of the Nolan brothers might be a closet otaku. Much has been made about the extent to which “Paprika” may have informed 2010’s “Inception,” as the late Satoshi Kon’s 2006 anime masterpiece anticipated both the layered dream plot and the virtuosic editing of the Hollywood hit that followed four years later (Christopher Nolan’s reticence to discuss the subject leaves open the possibility that Kon’s influence was appropriately unconscious). Nolan’s latest is poised to rile up the anime crowd all over again, as the film that most literally predicts “Interstellar” is beyond question Makoto Shinkai’s 2002 film “Voices of a Distant Star.” Despite running a mere 25 minutes, Shinkai’s lovelorn romantic drama announced the arrival of a major talent, and the fact that the filmmaker wrote, directed, produced, and animated the project by himself on a Power Mac surely made ripples large enough for Nolan to feel.
‘Voices’ tells the heartbreaking story of Noboru and Mikako, two high school sweethearts who find themselves in the longest long-distance relationship in history when the latter is recruited into the U.N. Space Army and ordered to fight an evil alien menace from Mars (we’ve all been there). The war pulls Mikako deep into the furthest reaches of the universe, and by the time she reaches extrasolar planets, her messages reach her boyfriend several years later. As if that didn’t put enough of a crimp in things, their relationship is soon put through the ringer of relative time, as Noboru grows older while Mikako remains 16, still in her schoolgirl outfit as she floats in the void of a galaxy far beyond our own. While “Interstellar” doesn’t share Shinkai’s interest in extraterrestrial combat, the paternal relationship between Cooper and Murph is subjected to the ripe dramatic potential of relative time. This temporal fissure is at the wounded heart of the movie, and lays the foundation for the most wrenchingly moving scene that Nolan has ever filmed.
While “Interstellar” could surely be traced back to “Solaris” in any number of ways, perhaps the most immediate connection between Nolan’s film and Andrei Tarkovsky’s cerebral masterpiece isn’t intellectual, but rather aesthetic: their shared obsession with water. Like the protagonist of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, and the movie that Tarkovsky adapted from it, Cooper is a widower (a seemingly common trait amongst cinematic astronauts), but “Interstellar” is too focused on the daughter of its protagonist to explicitly spend that much time mourning his late wife. None of the various space shenanigans that Cooper and his crew get up to involve reanimating the dead, which is the metaphysical wrinkle that haunts the astronauts as they travel to the planet that lends Tarkovsky’s film its name. That planet, however, is a remote oceanic world, the fluidity of its liquid surface reflecting the collective psychosis of the men who are docked in the spaceship above it. The two foreign planets on which Cooper’s crew spends the most time are identified by how they visualize water —one has waves the size of mountains, and the other frozen clouds that Cooper’s ship nicks upon entry. And like Solaris, the material of both planets can ruin a man in a heartbeat.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
To a certain extent, every remotely earnest American film about a father and his daughter harkens back to Harper Lee’s novel, and the Gregory Peck vehicle that Robert Mulligan adapted. And though “Interstellar” is sadly lacking a Boo Radley character of its own and exists in a world that no longer has the luxury of intractable racism (a sweeping planetary die-off will do that), Cooper is very much the Atticus Finch to Murphy’s Scout. A widowed single father who’s often absent due to work, but always deeply concerned with the world he’s leaving for his daughter (whichever world that might be) McConaughey’s Cooper is every bit as stoic as Gregory Peck’s Atticus. Unlike “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Interstellar” isn’t told from the little girl’s POV, and so the film doesn’t revere the father figure at its heart in quite the same way. All the same, Nolan’s film eventually shares Lee’s preoccupation with seeing its events from another perspective, and Scout’s empathy for Boo is folded into Cooper’s sympathy for several other characters who are forced to choose the logical option in mercilessly emotional situations.
Gregory Hoblit’s overachieving thriller revolves around an NYPD detective (a pre-‘Passion’ Jim Caviezel) who, thanks to the electro-temporal effects of some freak aurora borealis activity, finds that he can communicate with his late dad (Dennis Quaid) over the ham radio in his bedroom. The father is in 1969, the son in 1999, and the conversations they share are somehow completely unimpeded by the 30 years between them. While revealing the details of how “Frequency” pertains to “Interstellar” might veer dangerously close to spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that Nolan’s film channels similar emotional wavelengths, particularly so far as both stories are concerned with the mutual responsibility shared between parents and their children. It’s also worth noting that while “Frequency” may seem like the less scientifically rigorous of the two films (because it obviously is), only Hoblit’s project received the endorsement of celebrity physicist Brian Greene, who cameos as himself.
Cooper isn’t “unstuck” in time so much as he’s forced to step out of sync with it, but “Interstellar” gradually introduces the notion of inter-dimensional beings that might have a thing or two in common with the alien race that punctuate Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel, as well as the film that George Roy Hill faithfully adapted from it. Tralfamadorians, as they’re called in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” are extraterrestrial beings who exist in all times simultaneously. Their literal function in Hill’s film is to directly interfere with protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s life by placing him in a cosmic zoo with Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack. The fundamental nature of the inter-dimensional beings in “Interstellar” is a bit more ambiguous, as is their seemingly benevolent role in Cooper’s journey (Nolan first mentions them late in the first act, as Michael Caine’s character observes that they’ve conveniently placed wormholes within reach of mankind’s rocket technology). We won’t reveal anything more about their presence in “Interstellar,” only that it’s safe to assume that Christopher Nolan will never make a film featuring anything that remotely resembles a creature “two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends”.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
The laziest point of comparison is also perhaps the most fitting, though there’s hardly been a space epic since 1968 that hasn’t been influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s classic. Though the reference may be self-explanatory, Nolan has nevertheless been sure to namedrop “2001: A Space Odyssey” at various points along the tour leading up to the release of his latest film, most recently telling Entertainment Weekly that his film “harkens back to the direct experience films like ‘2001’, where you’re not just experiencing it through the characters, you are lost in it.”
Having seen the film, we can now report that Nolan’s promise is at least partially true. “Interstellar” does indeed contain multiple passages in which the film’s story submits to its scale; the extended sequence in which Cooper and his crew pass Saturn and head towards the first potentially inhabitable planet is an experiential stunner that in and of itself justifies the price of an IMAX ticket. But if Nolan’s blockbuster is too character-driven to ever fully give itself over to raw spectacle, the film more palpably conveys the sense of intergalactic pioneering —of diving headfirst into the cosmic unknown— than any film since ‘2001’. But best of luck to Roberto Orci on “Star Trek 3.”