While one of the bigger talking points regarding Interstellar has been comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the connection between the two films is weak. Formalist compositions and man-vs.-cosmos themes aside, Christopher Nolan doesn’t appear to be taking Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opera as much of a signpost. 2001 had little interest in its human players outside of the mechanics of its millennia-spanning tale of evolution and first contacts. They were such passive creatures, Kubrick had HAL-9000 seize the reigns to move the species along. By contrast, Interstellar‘s idea for humanity’s leap forward–blasting through a wormhole to find a new planet, before Earth becomes a toxic hellhole–is a backdrop for the dramatic arc of its people. Though Nolan, ever the lover of storytelling aesthetics, uses his gazillion-dollar equipment (including the much-touted 70mm IMAX) to demonstrate spectacle, he always roots it in human perspective. Tight-angle vehicle shots used for outer space suspense are used equally in a whimsical scene where Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his kids chase a drone for its solar cells, panoramas only used to denote when characters feel insignificant or threatened. In this respect, Interstellar treads more in the territory of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, especially when it comes to its male lead.
A former astronaut, Cooper has been grounded after public opinion turned against the space program (seen as frivolous in the face of global famine and dust bowls). Raising a family on a Midwestern farm, he ruminates on humanity giving up its “place in the stars” to worry about “the dirt.” Hints of a crash he survived suggest some bitterness for never achieving a dream, tempered only by a sense of fatherly responsibility–a more explicit version of Close Encounters‘ Roy Neary. At first glance, Cooper’s mission (made clandestine for the same public opinion reasons) would appear to align his twin motivations, but only pronounces the tension between them. The time and space required to undertake this journey strains his relationship with daughter Murphy. The effect is magnified when Cooper’s crew needs to account for relativity: a black hole dubbed Gargantua looms in the would-be colony galaxy, distorting time. Hours and days for the astronaut crew become lifetimes back on Earth, demonstrated by a disastrous trip to a planet rocked by mountain-sized tidal waves. After escaping that world, Cooper borders on falling apart as he watches decades of video messages–including the birth and demise of a grandson he never got to see. Nolan uses Cooper to push past the initial triumph of Neary’s choice, to go with the aliens in Close Encounters‘ closing moments, to the inevitable regret which comes with leaving behind loved ones.
The film then criss-crosses between Cooper in space and adult Murphy on Earth (played by Jessica Chastain), attempting to finish an equation which will make mankind’s exodus possible. These interstitial tales weave closer together, reflecting and commenting on one another, a father’s attempt to reconcile with his child. People’s place in the stars or the dirt become distant, rearview concerns to its place with one another.