If you say 2001: A Space Odyssey, you lose a testicle. That’s how I feel about the talk around Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and its comparisons to the Stanley Kubrick classic. Yes, there are a few reasons to mention the almost 50 years old sci-fi epic, but there are also reasons to mention the more than 100 years old A Trip to the Moon. Those are ancient, highly influential basics, and in a way any movie involving space travel should be linked back to them. They’re also understood by anyone to be essentials, so there’s little need for my added recommendation.
I’d rather devote this week’s list of movies to see to less obvious works, especially since I’m including more titles than usual with this one. Interstellar is an original feature, but it’s very much drawn from other material, one predecessor of which may have had footage directly transplanted by Nolan. It’s also long and packs in a ton of ideas and plot paths. I couldn’t limit myself to only 12. And that’s still mostly ignoring Nolan’s admitted inspiration coming from 2001, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Again, those are all basic necessities anyway.
And this week’s list isn’t all about the influences, partly because as Nolan stated at Comic-Con this year, there are many: “I wouldn’t want to give too complete a list [of my sci-fi inspirations], because then when you see the film, you’ll see all the things I’ve ripped off. And I’m not joking when I say that.” However, this list, which you will note consists of relatively new movies and also an equal balance of documentary and fiction ‐ the latter almost exclusively science fiction ‐ kicks off with one very interesting, unexpected inspiration and source. That and the rest of the list contain SPOILERS for Interstellar, by the way, so you should see the new Nolan movie first.
The Dust Bowl (2012)
If you’re a fan of Ken Burns documentaries, you may experience some deja vu at the beginning of Interstellar. Nolan intercut footage from The Dust Bowl into his opening (or at least re-created interviews employing that film’s survivors), mixed in with actors including Ellen Burstyn. It’s a strange choice, especially since the device barely pays off at the end of the movie, but apparently Nolan was so moved by the doc and these people that he had to use them. And yet he found the 1930s disaster too much to totally mimic, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “We really had to scale back from the reality of what those things were actually like in the Dust Bowl because you look at the photographs, and it actually seems too crazy.”
Field of Dreams (1989)
In Interstellar, Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain) receives spooky communications that ultimately reunite her with her father. And they happen at a farmhouse surrounded by corn fields. No, it’s not a remake of Field of Dreams where we learn that Kevin Costner’s dad had actually been in outer space with Shoeless Joe Jackson and other early 20th century baseball players and relativity caused him not to age any older than his son. There are a couple baseball scenes, though.
Another movie about a family of farmers, this M. Night Shyamalan sci-fi feature involves a father (Mel Gibson) and his son and daughter ‐ the same dynamic as the one in Interstellar except that they share their home with his younger brother rather than his father-in-law. He’s also a former man of the Church, which makes him an interesting contrast to Matthew McConaughey’s paternal protagonist, as he is a representative of science, a former engineer and NASA pilot. The movie also deals with space travel (of aliens who’ve come to Earth), communication from somewhere beyond and ultimately a very dumb climax. Until then, though, it’s also pretty fantastic.
Among the many issues faced in the near-future setting of Interstellar is the limited space for university attendance. Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet at this point) is told that he is not college material and is suited instead to follow in his father’s footsteps as a farmer. The scene reminded me of this new documentary by Oscar winner James Moll about the new generation of farmers and the need for these young people in the field in an age when most children of growers are going to college and moving on to other careers.
Surviving Progress (2011)
Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on this documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks based on Ronald Wright’s writings and lectures on societal collapse. I was somewhat inspired to include it from the same parent-teacher conference scene, during which the teachers allude to our downfall as a civilization being somewhat caused by our need for “progress” in the form of new and better machines and gadgets as well as the understood direction we’re headed regarding overpopulation, resource depletion and environmental disaster. Wright talks of how we’ve overspent the capital provided by the planet, as in we’re depleting “the surplus that nature is able to produce, the food that farmland can grow without actually degrading the farmland or the number of fish you can pull out of the sea without causing the fish stocks to crash.” That sounds like the start of the kind of apocalypse depicted in Interstellar.
Nostalgia For Light (2010)
“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.” That line spoken by McConaughey in Interstellar reminded me of the two elements of Patricio Guzman’s most recent documentary. On the one side, it’s a film about the astronomers working in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where many telescopes have been set up because of the location’s optimal lack of clouds and light pollution. On the other side, it’s about the people who went missing during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and now the women who scour the desert ground for remnants of those disappeared loved ones. Depending on the individuals, there is hope above or below, in the search for life out there or death in here. With Interstellar, it’s the desperate search above as a solution for the fact that everything in the ground is dying.
The Right Stuff (1983)
This historical drama chronicling NASA’s Mercury program is one that Nolan has actually acknowledged as an inspiration. “I screened a print of it for the crew before we started,” he told Empire magazine, “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!”
For All Mankind (1989)
After seeing the dramatic telling of Mercury, head into this documentary about the Apollo program. You know, the one that in Interstellar’s near-future has been written off as a huge sham. Al Reinert’s Oscar-nominated film is even today a reminder of what a great, inspiring organization NASA once was, as they are again on a small scale in Nolan’s movie. Additionally, I re-recommend all the documentaries I listed last year as essentials to see after you watch Gravity. One of those in particular, Space Station 3D, features astronaut Marsha Ivens, who was an on-set consultant for Interstellar.
As in Interstellar, the space mission in this Danny Boyle-directed movie is all about saving mankind. Nolan’s version has to do with finding a new residence for the people of a dying Earth while in Sunshine it’s our sun that’s burning out. There are a lot of great reasons to see it, but I mostly recommend it for the performance by Chris Evans, as this was when I realized he was better than the junk he had been starring in. Not that this isn’t a flawed feature, mainly when it comes to a villain in the last act. I felt similarly about the sudden villainy of Interstellar, that I could have done without a bad guy.
Mission to Mars (2000)
There are even more problems with this Brian De Palma-directed space-mission movie, in which a team heads to the red planet in the hopes that humans can survive there. But its climactic hokeyness has a kind of charm, much like that of Interstellar. Here, sorry to spoil the ending, it’s the meeting of actual Martians, who show the Earthlings that Mars was once habitable until an asteroid hit and they had to evacuate. And we on Earth are the descendants of a “population bomb” sent to this planet, which is the same method the scientists of Interstellar have planned to further mankind if they can’t save the currently existing human race.
From the same year comes this very different sort of sci-fi movie, and I have to acknowledge David Ehrlich’s list at The Playlist of Interstellar’s influences for reminding me of this one. Dennis Quaid stars opposite Jim Caviezel as father and son separated by time but able to communicate somehow via ham radio and some solar flares. On the one hand, there’s the idea of someone receiving messages from a child who has become close in age to the parent. On the other hand, there’s the time-travel aspect, which correlates to McConaughey’s ability to communicate with his daughter from behind a bookcase, where he’s floating in another dimension. To quote funnyman Ehrlich, “Nolan’s film channels similar emotional wavelengths.”
My Father, the Genius (2002)
A brilliant man must leave his kids behind in order to “save the world,” and when he’s gone his daughter is tasked with taking up his legacy. That’s a basic synopsis for both Interstellar and this personal documentary by Lucia Small, whose father is visionary green architect Glen Small. He put in his will that she would have to write his biography, but instead she directed a film about him and his estrangement from his family. There are many docs in which the filmmaker tries to make peace with a parent, but the relationship here feels closest to that of McConaughey and Chastain’s characters in Nolan’s movie.
Not only does this Robert Zemeckis movie co-star McConaughey, it’s also heavily based (via the novel by Carl Sagan) on the wormhole theories of Kip Thorne, which now also inform the science of Interstellar. The fact that it’s also about a daughter who is ultimately (sorry for the spoiler) reunited with her father ‐ well, the illusion of him, anyway ‐ through space travel is a bonus. Or maybe in developing the newer movie, Lynda Obst, who produced both, carried over the same character relationship outline.
A Brief History of Time (1991)
You can learn a little more about wormholes and relativity and real science from this documentary by Errol Morris about famed physicist Stephen Hawking and loosely based on his book of the same name. Obviously it’s also a movie to see after or before you watch the new Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, and is slightly relevant in being scored by Philip Glass, who is clearly an influence on Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score. Interestingly enough, there’s a Steven Spielberg connection to this doc, as he’s the one who suggested Morris for the project. Spielberg, of course, was also a major inspiration for Nolan’s movie (and not just because he was originally attached to direct it), Shyamalan’s movie, he’s close with Farmland director James Moll and was a mentor to Zemeckis. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he has a connection to any of the other titles listed here.
And here are some leftovers that Interstellar reminded me of but didn’t make the cut for a recommendation: Flight of the Navigator; Prometheus; Transcendence.
Related Topics: Christopher Nolan