With brand-new releases the tendency is usually to shy away from spoilers in reviews, and those potential spoilers can be especially sensitive with a long-anticipated film like Interstellar (“I waited two years for this and find out the night before that [censored] is really [censored] the whole time??”). I respect reviewers who are able to provide an accurate representation of a film without divulging any/many of its secrets, but I’ve never been one of them. I can tread lightly, sure, but to really talk about a movie like Interstellar there are important plot points that need to be laid out in the open. Just the fact that we have a three-hour movie with a two-minute trailer means that the film holds vast sequences, settings, and even actors that you couldn’t possibly expect, and it’s partly those revelatory realms that we’ll be dealing with here. Consider yourself warned.
Now: let’s talk about ghosts.
Interstellar, like every Christopher Nolan movie, has a ton of hype to live up to. These are probably the “biggest” movies in the world – epic, well-written, well-acted films with undeniably grand visuals and undeniably massive scores. The space genre, too, is a long tradition peopled by some of the greatest films of all time – and it’s a genre that’s still going strong, with Gravity being a recent example that leaps to mind. With this in mind, it’s impressive to watch Interstellar set itself apart from the pack. This isn’t a space movie in that traditional sense, and the scenes you might be expecting simply aren’t there. The launch of the rocket is a concise ten-second shot, preceded by more than a half-hour of very earthbound family drama. The usually mind-numbing “there’s no way I’m gonna leave my family and go into space…well, okay” scenes are mercifully shortened as well. Shedding the hype of Nolan movies and of space epics and moving into new territory instead is one of the most laudable things about the film.
But there are very definitely “ghosts” present in Interstellar, both in the actual narrative itself and in the sense of film influence. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and his daughter Murph encounter an anomaly of some kind that messes with their farming instruments and knocks books off the shelf in Murph’s room. Murph is a firm believer in this ghost, and when it ends up being the thing that leads Cooper on his space mission it seems that Murph’s faith in the unseen being was well-placed. At one point Cooper refers to himself by using the same word, speaking on whether he could be a ghost to his own children in his absence. And, of course, one of the film’s many reveals is that Cooper is that same ghost, sending messages to the past from an extradimensional library inside a gargantuan black hole by knocking books off the shelf.
The narrative ghosts might lead into a clearer understanding of the influences on Interstellar, and of the film’s place among those influences. For the past few years the aforementioned hype has branded Interstellar as “Nolan’s 2001“, which was at the time a completely unfounded statement that only took into account the fact that a revered director was making a space epic. While it is a very (very) different kind of movie, it would be difficult (or impossible) for Nolan to make Interstellar without being influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s seminal odyssey, and some of the comparisons are unavoidable. The tunneled wormhole sequences, especially those near the end, essentially put Cooper in David Bowman’s seat as a single man shot across the unfathomable cosmos. To boot, the helpful robot TARS kinda looks like the Monolith.
Somewhat ironically, another of Interstellar‘s ghosts is Nolan’s last non-Batman film Inception. This might seem obvious to some – same director, same ambition, same Michael Caine – but it’s the littler plot-point comparisons that are a bit frustrating. The “one hour equals seven years” device is a necessary one, as we’re dealing with wormholes that stretch and compress time and space with little discrimination – and yet it immediately makes you think of Inception, which serves to remove you from the action for a moment. The trippy vertical landscapes of some of the far-off planets and of the space station at the end of the film also bring the blockbuster dream flick to the forefront, which means Interstellar takes the backseat for a crucial moment. Again, these are a bit unavoidable – but it doesn’t make them go away.
So the ghosts of Interstellar serve much the same purpose as Cooper’s ghost does for Murph: they reach back into the past. This is a nice, neat, fitting comparison – but it’s not how Interstellar ends. Interstellar ends with Cooper sitting in a recreation of his home in their new space-station haven, realizing that he’s sitting in the past and realizing that sitting there is holding him back from going forward. He moves on, Murph moves on, and regardless of how tied-down Interstellar is in certain places to 2001 or Inception or Solaris or a hundred other films, this one moves forward, onward, raging upward into the new. Take any major qualms with Nolan’s films up to this point and you’ll find that Interstellar advances and improves them (strong female characters being the most recognizable). Fitting, also, that Interstellar is plotted out in such a way that these ghosts of influence are always there, always reaching across time, and yet the pace and movement of the film is so fast and so inspired that you never know for certain what’s going to happen next.