INTERSTELLAR (Christopher Nolan, 2014, US) – ‘Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster.’


To suspend disbelief requires a certain kind of servitude from the viewer when watching a science fiction film. It is safe to say that certain genres nurture certain expectations. Science fiction cinema has always communicated with audiences in radically different terms than most genres. In her seminal essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ (1965) Susan Sontag argues ‘science fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings. We are merely spectators; we watch.’ The iconography of science fiction films takes precedence over other elements, even ideological ones, and therefore also need to be read differently. Perhaps science fiction films are judged primarily on a visual competency. Interstellar is Nolan’s first outright science fiction film. Innovation seems a near impossibility with most film genres these days. It is not surprising Nolan revisits familiar science fiction tropes, invoking the ‘imagination of disaster’ outlined by Susan Sontag with a bravura spectacle of wonder. Spectacle is something science fiction cinema has been able to sustain over the years, conjuring new ways of presenting time travel, space exploration and alien encounters.

What makes Nolan’s authorial approach to the genre markedly distinct is the way he succeeds in blending the spectacle with the family melodrama, giving the film’s narrative an emotional resonance. You may question if such an emotional sweep is required given the job of science fiction cinema is simply to provoke a continuous reaction of awe and wonder, which Interstellar also manages to convey. In fact, many of the influential science fiction films like Metropolis, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey are classics of the genre for the worlds they construct rather than the narrative or emotional offerings. There is no doubt Nolan understands such contradictions presented by the genre. Although Nolan forged a career on mid budget indie films such as Following and Memento, his switch to mainstream blockbusters signalled a new phase. The Batman films infused the comic book film genre with noirish tendencies refracted through the prism of contemporary social and political anxieties. Films like The Prestige, Inception and now Interstellar have continually staked a claim that Nolan’s auteur sensibilities are both broad and incisive. Nolan’s involvement with the Batman franchise certainly testifies to the tricky route filmmakers working in the mainstream have to navigate in order for them to pursue their own preoccupations. Arguably, the Batman films seemed to get worse with each instalment. Batman Begins feels like the purer film out of the trilogy, not because it came first, but for its enthralling origins story and a classical feel which Nolan was unable to repeat in both sequels, diluting narrative storytelling for an overly ambitious structure. The first hour of The Dark Knight feels like a real mess in terms of narrative cross cutting but makes up for such folly in the refreshingly downbeat ending whereas The Dark Knight Rises intermittently succeeds in manifesting ideological anxieties, something not often associated with the comic book film.

Interstellar is certainly Nolan’s most ambitious work and this time ambition is sustained by the emotional dimensions of the central father-daughter dynamic. Sontag’s claim that ‘we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings’ goes unfounded in Interstellar since ‘sensuous elaboration’ often manifested by science fiction cinema is juxtaposed to the constant roller-coaster of emotions experienced by Cooper (MM) so that we never completely leave his head. Nolan doesn’t feel ashamed either of reverting to melodramatic sentiment as a means of giving the film a much needed emotional dimension that sometimes goes amiss in big budget science fiction films. Gravity just about manages to do this but it still comes across as an experiment in form. Such melodramatic staging is handled intimately when Cooper plays back all the video messages after returning to the space station after so many years. The ghostly one way interaction is all about us today as YouTube consumers and the way technology has become a conduit for emotional exchange that stretches beyond the very idioms of life itself. The proliferation of technology has meant less and less human interaction but in this very moment one comes to realise that here is Nolan deploying old technology (shooting on film) to relay ideas about new technology.

I find the comparisons to 2001 somewhat misplaced (okay, you can have the acidic stargate sequence) since any big budget science fiction film is likely to draw parallels with 2001 or Blade Runner; that’s one of the inevitabilities of making a genre film since positioning a work is crucial in terms of fixing meaning and in a way restricting alternate readings that occur beyond such filmic references. In fact, if one was to compare Interstellar to another science fiction film, it would in my opinion have to be Solaris as it shares more thematic overtures concerning ghostly metaphysics than say 2001 which becomes altogether more operatic. Nonetheless, Interstellar’s intellectual pursuits are hobbled by an ending that wants to solve the puzzle which Nolan has been teasing for the majority of the film. 2001 or Solaris are compellingly brilliant simply because they are films that cannot be explained in a fixed, dominant reading. This in large part comes from the cryptic endings, stuffed full of enigmatic star gazing fervour. Sadly enough Nolan feels compelled to suture the style of haphazard cross cutting editing that plagued the fortuitous ending of The Dark Knight Rises on to Interstellar, glibly decrying hope as something elemental to the human condition.

It’s strange that no one has really mentioned Steven Spielberg when discussing Interstellar or Christopher Nolan. Oddly enough the serviceable J J Abrams has often been compared to Spielberg and one can see why the comparison has been made given the respective interests in science fiction. However, the awe, wonder and magic Spielberg has been able to conjure up so spectacularly over his career is something that is difficult to imitate without compromising narrative storytelling. Nolan comes close to capturing the spectacle of wonder that science fiction cinema can offer filmmakers; a feat evident in Inception. In his prime Spielberg would have been all over Interstellar but interestingly another visual parallel emerges as Nolan’s obsessive focus on the human face, something that has characterised much of Spielberg’s work, is used with a reverence magnifying yet again the melodrama so that it registers with an indescribable sentiment.

Aside from the apocalyptic imagery, etc. this film is really about what other great science fiction films have tried to deal with the in the past; death, an endless thematic preoccupation that transgresses genre and culture. By doing so Interstellar becomes a means of ‘accommodating to and negating the perennial human anxiety about death’ (Sontag) through the prism of the family melodrama. It is death which forms the everlasting question that haunts Nolan’s Interstellar, articulated doubly by the church organ of Hans Zimmer’s evocative score that reappears on the soundtrack, recalling the work of Glass on Koyaanisqtsi. But it’s not just death. This is a science fact film that reaches out to frame contemporary anxieties such as sustainability, the environment, space exploration and faith in a gripping spectacle littered with some fine set pieces indeed.

WORLD WAR Z (Dir. Marc Forster, 2013, US) – The Infected

If John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids influenced the post apocalyptic trajectory of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s science fiction-horror 28 Days Later (2002) then it is a novel which reaches back to the past and affects the present day consciousness of Hollywood cinema. For a long time, the undead was fragmented from the gothic into the vampire and zombie film. Perhaps the one pre-28 days Later text cited by many attempting a new variation on the zombie film was Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Although Romero modernised the zombie flick by saturating the narrative with a socio-political perspective, it wasn’t long before parody rendered Romero’s dead films as a mute point in terms of zombie referencing. If cinema has secretly longed for the end of the world with its endless post apocalyptic fantasies then 28 Days Later merged familiar horror idioms with an underlining nastiness about the human condition. 28 Days Later repressed the zombie, perpetuating a forgotten horror trope – the infected. More importantly, the resurrection of the infected as a post 9-11 horror convention laid bare an allegorical opportunism that projected a plethora of geopolitical anxieties. Whereas the zombie was an icon of the undead, the infected after 9-11 seemed logical since ideological infection was rife, contagious yet somewhat inexplicable in a world being reconfigured by demagogues and iconoclasts. If 28 Days Later led to a new interest and revival in zombie cinema then it also spawned a line of post apocalyptic films with the infected as an allegorical catalyst. In other words, zombies representing no real social or political threat rendered them essentially irrelevant and this meant reiterating their presence in horror films as nothing but gore. The infected on the other hand isn’t as empty when it comes to ideological interpretation and the ‘rage’ virus in 28 Days Later sought to situate the symptoms of the infected in contemporary social reality. 

World War Z, a post apocalyptic blockbuster, takes a similar premise as 28 Days Later and gives it an international context by transforming the central protagonist of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) into a global citizen, travelling to places such as New York, Jerusalem and Cardiff in order to find a vaccine to an unexplained infection. Typically in such post apocalyptic Hollywood narratives, the central protagonist would either by an ordinary individual, extension of the government or someone with a past in the military. Given the presence of Brad Pitt in the main lead and who also acts as a producer on the film, it’s not surprising that his ties to the UN in the film constructs him as a global citizen and since much of the film takes place internationally rather than typically in America (as do so many Disaster/post apocalyptic films), an attempt is made to refashion the end of the world scenario as a globalist allegory. Given the current civil unrest brought on by the failings of market liberalism and the end of capitalism, allegorically the sense of destruction envisioned in the film is less of a warning about populist resistance and more of a semi-meditation on global interconnectedness stemming from multi protagonist films such as Syriana and Babel. While the film is ambitious in terms of reinvigorating the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, the attempts to narrate a seemingly intelligent story is crudely interrupted by a series of well-executed but immaterial set pieces. Bookended with the instrumentals of Muse, World War Z is a mildly diverting blockbuster that is likely to grow as a potential franchise for Paramount and Brad Pitt. If we get a sequel, the mention of the infection originating from India in the film points to a likely South Asian geographical context.

OBLIVION (Dir. Joseph Kosinksi, 2013, US) – Hollywood’s first anti drone film? [Spoilers Ahead!]

Oblivion is a disappointing slice of mainstream science fiction cinema that meanders aimlessly for little over two hours. I haven’t much noteworthy to comment about this underwhelming studio project. Nonetheless, mainstream escapist genres such as science fiction have this innate propensity for allegorical pluralistic reinterpretation that can thankfully on some occasions salvage the cinematic dignity of those involved. Robin Wood was one of those critics that had this capacity to read between the lines of mainstream cinema and although I am weary of applying such a noble approach to a film like Oblivion since it is such a tiresome affair, I could not help but read into the film in terms of a latent socio-political subtext concerning drones, insurgents and Pakistan. What I am saying may at first seem a little far fetched but it was the ending to Oblivion, the one in which two suicide bombers defeat the master controller in the skies, that got me intellectualising the following hypothesis; what if Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and the Scavs (code word for troublesome insurgents) are in fact an allegory for a real and potential insurgency that has appeared in Iraq and which may in fact emerge on the Afghan-Pak border which has claimed the lives of so many innocent civilians in drone attacks orchestrated by Obama and company. If I was to take this allegorical interpretation to its fruition then a source of validation may lie in the film’s anti-drone ideology. 

In the film, Harper is told by his superiors that the drones which he spends his days repairing are killing Scavs to protect humanity. In truth, the drones turn out to be machines controlled by an alien life form who have been programmed to kill humans. Drone attacks have become quite common in Pakistan and is an ongoing source of controversy that will inevitably be associated with Obama’s legacy. America’s war by proxy conducted criminally and immorally from the skies by unmanned drone technology is not only a cowardly form of murder but seeks to sanitise death as guilt free for the hegemonic perpetrators. Such a precedence exists in Oblivion with the drones targeting innocent civilians including women and children. However, the film offers a fantasy wish fulfilment in which a sympathetic rag tag band of human survivors come together as a mini insurgency, retaliating against the drones. Is the film covertly advocating the right to self defense as an accepted norm given the war like circumstances? If so, then it is an ideological proposition that would only come about through an oppositional reading of the film situated within a wider geopolitical context. The reading of an insurgent ideology is complicated by race as most of the insurgents are white aside from the tokenism of Morgan Freeman. Had the Scavs been more racially diverse and visibly so then an insurgent reading would have been much more explicit. It is the case that mainstream genres especially science fiction are open to endless allegorical interpretations and perhaps then Oblivion can lay claim to being Hollywood’s first anti drone film. Too bad the film is barely competent.