From 2001 to Interstellar: What do our views of the extra-terrestrial say about us?

In the recent hype around the release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, many have noted the film’s obvious links to Kubrick’s widely renowned masterpiece of the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Along with many Leeds-based film fans, this week I was amazed to find myself in the quite miraculous position of being able to see both films on the big screen. This, of course, entirely thanks to Leeds International Film Festival’s annual re-screening of 2001 on a brand new 35mm 2001_7print recently commissioned by the British Film Institute; something of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us not fortunate to have caught the film in cinemas in the late 1960s.

Both films are undeniably visually astounding, especially so in their intended cinema environments. Kubrick and Nolan both expertly manage to portray the infinite scale of our universe in such a way as to make it appear both unimaginably beautiful and terrifying all in one. On their most basic level, both films are concerned with humanity’s attempts to find and understand our place within the vastness. However, when put side-by-side, what I think is most intriguing is how both films manage to look into this vastness and see two strikingly different things, drawing conclusions I feel may have a lot to say about their respective times.

Technology is an excellent example of where this becomes very noticeable. Everyone is familiar with 2001’s maniacal supercomputer, HAL 9000, a ‘character’ representing an inherent fear of what the greatest of mankind’s technical achievements can create. Bestowed with such high level of intelligence, HAL seemingly develops a ‘human error’, a primal fear of being decommissioned. Nolan, by contrast, is far less concerned by the actual technology involved in his intergalactic voyaging, choosing instead to place his focus on exploring the devastating fundamental impacts of time on human relationships.

Kubrick and Nolan both portray the infinite universe as terrifying and beautiful at once

It certainly seems that over the past half-century the popular imagination of where technological advancement will take us has become far less a narrative of fear. Instead, technology today is an innocent, and entertaining bystander, as brilliantly shown through Matthew McConaughey’s computer-based companion, ‘TARS’, a machine with a noticeable physical resemblance to 2001’s ominous black monoliths. As a ship-board computer TARS is loveable and equally interstellar_still4responsible of near 90% of all the comic moments in Interstellar, a stark contrast with the sinister, silent monoliths, or scheming HAL that all represent a techno-skepticism we have now largely left behind.

Equally, religion is an element very much contrasting in both films. Kubrick himself referred to 2001 as a search for God on a fundamental level, which would in turn assume a ‘messiah figure’ status for the iconic ‘star-child’ that closes the film, representing a necessary re-birth for humanity. Interstellar tackles similar issues, though with the impression that a God is absent or failing, and mankind must find its own way through to darkness. The message that we are our own destruction is very prevalent in both films, though I do find Interstellar to be far more driven by a belief in science as the key to understanding, and a dismissal of concepts of fate as a resolution to this destruction. As when acts of fate occur they can always be deciphered, understood and manipulated in scientific terms.

Next time you have 6 hours to spare, I’d recommend having a 2001 and Interstellar movie marathon of your own. The fundamentals of the awesome space film are steadfast 50 years on, however, humanity certainly appears to have far greater trust in its own design in the twenty-first century.

Kyle Withington

Images: Warner Brothers and MGM

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