June 6, 2023

‘Interstellar’ Is Actually a Horror Movie


From director Christopher Nolan, there is a darkness to Interstellar (2014). It doesn’t fully embrace the horror genre, but it includes elements that once you see it, you can’t forget it. Matt Damon plays the loneliest man in a foreign galaxy, having succumbed to the isolation of his personal, cold hell. A crucial bond between a father and child can span light-years, and during a major set-piece, resemble a classic supernatural movie. At a meeting with NASA, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must state how he found their hidden headquarters, answering, “Look, it’s kind of hard to explain. We learned these coordinates from an anomaly…I hesitate the term supernatural, but it definitely wasn’t scientific.” Interstellar plays with ideas that can be traced back to the horror genre, and upon rewatching, you might be surprised at how horrifying this sci-fi epic ends up.


RELATED: 7 Movies Like ‘Interstellar’ to Watch Next for More Philosophical Sci-Fi Adventures

‘Interstellar’ Enters a Lovecraftian Water World

There’s a bleakness set up in this not-too-distant future version of Earth, a world that is turning against everyone, with the only crops left that can grow is corn. This bleakness follows the Endurance crew as they enter the black hole, Gargantua. On the first part of their journey, the heroes confront elements of cosmic horror, a subgenre focusing on the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible, made famous by author H. P. Lovecraft. In his writing, there may be cults that worship ancient entities, and characters risk losing their sanity when dealing with situations they simply can’t comprehend through human logic.

On Miller’s water world, Cooper and Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) don’t encounter Cthulhu — a massive, Lovecraftian, tentacled Elder God — but something just as monstrous. A mountain-high wave is en route to crush the minuscule humans. This wave shouldn’t be possible, but they aren’t on Earth anymore. It was only a few scenes previously where Dr. Brand tells Cooper about what motivates her. “You know, out there we face great odds,” she says. “Death, but not evil.” Cooper can’t help wondering if that’s correct, “You don’t think nature can be evil?” Brand doesn’t see how. “No,” she replies. “Formidable, frightening, but no, not evil.” Little does she know the aquatic wall that will kill one member of the Endurance crew and nearly kill Cooper and Brand. While what they experience and survive is something so impossible to comprehend, they maintain their sanity. On their next destination, they meet someone who isn’t so lucky.

The Lazarus project, led by Dr. Mann (Damon), is a name referring to the ultimate goal of a series of missions: Earth may not be saved, but its population can be. In many ways, it can be considered a cult from a cosmic horror tale, where under the leadership of Mann, they journey into the unknown with misplaced confidence, hoping the black hole (or cosmic entity) Gargantua will offer salvation. It does not, the Lazarus project brings death to all its members, none of them surviving on their planets. And while Dr. Mann escapes, this freedom isn’t for long. On the planet of Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), he has been sending positive data about how inviting his icy world is. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

The data is falsified, by Mann’s own hand, with the hopes to get rescued after spending years alone and defeated into seeing this as his only option left. Like the “impossible” water planet, Mann’s icy world has its eerie highlights, such as the frozen clouds, dissolving the boundary between land and sky. He is corrupted by the total insolation, like the fate of characters in cosmic horror, but this icy prison might remind someone of an iconic horror movie, full of wintry cabin fever, a perfect place where someone can lose their grasp on reality, with days that are 67 hours long and nights just as long and even colder.

Matt Damon’s Mad Scientist Will Survive, No Matter the Cost

Image via Paramount Pictures

In an interview with The Scotsman, Nolan mentions, “One of my earliest memories of going to the movies was going to see 2001 when I was seven years old and I’ve never forgotten the scale of that experience.” There are nods to director Stanley Kubrick and his sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in Interstellar, which is a good segue into Kubrick’s other beloved classic, his adaptation of The Shining. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is an abusive father, an extreme contrast to the warm and loving Cooper who sincerely wants the best for his family. Jack angrily pities himself when his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) grows concerned over their son’s wellbeing. A winter season stuck in the Overlook Hotel is all Jack needs to snap.

Cooper finds his polar opposite in Dr. Mann, a scientist who has no loved ones, which he thought would strengthen his resolve on his mission. In the end, it added to his downward spiral. Dr. Mann can resemble Jack at his breaking point, with Matt Damon’s performance playing it restrained, although there is no question Mann has carefully planned his escape and for how long he’s committed to it. Mann is supposed to represent the best of humanity, as his name suggests, and Brand even remarks. In sending out false data, Dr. Mann ends up closer to the motivations of the ghosts from the Overlook Hotel, inviting Jack to break his sobriety in the Gold Room.

When the Endurance crew notices the torn pile of Mann’s dead robot KIPP, he calmly explains, “He misidentified the first organics we found as ammonia crystals. He struggled on for a time, but ultimately I decommissioned him and used his power source to keep the mission going.” The merciless word, “decommissioned” sounds a lot like the calm orders by the ghost of Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). He “corrected” his family with an ax and shotgun, and he calmly persuades Jack to do the same.

Ghosts and Gravity Haunt Matthew McConaughey

Matthew Mcconaughey in a spacesuit in Interstellar
Image via Paramount Pictures

The “ghostly encounter” between Cooper and Murph (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain) is where Interstellar can resemble the supernatural. It starts early on in the movie when something strange is happening to her bookshelf. Murph feels she’s haunted by a ghost, which her brother ridicules while her father Cooper can’t help but agree. Murph, as stubborn as her father, deduces it’s a “poltergeist.” When she leaves a window open during a dust storm, Coop finds a weird wall of lines forming, by the next morning he realizes, “It’s not a ghost, it’s gravity.”

In The Scotsman interview, Nolan talked about his childhood, saying, “I grew up in the era that was really a Golden Age for the blockbuster with films from people like Spielberg and I always loved how something like Close Encounters addressed the moment when humans would meet aliens, but did it from a family perspective, a very relatable human perspective.” What else can be added to this, is Poltergeist (1982), a movie director Steven Spielberg is linked to, when it was planned as a horror sequel to Close Encounters, and then the rumors he shared directing duties with Tobe Hooper. In Interstellar and Poltergeist, parents will go to extreme lengths to save their children and in both, otherworldly dimensions separate them.

For Interstellar’s most baffling, surreal sequence, Cooper and adult Murph reunite through space and time, in a higher dimension designed as Murph’s bookshelf from her childhood. In Poltergeist, little Carol-Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is kidnapped by the house’s ghosts, limited to using the TV to communicate with her worried family. Cooper, trapped behind the bookshelf, brings home the movie’s theme on time, how quickly it comes, how quickly it goes. The character of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) makes it clear this is what he fears as he gets older. “I’m not afraid of death. I’m an old physicist, I’m afraid of time.” The fragility to life extends to Cooper telling a younger Murph what his late wife said to him, “Now, we’re just here to be memories for our kids,” and, “once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” By the time the bookshelf sequence arrives, Cooper finds himself literally haunting his past life.

‘Interstellar’ Deals With Losing Time

Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy in Interstellar
Image via Paramount Pictures

Later on, Cooper and Brand don’t age on Miller’s water planet, while fellow crew mate Romilly (David Gyasi) grows older, having stayed on their ship for 23 years. Romilly’s personality changes, from a nervous, freshman on space travel to a slower, quiet man, no doubt due to his isolation. Around this time, the movie breaks into a painfully tragic scene as Cooper watches his kids age rapidly in front of him from transmitted recordings. What goes hand in hand with horror, but tragedy, The Haunting anthology from Mike Flanagan pairing these two.

The Crain family goes through intense trauma in Hill House for healing to finally begin. In Bly Manor, lovers can never stay together without death pulling them apart, and while Dani (Victoria Pedretti) and Jamie (Amelia Eve) succeed in leaving the haunted estate, they’re on borrowed time. When Cooper returns to his daughter on her deathbed, Murph (Ellen Burstyn), decades older, is not the same age as her father he tried to promise. The scene of their reunion isn’t made to feel like a parent’s nightmare, it gets presented as a somber moment between a father and daughter whose bond transcends established ideas of space and time. Yet, one can’t help but see just how horrible the loss of time has been for them, especially Cooper who must move on.

Interstellar offers more sci-fi answers and even more questions, but it’s still worth pointing out how the movie can lean into horror. “You were my ghost,” an adult Murph whispers about her father while back in her old bedroom. Cooper is very much alive when he sends out a morse code message from the other side of her bookshelf, but it’s a result of encountering the unexplainable and the incomprehensible. While there is hope and a sense of victory in the end, Interstellar travels audiences into a sci-fi nightmare to reach it.

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