Film and drama

Screen Themes: Interstellar vs Inception

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This week, entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look at two Christopher Nolan movies and ponders his place in the universe...

The first movie that Christopher Nolan directed was the little seen 1998 film Following, shot for a reported budget of $6,000. He followed this up two years later with the Guy Pearce mindbender Memento, then scored the job of rebooting the Batman franchise after the disaster that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin.

In between making three movies about the Dark Knight – and writing the story for Man of Steel – Nolan found time to direct two passion pieces, magician’s tale The Prestige and a heist movie about dreams.

With growing critical acclaim and fan expectation, Nolan has now made his most ambitious movie yet, starring a bloke who used to be best known for taking his shirt off...

Interstellar (2014)

If you had told me ten years ago that Matthew McConaughey would turn into one of the best actors of his generation, I would have thought you were a crazy person.  

Interstellar is set in a near-future where worldwide crops are failing and the earth (or at least middle America) is beset by dust storms, yet government reaction is to encourage people to become farmers rather than scientists who actually look for a solution to the problem.

McConaughy plays Cooper, an engineer and former test pilot living in a time when the history books have been re-written to say that the moon landing was a hoax perpetuated by the U.S. to encourage Soviet economic collapse. Fortunately, NASA have been working in secret to build a spaceship that can travel through a wormhole to find a new planet for humanity to live. Yay, science!

For those who aren’t sci-fi nerds, a working understanding of the theory of relativity will definitely improve your enjoyment of this movie. While Nolan includes his trademark exposition, if you can’t wrap your mind around concepts like time dilation then you may well find much of Interstellar somewhat baffling.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who care about the science in your movies (like me), then you’ll be happy to know that this is far from Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow. When putting Interstellar together, Nolan went to great lengths to get the technical aspects of space travel right, including hiring theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as scientific advisor and executive producer. The efforts paid off, with even Neil DeGrasse Tyson taking to Twitter to voice his approval.

While Interstellar is McConaughy’s movie, the supporting cast are pretty much flawless in their performances.

Anne Hathaway plays scientist and co-pilot Brand, Michael Caine plays her father and chief NASA scientist, and John Lithgow plays Cooper’s father-in-law. Special mention must go to Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn, who all play Cooper’s daughter Murph at different stages of her life, and bring an emotional resonance to the film that may otherwise have been lacking.

Interstellar makes previously well-reviewed (by me at least) Gravity seem incredibly slow and small-scale by comparison – this is more akin to 2001 in terms of impact and making you think.

Rating: 9/10 — well written, scientifically accurate (to a point) and visually stunning.

Inception (2010)

If you take away all of the dream hocus pocus, Inception is basically a heist movie in the vein of Inside Man and Entrapment. It’s all about deception, both of other characters and of the audience, with enough cinematic sleight of hand designed to keep you from thinking too deeply about the plot.

The ensemble cast is led by Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a nuanced performance as Cobb, an expert in the art of extracting secrets directly from people’s brains.

As with many heist movies, Cobb gathers a team with specialist skills to aid him in his task: the Point Man (a dapper Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the Architect (Ellen Page), the Forger (Tom Hardy) and  the Chemist (Dileep Rao). Nolan favourite Michael Caine also fills a small but crucial role as Cobb’s father-in-law.

It is interesting to note that DiCaprio is now estimated to be worth around $220 million and working with the best directors in the world, while Growing Pains co-star Kirk Cameron is making movies like this

The central conceit in Inception is that much of the action happens within people’s dreams and, as such, the world is subject to rapid and often catastrophic change. This allows for some spectacular visuals, as reality starts to fall apart or worlds bend back on themselves and also provides the key plot device that time moves more slowly when you’re dreaming.

Things start to get more complicated when they enter a dream within a dream — and then a dream within a dream within a dream.

Time moves incrementally more slowly, your subconscious gets aggressive and tries to kill you and it’s easy to lose track if you’re not paying attention.

The difficultly Nolan faces with his dream travellers is that there is no established scientific base for the trick, so characters have to spend a lot of time explaining what’s going on. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur may as well have the surname Exposition, as that seems to be his primary role in the film — plug people into the dream machine and explain what the hell is going on.

Despite this minor flaw, Inception is a rarity in that it’s a movie with exciting action sequences that actually makes you think about the nature of perception and reality — not really something you can say about the latest Michael Bay opus.

Somewhat like The Usual Suspects, Inception is a different viewing experience once you know what’s going on.

Unlike the Bryan Singer masterpiece, the knowledge doesn’t really improve Inception, just makes you more aware of the amount of time spent explaining how everything works. It still looks awesome though…

Rating: 8/10 — visually spectacular and well acted, but best not to think too deeply about the plot

The Verdict

Apart from director Chris Nolan, Interstellar and Inception have a lot in common.

Both films:

  • include long sequences with people sleeping;
  • feature lead characters who have lost their wife;
  • lead characters are pretty crappy fathers, to be honest; and
  • feature Michael Caine playing essentially the same role he has played for the last 20 years — but that’s okay because he’s Michael Caine.

This isn’t one of those either/or kind of deals — you should see both of these films. Catch Interstellar at the cinema if you have the chance, buy Inception and watch it twice.

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