Ever since Stanley Kubrick turned the sci-fi film into an art form, the rise of the intelligent sci-fi thriller – more cerebral than shoot-em-up – has been slow but steady. Now Christopher Nolan, the king of the thinking man’s film with his Batman reboot and mind-bending original Inception, has turned to the stars with Interstellar. With big ideas doing big business on the big screen (Interstellar has accumulated a cool $200 million in two weeks), it might be time to start thinking about the big ideas you can catch on your laptop, tablet, or even that old antique, the television.
Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi suffered upon release, with many critics noting the shift in tone that occurs towards the film’s last third. Whilst its undeniable that the movie moves from cerebral to slasher at whiplash pace, it nevertheless retains its core meaning throughout, using its reliance on science and psychology to justify its frenetic ending.
Focused on a group of scientists attempting to reignite the sun after the Earth falls into a nuclear winter, the Manhattan-sized nuclear “payload” they’re dragging towards the sun is secondary to the psychological payload of the characters as they move closer to the end of their mission. The characters – with physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) as de facto lead and wonderful support from Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, and Michelle Yeoh in particular – are people at the end of their tethers, slowly falling apart just as the biggest responsibility in mankind’s history comes to weigh on their shoulders.
The film does strive for scientific accuracy and “hard science” (Professor Brian Cox of Wonders fame was one of the advisors), but its the emotional accuracy which gives the film its quietly tense and tightening atmosphere. Taking on the idea of extended space travel, Sunshine forefronts the claustrophobia of space when all you have with you are your colleagues and your thoughts. The film is devoid of cutaways to Earth and keeps the action almost exclusively inside the ship save for a few keys scenes, tightening the screw until, yes, the third act rather explodes into a slasher-esque horror – but it’s that tightening, that psychological twisting, which makes the transition work in ways that the critics of 2007 failed to appreciate. The frenetic fear of the third act never jettisons the acuity of the first two, instead combining the Big Thoughts of the latter with the psychological unravelling of the former. The responsibility of saving the world is the catalyst for events both good and bad.
With its cast of six speaking parts and Sam Rockwell’s lead (also called Sam) the only one not present via videolink, Moon turns the claustrophobia of space into supreme isolation, when the only person you have to keep you company is (literally) yourself.
Set on the moon, Duncan Jones’ cinematic debut is an homage to 1970s spaceflight cinema, favouring models over CGI and turning some of the oldest sci-fi tropes in the book to newer and better use. The inspiration for GERTY, the AI which helps Sam to run the lunar mining base Sarang, is clear as day, but Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker are always careful about treading old ground. Moon mixes its twists and turns (and there are plenty) with little moments here and there which prevent it from becoming cliche, instead crafting a narrative that questions the inner rather the outer; looking squarely at human nature and what it means to be us before it starts to looks at the stars.
Like Sunshine and other “clever” sci-fi films, Moon strives to build itself on scientific fact, looking to the near future for inspiration; the mining of helium-3 is such a realistic possibility that NASA screened it as part of a lecture series at their Space Center in Houston. Other aspects of the film (best not spoiled here) are less fact and make more of the genre’s moniker of “science fiction”, but nevertheless find themselves grounded in reality as much as possible.
And yet, like Sunshine, the science pales in comparison with what its results engender in humanity. The heart of Moon lies in its questioning, in its use of allegory and trope to answer the questions we usually turn to science for, and to show that the answers to those questions might not be the ones we want to find.