Interstellar vs. Inception
Does Christopher Nolan do a better job of exploring outer space or dissecting our inner psyches?
As with most directors of his caliber who have very distinct styles, Christopher Nolan is already getting hammered this week with reviews and commentary comparing his newest film, Interstellar, to the rest of his portfolio, which includes The Prestige, Memento, the Dark Knight trilogy, and more.
Frankly, Interstellar is one of Nolan’s tamer movies in terms of plot lines, focusing more on emotions than time-travel, flashbacks, and mental labyrinths.
That said, of course Interstellar is still a complex movie, and it perhaps most closely resembles Nolan’s 2010 thriller, Inception.
While Interstellar explores new worlds and outer space, Inception dives into our minds and dissects our dreams. However, both star single fathers who embark on an epic journey with the goal of seeing their kids again, both offer exciting new “worlds” to explore, and both include Nolan’s signature obsession with circular and spherical things.
Just for fun, let’s compare and contrast.
Spoilers for both films ahead, obviously.
In Interstellar, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) looks for a new planet to save the human species. In Inception, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) tries to plant an idea inside another man’s head to prevent a global energy monopoly.
Single Dad Wants to See His Kids Again
Cooper’s kids get ample screen time in Interstellar, and so much of the film is about his relationship with his daughter Murph, played at different ages by Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, and Mackenzie Foy. His older child, Tom, played as an adult by Casey Affleck, is a less likable character. But Cobb’s kids don’t even show their faces until the end of Inception.
The Dead Wife
All of Nolan’s movies use the dead wife as a character motivator. Surprisingly, Tom and Murph’s mom in Interstellar isn’t that important. Meanwhile, Cobb’s dead wife, Mal, is a recurring menace during his missions.
Male Protagonist Sacrifices Himself to Save the Girl
Cobb sends Ariadne (Ellen Page) to “ride the kicks” back up to the real world, while he falls into the “Limbo” level of dreams. Cooper ejects himself from their spacecraft to give Amelia (Anne Hathaway) an extra boost to escape a black hole.
Winner: Jack Dawson in Titanic
Use of Oscar-Winning Leading Lady
In Inception, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, literally haunts their dreams and kills people in their sleep. Anne Hathaway is, you know, fine.
Inclusion of Minorities
Romilly and Murph’s principal are the only two minorities in Interstellar (both black). Cobb’s team in Inception includes Saito (a Japanese businessman) and Yusuf (an Indian chemist).
Winner: Eh, tie?
In Inception, the amount of time that passes increases as you descend into deeper levels. There’s math to be done. In Interstellar, time is relative by planet, and this leads to Cooper missing almost the entirety of his children’s lives. Cobb just becomes an old soul.
Outer Space vs. In Your Head
Even though Nolan’s depictions of new galaxies and dimensions are fascinating, we don’t actually get to see that many new planets in Interstellar. In Inception, audiences encounter many different levels of dream worlds.
Corn vs. Cobb
In Interstellar, corn is the only food remaining on Earth as a result of blight. Corn is boring and starchy; Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant.
Villains: Mann vs. Mal
Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann in Interstellar is no match for the cunning, crazy-eyed Mal.
Sidekicks: TARS vs. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy
TARS, a robot voiced by Bill Irwin, is a humorous helper to Cooper out in space, but Arthur (JGL) and Eames (Hardy) are part of one crack team in Inception. “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
The “Water Is a Threat” Scene
Waves the size of mountains threaten the Interstellar team on the first planet they visit. In Inception, the level 1 dream has heavy rain pouring because the dreamer drank too much champagne before going to sleep.
The “World Is Spinning Dangerously” Scene
Interstellar makes you less nauseous than Gravity does, while Inception has that awesome hotel hallway fight scene.
The “Ice Sucks” Scene
The level 3 dream in Inception is a snowy mountain. (“Couldn’t somebody have dreamt up a goddamn beach?”) In Interstellar, clouds are made of ice, icy mountains comprise the ground and the sky, and Mann’s planet is a desolate tundra—filmed in Iceland, by the way.
The “Ground Is the Sky” Scene
Again, the sky-high waves and icy mountains in Interstellar are, well, stellar. But we’ve seen high waters and upside-down mountains before (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Upside Down, any movie with Moses parting the Red Sea). However, when Ariadne folds a part of Paris up and over itself? Now that’s something.
Slingshot Around a Black Hole vs. Paradoxical Architecture
Maybe the slingshot in Interstellar would have been more effective if McConaughey drew it out on a napkin like DiCaprio explains dreams in Inception. Paradoxical architecture based on M.C. Escher’s drawings win this one.
Mal’s name in Inception literally means “bad” in Spanish. But in Interstellar, we have Dr. Mann-not-on-the-moon, Amelia not-Earhart, a mission to save mankind titled Lazarus, and a space station called Endurance.
Symbolic Circles and Spheres
Inception may toy with ticking watches and sleep cycles, but it’s more about linear layers than circles. Interstellar includes all of that, plus a spherical wormhole, black hole, planets, a circular space station based on the ISS, and a giant cylindrical NASA station just off Saturn’s rings. There is so much roundness in Interstellar that the most surprising setting of all is the boxy fifth dimension Cooper gets dumped in.
Use of Funny Shapes
Cobb’s totem, a small object that helps him differentiate the dream world from reality, is a tractricoid that remind you of asymptotes and calculus class. It’s the top that keeps on spinning at the end of the movie, a source of great frustration for audiences who hate ambiguity. Interstellar’s black hole, on the other hand, has been called the best black hole in science fiction ever.
Your Champion… The Dark Knight, for best use of Michael Caine.