Interstellar vs. Inception

Does Christopher Nolan do a better job of exploring outer space or dissecting our inner psyches?

inception interstellar

Warner Bros. / Paramount

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.

Hero Complexes

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.

Winner: Interstellar

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.

Winner: Interstellar

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.

Winner: Inception

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.

Winner: Inception

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.

Winner: Interstellar

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.

Winner: Inception

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.

Winner: Inception

Villains: Mann vs. Mal

Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann in Interstellar is no match for the cunning, crazy-eyed Mal.

Winner: Inception

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.”

Winner: Inception

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.

Winner: Interstellar

The “World Is Spinning Dangerously” Scene

Interstellar makes you less nauseous than Gravity does, while Inception has that awesome hotel hallway fight scene.

Winner: Inception

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.

Winner: Interstellar

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.

Winner: Inception

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.

Winner: Inception

Symbolic Names

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.

Winner: Interstellar

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.

Winner: Interstellar

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.

Winner: Interstellar


Your Champion… The Dark Knight, for best use of Michael Caine.