Warning: This article includes spoilers for several movies. Read at your own discretion.
So I finally saw Interstellar and it is an amazing movie. Matthew McConaughey was great in the lead role, with Anne Hathaway a wonderful co-star. Jessica Chastain might not have been playing an astronaut, but as is normal for her at this point she still plays a very strong character who ends up being vital to the plot in unexpected ways. If you haven't already seen my Voyage to the Stars Blogathon, which I started to celebrate the film's release, I would strongly recommend you take a look, let me know what you think, and perhaps try your hand at the challenge I pose to you. It certainly is a challenge in many ways (I made the blogathon and even I'm having trouble with my own entry). Hopefully I'll be seeing some entries soon, and perhaps I'll even get my own up somewhere in the next few weeks.
Still, one thing in particular stood out to me about this film, and that was the ending. It was executed brilliantly here, but it got me thinking about how popular this type of ending has become, especially from a movie that I was pleasantly surprised to see had for the most part managed to avoid a lot of obvious science fiction cliches (the first time I saw the astronauts going into suspended animation I seriously half-expected one of them to be found dead in their pod). Interstellar's big climax involves a surreal experience that begins when the spaceship is forced to enter a black hole. Cooper finds himself drifting into a strange location that looks like it would fit right into one of the dream worlds of Inception where he is left to contemplate humanity's greater purpose. Does that sound familiar?
Well, it should, because this isn't the first time such a climax has been used in science fiction. The idea of a protagonist, usually alone (though cases with small groups of characters are not unheard of) entering an uncharted environment with no idea of what to expect followed by a mysterious passage through space and a strange encounter in what seems another dimension has been around for decades. Contact had something similar, as did The Black Hole, Mission to Mars. In all these films, the characters have no prior understanding of what they are getting into, but the experience proves vital to the narrative as it often provides some sort of insight into a much broader topic, generally about the universe or human nature, before the protagonist is whisked back home.
So where did this whole ordeal come from? Why is it so popular? Well, they say that art imitates art, and indeed this trend probably one of the best examples you can get. In order to understand what is really happening, we will have to go back to the origin of this concept. So far as I'm aware, it all originates with the work of one Stanley Kubrick. Interstellar, Mission to Mars, Contact, The Black Hole, and numerous others were all imitating his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the famous star gate and hotel room sequences from that film.
By this point David Bowman is the lone crew member aboard Discovery and the ship has reached its destination of Jupiter. He encounters yet another monolith in orbit around the planet, and takes one of the remaining EVA pods outside to get a closer look, only to find himself pulled into some sort of strange passageway. It's not clear exactly what it is (though the novel hinted it to be some form of interstellar highway), but what we see is a bright stream of bright colors and strange shapes culminating in a series of distorted images of what look like Earth landscapes.
After the peculiar sequence involving the infamous "star gate", the camera begins to cut rapidly to closer and closer shots of a human eye, until finally the distorted colors disappear and it appears normal. We then see that Dave has emerged in what appears to be a hotel room, but it still seems off. Weird and haunting voices can be heard from somewhere outside, and lighting comes up through the floor instead of the ceiling.
Dave keeps ending up in a situation where he sees older versions of himself with the younger version inexplicably vanishing each time, ending with him lying on a bed and with his last breath pointing toward the monolith that has materialized in front of him. He then transforms into something resembling a fetus, symbolizing the next stage in human evolution. This is quite a bit different from many of its imitators in more than a few ways, however.
One thing that is of particular note is that out of all the different incarnations of the insightful alternate dimension, 2001 is the only one where dialogue is not incorporated in any way. As strange as the later incarnations can get, the original scene was played subjectively and to this day people still dispute over precisely what happens. Although the outcome of this sequence is clear, the precise details are never explained. The closest thing to a clear description of what happens is in the novel, where it is implied that Bowman is being observed by the aliens and the hotel-like environment is supposed to keep him comfortable until he is ready to be transformed.
Many of the imitators tend to be a lot more explicit in their meanings, even if they incorporate extraordinary images with the possible exception of The Black Hole (which was in general a very confusing and not very well executed film anyway), and generally most seem to end with the main character being sent home although I have yet to find one that involves them going through a physical change as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Generally the context for the situation is made a lot clearer and, unlike the original sequence that inspired them, expository dialogue is included.
In the case of Contact, for instance, it is established that Eleanor Arroway is in some kind of computer simulation created by the Vegans with the intent of making it easier for her first confrontation with a representative of their species to play out more comfortably. Interstellar is even more explicit. Cooper deduces that what he is seeing was created by some distant decedent of humanity with the intent that he would be able to learn a crucial piece of information (about the singularities of black holes) and send it back in time to his daughter so that she would be able to save humanity from extinction.
So aside from the extreme influence of 2001, why is this idea so popular? What is it about the the idea of this other dimension, a world that apparently transcends what we understand of space and time? Perhaps it is simply our innate curiosity as a species. Science fiction is a genre that is all about exploring the unknown and conquering the vast mysteries of existence as we know it. These characters: David Bowman, Eleanor Arroway, and Cooper were explorers who tried to conquer the limits of human capability, and they succeeded for greater than they could have expected.
The truth is that the universe is so mind-bogglingly complex we are only just beginning to understand it. All of these movies seek to explore the theme of what lies beyond the realm of human observation, and that means to look beyond the mere boundaries of space and time. 2001 was a film that looked to the future, and in the end it did just that by showing us not simply where humanity could go, but also how much further it could go: a future stage of evolution we cannot begin to comprehend. This same theme returns in Interstellar with the notion of humanity evolving to a point where time itself is perceived as a physical dimension, far beyond the limits of contemporary science.