While Christopher Nolan departed the DC Extended Universe after lending his name to Man of Steel, his memory smolders on. There are those among us who still wonder what the Superman franchise would have looked with Nolan in the director’s chair. As unlikely as that is, there are still plenty of parallels with elements of the Superman legend on display in Interstellar.
Some of this is probably a result of the film’s other overt Judeo-Christian overtones, to which the Superman mythos already have their fair share of similarities, whether Old or New Testament. And while there are plenty of religious themes and Biblical parallels in Interstellar, we’re here to look at this from a more Kryptonian point of view.
At the heart of Interstellar is the race to escape a dying planet. A fairly obvious Krypton analogy, I grant you. Earth may not be in any danger of exploding in Interstellar, but it does share similarities to the barren, depleted Krypton that was first introduced in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and later picked up in John Byrne’s 1986 Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Elements of the latter found their way into the film of the same name. A film, by the way, that Christopher Nolan shares story credit on.
Prior to 1978, depictions of Superman’s homeworld owed nearly everything to the technological utopia found in Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics and the movie serials it birthed. Flash Gordon’s influence on Krypton was a little more practical, as well. In the first episode of TV’s Adventures of Superman in 1952, Jor-El appears to be wearing a recycled, only slightly re-purposed version of one of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon costumes from the mid-30s. All in all, Krypton fell in step with the fashion sense of virtually every futuristic or interplanetary society of its era.
But Donner’s Krypton, or really production designer John Barry’s Krypton, was something else. Kryptonian cities exist in isolated clusters across an endless expanse of frozen tundra, with a dimming, enormous red giant looming above. Here, just as on the Earth of Interstellar, space travel has been banned for some unknown reason in the distant past. Extended versions of Superman: The Movie depict the Kryptonian elders dispatching an armored policeman to prevent Jor-El from breaking the planetary edict against leaving the planet’s surface. Perhaps, as it is in Interstellar, the space program has been put out to pasture to keep the masses from thinking too hard about the inevitable apocalypse. Still, as in all versions of the legend, we meet Krypton’s foremost scientist, a voice in the wilderness willing to confront the planet’s fate head on by hurling his only child out into the void in the hope for salvation. Paging Professor Brand.
Nolan’s movie, of course, reverses the dynamic somewhat. The cornfields of Interstellar and the vintage flatbed trucks recall Smallville, particularly Richard Donner’s idealized mid-century middle America, before the quest for survival takes our group of star-children to a planet that appears to be little more than an icy expanse, and whose doom because of its proximity to a black hole seems all but assured. Sound familiar?
As an amusing sidenote, Professor Brand’s Jor-El-esque predictions of planetary disaster recall a sequence in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Flex Mentallo, with a humble farmer offering some familiar sounding doomsaying.
See for yourself:
Some of the basic science at the core of Interstellar has been drawn on by Superman films and comics for decades. It’s certainly only via the effects of time dilation that the infant Kal-El was able to traverse the light years between Krypton and Earth. In Superman: The Movie, it even appears that Kal-El’s ship (which shares a star-shape with the Endurance of Interstellar) passes through a wormhole during his own psychedelic cosmic journey. Marlon Brando’s Jor-El refers to Einstein’s theory of relativity when his disembodied, computerized ghost tells Superman that Krypton has already been gone for “many thousands of your years” (something which is contradicted by a later statement from one of the villains that Krypton exploded in 1938…but perhaps it simply took that long for the light from the explosion to reach Earth’s telescopes). There’s also the matter of lighter gravity allowing humans to perform feats of strength and agility that would be impossible on their native world…spacesuits be damned, a quirk of science that Superman has been exploiting for his entire career.
If you’ll allow me the luxury of pushing the Superman analogy to its absolute limit, General Zod, particularly Zod as he’s been depicted in recent iterations of the legend: a man who has fallen from grace but who still holds the best interests of his people, and the survival of the species in his heart, makes an appearance in the form of Matt Damon’s appropriately named and flawed Doctor Mann. Mann’s potentially endless cryo-sleep on the frozen planet is a trip to the Phantom Zone all its own, while by film’s end, Cooper finds himself in a far more literal Phantom Zone. The basic concept of the Phantom Zone, that of a dimension outside our own where criminals exist in an endless disembodied state where they can observe events but not directly influence them, sounds awfully familiar in this context.
And then there’s the matter of whether it’s Cooper or Amelia who fulfills the Kal-El role. While Cooper is already a twice-risen savior of the human race, it’s ultimately Amelia who is able to fulfill her mission, as defined by her dying father on a dying world, and she does it without the benefit of divine intervention. If that’s not a manifestation of our own superhuman potential, I don’t know what is. To call back one last time to the Man of Steel story that Mr. Nolan had a hand in, Amelia’s precious cargo of frozen embryos that can be used to seed a distant world (sent with love by her father) sounds an awful lot like the Codex of Kryptonian DNA sent to Earth with Superman. DC Comics fans might also content themselves with the fact that Matthew McConaughey spends most of the movie dressed like Hal Jordan.
All the (likely accidental) specifics aside, the humanistic messages of Interstellar speaks to the inherent sentimentality of a character like Superman, particularly as his legend was cast in the Donner film as a literal “symbol of hope” for the people of Earth. That same symbolism was once again foregrounded in the only Superman movie to bear Christopher Nolan’s name. Still, anyone who thought that perhaps Chris Nolan’s worldview wouldn’t suit a character as optimistic as Superman may be given pause by the triumphant moments contained within Interstellar.