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Interstellar: The Odyssey for the 21st Century

“Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured.” – Homer, The Odyssey.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is more than just a science fiction tale. It’s a retelling of the classic tale of the hero’s fight to return to his home. And it’s a story that has existed for almost as long as civilization itself. The struggle that Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has to endure is one that is very similar to the hero Odysseus. The long journey back from an alien environment back to his humble abode to be reunited with his family, who are unbeknownst to him are facing their own problems.

Interstellar

The similarities between The Odyssey aren’t obvious on the first viewing of Interstellar, but I aim to show just how Nolan is essentially retelling and updating the classic poem. And how this is his version of Homer’s most well known work. Nolan’s Interstellar is a homage to the bard, rather than a “rip-off” and is Nolan’s attempt to bring our attention to just how The Odyssey continues to have an impact on our stories and forms of entertainment even now in the 21st Century.

For those who may not be aware of the tale of The Odyssey, the plot is as follows. The story takes place ten years after the fall of Troy were many Greek heroes left their homes to go fight. Odysseus is one of these heroes, but he is yet to return home. His son Telemachus is in charge of the house in his father’s absence, but encountering issues with people declaring his mother Penelope remarries, and a band of 108 suitors have arrived to “eat them out of house and home”. The pressure is on for Penelope to remarry. Odysseus is in fact alive, but is being held captive on an Island by Calypso who has fallen madly in love with him. Poor Odysseus has been stuck on the island for seven years (remember this length of time as we will come back to discuss it).

Odysseus manages to escape, but encounters issues with Poseidon (the God of the Sea) which causes Odysseus to become shipwrecked on another Island. It is during his time on this Island that he recounts his tales. Including stories of being lured off his path by beautiful sirens, battling the cyclops, and his crew becoming addicted to a mysterious drug. After managing to get a ship back to his home, he has to hide in disguise in order to rid his home of the suitors. It isn’t until his home is rid of this plight that he can be reunited with his family.

If we deconstruct the narrative of Interstellar, we can see how there are many striking similarities between the film and Homer’s Odyssey. First we can see how Cooper is very much like Odysseus, he is taken away from his family to participate in a mission that he has little say in. This is very similar to how Odysseus had to leave Ithaca to go fight in the Trojan war. The threat of the war over-spilling into mainland Greece, was something that was just as devastating as the death of Earth in Interstellar.

There is a high calling which Cooper must adhere to, and we can see this by the introduction of the character Professor Brand (Michael Caine) who is presented as this wise old man, an almost Godlike figure who gives our hero his mission. In The Odyssey it was the God’s involvement with the lives of the mortals which set the forces into motion, and thus sent Odysseus on his journey. Our heroes in both The Odyssey and Interstellar have the form of another heavenly assistance. Athena the daughter of Zeus comes to Odysseus aid throughout the story, and the daughter of Brand (Amelia played by Anne Hathaway) comes to the aid of Cooper.

Interstellar

If we consider the role of the child in the both tales, we can see that Murphy (Jessica Chastain) is the character of Telemachus who resents her father for abandoning him. Telemachus also encounters his own issues, mostly with the lack of identity and a father figure. It is interesting to see how Murphy goes into a similar line of work as her father, and that Telemachus in The Odyssey is often told how much he resembles his father. There is this shared need to impress their parents, despite feeling abandoned.

Another point to address is how Murphy is battling the likes of her brother Tom (Casey Affleck) and the famine that plagues their farm. Tom represents the selfish attitudes of the suitors and the famine is a result of the Cooper family being “eaten out of house and home.” Both Telemachus and Murphy have to become better than their father, Telemachus must come his own man and find his own identity, and Murphy must find a solution to solve the exodus of the planet. This can be best summed up in the following quote: ““Few sons are like their fathers–most are worse, few better.” Tom is the example of the son being worse, but Nolan offers us hope in the form of Murphy.

As previously mentioned, there is another obvious observation that Interstellar is a modern retelling of The Odyssey. The “seven years” of being imprisoned. In The Odyssey the hero is imprisoned upon an Island for seven years. In Interstellar the first planet the crew land on has a peculiar time structure, in which one hour on this planet is the equivalent of seven years back home. I should also add that it is on this planet where the character of Poseidon and his wrath is represented by the gigantic wave which tries to stop our hero from continuing his journey, which is similar to how Odysseus raft was destroyed by the sea God.

The character of Mann (Matt Damon) and the encounter on his planet can be either interpreted as the story of the Lotus eaters, the sirens or the hero’s encounter with the Cyclops. Mann has lost his mind, like the men who ate the lotus leaves and he wants to lure others in with his message that the planet is habitable for humanity (like how the sirens lure Odysseus and his men to the rocks due to their beautiful song offering hope and comfort).

When the truth is discovered, Mann reacts violently after being discovered as a fraud by Cooper. Mann’s violent rage and unpredictable behaviour is very much like the cyclops who turned on Odysseus. Much like Odysseus wit and cunning results in the cyclops losing the fight and the hero escaping, Cooper must outsmart Mann and use logic to win this battle.

Interstellar

There is one more point to address, and this may seem like a stretch for some, but please hear me out. When Odysseus finally returns home he is in disguise and must rely on his wits, and cunning to out smart the other suitors, so he can essentially destroy them and the threat the pose to his home. Cooper returns home too and he is also in disguise. Time is running out for Murphy who needs to discover the quantum data to help solve the issue of the exodus off planet Earth. Cooper can not reveal his true identity, much like Odysseus who must trick the suitors. Although Cooper’s enemy is in the form of gravity, time and space, he still needs to use his wits to communicate with his daughter.

This of course is just my interpretation of Nolan’s film, and it may not be a retelling of The Odyssey. but like Homer, Nolan is a master storyteller who can move us with beauty, wonder and tragedy. And, just like The Odyssey the message of Interstellar is not to give up on the journey home, because the sheer fight to survive is what unites us all, it is something that is timeless.

As Homer states “mere survival is the most amazing feat of all” and as Mann states in Interstellar, “ (The) survival instinct. That’s what drove me. It’s what drives all of us. And it’s what’s gonna save us.” Surviving is what mankind has done for centuries, and it’s what we continue to do no matter what odds we encounter along the way whether they be ancient Greek Gods or black holes. To survive, is to be alive.

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2 Comments

  1. […] Unlike the 100 plus venues across the USA and Canada, there were only a select few cinemas in the UK that could accommodate Nolan’s Dunkirk in the way he wanted his audience to see it – on IMAX 70mm. The majority of the picture was shot with IMAX 65mm film (to be shown in 70mm and 35mm theatrically) – cameras also utilized with the filmmaker’s previous efforts The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar. […]

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