15 Movies to Watch If You Like Interstellar (2014): Ever since George Melies shot a rocket into the eye of the Man in the Moon (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) or when Protazanov entertained the possibility of a proletarian uprising on Mars (Aelia, 1924), and Fritz Lang spellbindingly dramatized the space travel (Woman in the Moon, 1929), cinema has started gazing into the outer space and speculating about the mysteries lying beyond the reaches of Earth. Subsequently, the space race between the 1950 and 1970s encouraged the craving for space-set sci-fi narratives. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) might not be the greatest blockbuster hit like the later-era space operas like Star Wars and Star Trek franchise. Yet, it was one of the earlier films to offer a deeply perceptive look at humans’ existence in the universe.
The more we learned about the cosmos, our feelings of wonderment were mixed with feelings of dread. The question of what’s out there continues to haunt these creators. But the problem with most space-themed sci-fi is that space or space travel becomes a mere backdrop for the central human drama. In fact, in many cases, science is nowhere to be found. However, in the 21st century, with more technological advancements, cinema approached the spaceflight sub-genre with a renewed outlook. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) is one such milestone in this sub-genre, which didn’t entirely forsake scientific accuracy for the sake of dramatic entertainment. Moreover, it’s set in the near-distant future and reflects upon the man-made climate-change-induced crisis.
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Though Interstellar contains a ‘what if’ scenario of the enigmatic presence of a wormhole in our solar system, the film’s understanding of space travel and rocketry was informed by proficient scientific thinkers. But let’s not forget that Nolan’s Interstellar is designed as a blockbuster cinema. A scientist might poke a lot of holes at the theories and depictions in Interstellar. However, for a common intelligent audience, the scientific logic of the film seemed tight enough to immerse us into these imaginative worlds and intriguing conflicts. Interstellar tells the tale of a few self-sacrificing human beings who strive to seek a new home for the self-destructive race. At the same time, it portrays the strong bond between a father and daughter, which thrives across space and time.
Though a unique work in the genre, Nolan’s Interstellar wasn’t created in a vacuum, and its influence will impact the cinema of the future. Hence, those who have loved this cerebral and emotional sci-fi cinema will be tempted to embark on a quest to find similar-themed or visualized cinema. So, here I am with a few recommendations. Now let’s look at the list of films you need to watch if you like Interstellar:
1. Ikarie XB-1 (1963)
The Space Race between the two Cold War rivals – the United States and the Soviet Union – commenced in the 1950s. Sci-fi narratives in the cinema of both countries were also flourishing in the same decade. While most of these sci-fi narratives focused on disasters and threats from invasive alien species, only a few films imagined space or interstellar travel. Films like Forbidden Planet (USA, 1956) and Road to the Stars (USSR, 1957) used ground-breaking special effects for their time to conceive spacecraft travels. In fact, these films focus on the sci-fi aspect rather than using it as a gimmick or a drawn-out metaphor.
In the 1960s, as outer space exploration became a reality, filmmakers were striving for maturation within the space voyage sub-genre. One such memorable sci-fi movie – made 50 years before Interstellar – was Jindrich Polak’s Ikarie XB-1. This Czechoslovak (a Soviet satellite state during that period) sci-fi was loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1955 novel The Magellanic Cloud. Ikarie XB-1 had outstanding cinematography and sound design. But the most revered aspect of the film is its avant-garde production design, which supposedly inspired Kubrick when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Ikarie XB-1 is set in the year 2163, and the titular starship with an international crew is sent to investigate alien life in the mysterious ‘White Planet,’ orbiting Alpha Centauri. It’s a 28-month mission, but 15 years would have elapsed on Earth by the time the astronauts reach their destination. The narrative unfolds in the form of vignettes and looks at various things that can go wrong during an interstellar trip.
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2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
When Interstellar was released, there was a raging debate on whether Nolan’s magnum opus truly reached the awe-inspiring standards set by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Instead of discussing the merits and flaws of both films, we can agree that it’s hard for a 21st-century movie-goer to imagine the awe of those who experienced 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre in 1968. We are a generation who have grown up with screens. While Christopher Nolan made a sprawling, intergalactic saga about a father-daughter relationship, Kubrick’s narration was deliberately slow-paced and mesmerizingly austere (an austerity that reaches the levels of Bresson at times).
2001: A Space Odyssey is a monumental work in cinema. In fact, every filmmaker who yearns to wade into this sub-genre must experience it like the prehistoric apes that touch and feel the extraterrestrial monolith. Apart from the gorgeous mise en scene, Kubrick’s film withheld a profound spiritual and philosophical core that influenced many sci-fi movies, including Nolan’s interstellar. But what sets apart Kubrick’s work is the enigmatic and enticing final stretch. As we immerse ourselves into this purely subjective film experience, we ponder over the existential destiny of humanity – a feeling that fills us with as much hope as witnessing a father-daughter’s faith and love for each other.
3. Solaris (1972)
Since cinema is a referential medium, interstellar travel films can’t be discussed without referring to Kubrick’s “2001” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Often addressed as Tarkovsky’s reply to Kubrick’s “2001”, both “2001” and Solaris are relatively sparse and concise than Nolan’s Interstellar. Based on Stanislaw Lem’s deeply philosophical 1961 novel of the same name, Solaris revolves around a psychologist named Kris Kelvin, who is sent on an interstellar journey to reach the space station orbiting the titular oceanic planet. A scientist in the space station, who was also Kris’ friend, recently committed suicide after leaving a mysterious recording.
Moreover, the other two scientists onboard behave in a strange manner. But soon, Kris himself experiences the weird phenomena caused by the oceanic planet, which gradually pushes them into an existential crisis. The remote oceanic world of Solaris is nothing like Miller’s planet (Waterworld). While ‘punishing’ gravity is the huge problem with Miller’s planet, Solaris is postulated as a giant brain that allegedly tries to communicate with humans through bizarre concoctions. Both films, in their own way, explore the nature of humanity, love, obsession, and grief. Furthermore, parallels could be drawn between the emotional crisis of Mann (Matt Damon) in Interstellar and the scientists stranded in Solaris.
4. Silent Running (1972)
Silent Running marks the directorial debut of visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner). It shares the environmental themes with Nolan’s Interstellar and paints a grim picture of humanity’s future on Earth. The narrative is set in the year 2008, where our planet’s flora and fauna are on the verge of extinction. All that remains of our natural world is confined to greenhouses floating in space. Out of nowhere, one day, the powers that be, order the spacecrafts to jettison the greenhouse pods. One conservationist and astronaut named Freeman Lovell (Bruce Dern) defies the order and takes extreme measures to protect his cargo.
Despite budgetary and technical limitations, Silent Running was celebrated for its excellent special effects. However, as a character piece with ambitious themes, the film doesn’t quite fully achieve its potential. The isolated character at its center is also not an individual whose deeds evoke any amount of empathy. Lowell is more of a Dr. Mann-like figure whose strong (twisted) belief in something overrides the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. As an eco-parable and as the study of a lone astronaut caught in space, Silent Running has influenced many films in the sub-genre, including Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) and Claire Denis’ High Life (2018).
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5. The Mystery of the Third Planet (1981)
What if the Earth wasn’t dying, and interstellar travel is so casual in the distant future that Cooper could take young Murph on various no-holds-barred intergalactic adventures? Perhaps, we’d get something colorful and riotous like this 48-minute animated Soviet space opera, The Mystery of the Third Planet, by Roman Kachanov & Glenn Stanton. While Russian cinema has offered some heavyweight, meditative sci-fi films like Solaris (1972), Stalker (1979), and Hard to be God (2013), there were also many funny and campy interstellar movies like Moscow: Cassiopeia (1974), Teens in the Universe (1975), Per Aspera Ad Astra (1981), etc.
Mystery of the Third Planet is one such quirky and idiosyncratic work based on Kir Bulychyov’s children’s sci-fi novella series known as the ‘Alisa Selezneva’ series. The novellas chronicle the many adventures of teenage Alisa and her space biologist father, Professor Seleznev. The characters also inspired the highly popular Soviet sci-fi series Guest from the Future (1985). In Mystery of Third Planet, the duo embarks on a space expedition to find rare animals, which pushes them to solve a peculiar mystery. The film is largely watchable for its gorgeous animated visuals that are as imaginative as and less bleak than the works of Rene Laloux (Fantastic Planet, Time Masters).
6. Event Horizon (1997)
Though a critical and commercial failure, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon is an immensely entertaining work that has gradually reached cult status. While Event Horizon follows the sci-fi/horror hybrid codified by Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Nolan’s Interstellar is something close to a ‘hard sci-fi’ in movies. However, one unmistakable moment that connects Event Horizon and Interstellar is the simple demonstration of ‘what is a wormhole?’ In Event Horizon, Sam Neill’s Dr. Weir explains how wormholes work to a mass audience, which is somewhat similar to the explanation offered by Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi) to Cooper.
Anderson’s film is a gory reworking of Disney’s 1979 blockbuster The Black Hole and treats black holes as unfathomable cosmic horror. However, Interstellar came closer to visually realizing the physics of wormholes and black holes (thanks to physicist Kip Thorne). The narrative, set in 2047, revolves around a space crew that’s sent to salvage and investigate the signal of a spaceship orbiting Neptune. Known as ‘Event Horizon,’ the starship disappeared mysteriously seven years ago.
7. Contact (1997)
Robert Zemeckis’ Contact is based on renowned astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. Besides being an emotional story about a father-daughter relationship, Contact and Interstellar share similar themes, such as the transcendental power of love, the convergence of science and faith, and the mysteries of an infinite universe. Another interesting piece of trivia: Matthew McConaughey and producer Lynda Obst were part of both projects. Contact revolves around Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway, who is raised by her widowed father, Ted (David Morse). The man kindles her interest in astronomy, but he, unfortunately, dies of a heart attack.
The adult Ellie, a feisty scientist, looks at the stars with awe and believes in making contact with an intelligent being from outer space. Ellie’s expensive project goes to the next level when she receives mysterious messages from space. Though Contact and Interstellar deal with complex scientific and philosophical themes, at its core, the films discusses humanity’s yearning for connection. Zemeckis and Nolan occasionally steer their narrative to the schmaltzy territory. But both the filmmakers offer rare sci-fi cinema that attempts to get its science accurate.
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8. Frequency (2000)
Gregory Hoblit’s (Primal Fear) mystery/drama doesn’t soar to outer space, driven by a mission to save humanity. It’s totally grounded to Earth, although what connects these two films is the parent-child relationship that transcends the boundaries of time and space. Frequency focuses on a hard-drinking New York police officer John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel). One day, in the attic of his home, John finds an old ham radio. As he examines it, an atmospheric anomaly causes John to communicate with a man, who turns out to be his deceased father, Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid). Frank is a fireman who allegedly died in a warehouse fire in 1969.
John shares the information about Frank’s impending death and tries to change his own traumatic past. But John’s disruption creates alternate series of events, and the outcome isn’t something to be happy about. At least, for two-thirds of the narrative, Frequency is a fine mix of emotional and cerebral, like Nolan’s Interstellar. The Morse code by the watch, and the ham radio prove to be magical modes of communication that reinvigorate the bond between a parent and child.
9. Voices of a Distant Star (2002)
Does Christopher Nolan watch anime? While Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006) was cited as an inspiration for Inception (2010), Makoto Shinkai’s 25-minute short Voices of a Distant Star is murmured to be an influence on Interstellar. Mr. Shinkai loves the idea of communication/connection over a long distance. It’s one of the perennial elements in his fantastical romances. In his earliest anime, Voices of a Distant Star, he employs interstellar travel and the concept of time dilation to tell the tale of two ‘star-crossed’ lovers.
It’s a boy-meets-girl story, and the conflict that separates Mikako and Noboru is the most ostentatious. Tarsians, an alien entity, attack the human race. In order to protect humanity, Mikako volunteers to join the space force. The lovers try to keep in touch through text messages, but each battle with Tarsians takes Mikako further away from Earth. Space battles, robots, and text messages are cool, but nothing substitutes the joy and fulfillment of communicating with a person face-to-face. Apart from the idea of space and time working against love, the two films are entirely different. But of course, this central conceit of overwhelming distance moistens our eyes now and then.
10. Sunshine (2007)
Like the crew of Endurance Spacecraft in Nolan’s Interstellar, Icarus II crew in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is also on a mission to save humanity from extinction. While great sacrifices are made by the crew of Endurance, their intergalactic journey is laced with hope. However, the Icarus II crew is on a suicidal mission to save not only humans but also the Sun itself. As the name of the spacecraft suggests, the previous mission failed, and the multi-ethnic team of astronauts needs to deliver the massive nuclear fission bomb on the sun’s surface.
Despite a far-fetched storyline, Sunshine is an intelligent sci-fi until it veers into the clichéd sci-fi territory in the third act. Interstellar had an antagonist of sorts in the later-half. But Dr. Mann made us remember the phrase ‘banality of evil,’ whereas Sunshine had a purely evil cinematic villain. Both films’ basic premise raises an interesting question about the cost humanity must pay to save itself. It’s the age-old moral question of whether it is right to sacrifice a few to protect the masses. Alas, Sunshine took a sharp turn to a dead-end.
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11. Gravity (2013)
Ever since the awe of space travel was mesmerizingly captured in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), numerous films have attempted to focus solely on the existential themes attached to such a backdrop. On the other hand, some of the greatest works in the sci-fi genre have borrowed tropes (for instance, Alien – a haunted house in space or Star Wars –a space Western) to elevate its wow factor. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a mixture of both these approaches (it’s a survival drama set in space). Nevertheless, what’s unique about this film is that it zeroes in on the nitty-gritty details of space travel.
While Nolan’s sprawling tale uses real science to make its fictional leap, Cuaron’s film simply explores the many catastrophes awaiting the humans floating in space. The only mission eventually for Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in the narrative is to survive the debris orbiting the space station and return to Earth. Though it seems like low stakes, compared to the intergalactic adventures of Cooper, both films viscerally showcase the hostility of space. The sustained tension in Gravity’s entire narrative arc could be particularly felt in Interstellar’s riveting docking scene. Moreover, both films deal with themes of willpower, hope, and perseverance.
12. The Martian (2015)
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was sandwiched between the releases of two other significant space dramas of the decade: Gravity & The Martian. All three movies demonstrate how things can go south when you are in space. The Martian & Interstellar further show how survival becomes hard when you leave planet Earth for another. The fact that these films didn’t rely on any manufactured extra-terrestrial threat to progress the narrative conveys how long space-set movies have come. And apart from Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain connection, Martian & Interstellar are eventually different films.
Ridley Scott’s Martian – based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name – is a survival drama. A series of unique events leave the astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars. How he miraculously survives the harsh red planet and returns to Earth forms the crux of the narrative. Both films have a lot of improbable elements in the narrative. Yet, the focus is often on the science and the existential angst of astronauts contemplating the void of life outside our precious planet.
13. Aniara (2018)
Aniara is an adaptation of a revered book-length 1956 poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Like Nolan’s Interstellar, Aniara’s Director Pella Kajerman, Hugo Lilja depicts the vast scale of space travel and how little changes can instigate an unalterable catastrophe. Furthermore, Aniara is an all-consuming search for meaning amidst the emptiness of space. While Interstellar offers optimistic resolutions to incredibly complex issues, Swedish sci-fi is gradually engulfed by the darkness.
Aniara is one among the many passenger spaceships that take people away from the scorched Earth to their new home on Mars. But a collision with space debris causes critical failure, and Aniara is left to drift in space. The narrative is centered on Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), who operates the advance AI known as ‘Mima,’ which allows the participants to perceive the customized and calming images of the old Earth. Just like Interstellar, Aniara too offers a microcosmic sample of humanity to comprehend the things that are good and bad about us. Even though the sample size is larger in the Swedish film, it’s a bit emotionally distant.
14. Ad Astra (2019)
On the surface, James Gray’s Ad Astra seemed to have been heavily influenced by Nolan’s Interstellar. Both movies deal with themes of family and depict the agony of losing a father to a space mission. While in Interstellar, the father embarks on a galaxies-spanning quest to get back to his daughter, Ad Astra follows the dour son (Brad Pitt) trying to track down his father (Tommy Lee Jones). Labeled as Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ in space, Ad Astra also belongs to the list of new-age space movies that portray how space is awfully vicious to us.
The narrative is set in the late 21st century, where humanity is threatened by inexplicable power surges. Subsequently, Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is informed that the surges are traced back to the ‘Lima Project’ – the one spearheaded by Roy’s father, Clifford, to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. It’s been nearly three decades since the Lima Project astronauts have gone missing, but it’s now there in the outer reaches of the solar system. Though Christopher Nolan and James Gray’s treatment of their respective materials are unique and different, both films offer an optimistic spin on the events.
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15. Proxima (2019)
Alice Winocour’s Proxima is yet another interesting tale of parental bond in the complex life of a space-faring individual. And the protagonist’s personal journey is juxtaposed against the bigger philosophical, existential questions about the universe. However, unlike Interstellar or Ad Astra, what’s refreshing about Proxima is that it tells the tale of a female astronaut. The incredible Eva Green plays Sarah, who is prepping for a year-long stay at the International Space Station (ISS). Apart from processing the separation from her daughter Stella, Sarah also needs to survive in a macho environment.
The camera brilliantly takes an objective stance and captures the unspoken emotional tension boiling within Sarah. Though Proxima is neither set in space nor sci-fi, it poignantly speaks of the internal journey an astronaut makes before embarking on a mission for the greater good. Winocour doesn’t go for any bigger conflicts, but if you’d like a closer look at how the act of separation deeply affected Cooper and young Murph, you can perhaps watch Proxima.