Interstellar has many things. It has impending doom, and poltergeist activity, and space travel, and robots, and a wormhole, and a black hole, and a whole bunch of other beezer ingredients. One thing it doesn’t have, though, is sex.
When I say “sex”, I don’t mean Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway should take off their spacesuits and start bonking. But think about it – here are two good-looking people cloistered in a spaceship, light years away from Earth, risking their lives yet with plenty of time on their hands, and you mean to tell me there is not one single flirty moment, or exchange of frisky banter, or indeed the slightest acknowledgement that they’re of different genders, or, barring that, that they’re gay? Not even a teeny-tiny hint of any sort of sexual chemistry?
But no, because this is a film by Christopher Nolan, whose entire oeuvre after Following (in which, yes, there was a bit of a smooch) could almost be summed up as The Dead Wives Club. Wives are already dead before Memento, Inception and Interstellar have even got started. Wives (or significant others) die in the course of The Prestige (two of them!) and The Dark Knight. As Auric Goldfinger once said, “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” Yep. It’s almost as though Nolan doesn’t want to have to deal with this stuff.
My point here is not the disposable nature of female characters in action films (though there is that) but what seems like a pathological avoidance of any sort of relationship that might be seen to clutter up the awesome genre trappings. Perhaps Nolan used to be the sort of adolescent who used to say “Ugh! Let’s stop this silly kissing scene and get back to the HARDWARE!”
But there doesn’t need to be actual kissing for a story to at least acknowledge the biological imperative. As Exhibit Number One, I give you the films of Howard Hawks, made at a time when explicit sex would have been censored out of existence anyway. But films like His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings and The Big Sleep simply ooze eroticism – it’s there in the glances between the actors, in the exchanges of dialogue, in the complicity between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or Jean Arthur, or between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall or Dorothy Malone.
But, I can hear you saying, these are old thrillers and comedies, made in the 1940s. There’s no place for sex in modern science fiction! I beg to differ, and I’m not just talking about Jane Fonda’s weightless striptease in Barbarella, or Julie Christie impregnated by Artificial Intelligence in Demon Seed. The Terminator, like Interstellar, is all about the future of the human race, and the relationship between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn is, quite literally, vital to its survival as well as to the story. The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Empire Strikes Back, Serenity, Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow, even Avatar and the Star Trek movies have more “adult” content than Interstellar.
But perhaps I’m being unfair to Nolan. Stanley Kubrick, to whom he is sometimes compared, wasn’t exactly fond of flirtatious banter either; in film after film, his female characters are abused, rather than interacted with. Indeed, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, he does away with them altogether (give or take a space-hostess or two) yet still manages to spawn a space baby without any of the messy relationship stuff which is normally a prerequisite of reproduction. Maybe it’s simply that film-makers like Nolan don’t think there’s a place for women in modern science fiction.
Nor are movies by blockbuster directors like Peter Jackson or Michael Bay best known for their sexy repartee. There was admittedly no shortage of it in Steven Spielberg’s early films, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark (I suspect thanks more to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan than to its director or producer George Lucas, who gets a story credit), and I don’t remember anyone complaining about the kissing scenes in that, but the undercurrent of sexual spice gets progressively drained out of the sequels, one of the reasons they’re less satisfying than the original. And Jurassic Park and Minority Report, to name just two later titles, seem to be going out of their way to avoid it.
To judge by box-office figures, today’s audiences don’t mind. They prefer their blockbusters asexual, stripped of any hint of physical interaction that isn’t aggressive. It’s a symptom, perhaps, of the increasing infantilism of popular culture, and these films being aimed precisely at the sort of adolescents who say, “Ugh! Let’s stop this silly kissing scene and get back to the HARDWARE!” For them, it’s the hardware and the explosions and the special effects that is the sex.
And maybe it’s for the best. I certainly don’t want to see the action grinding to a halt just so the male and female leads can feel each other up. But surely a world-class film-maker should be able to incorporate at least some sort of implicit sexual complicity or a smidgeon of PG-rated eroticism or a hint of an adult relationship without sending us all to sleep, particularly when it’s humanity itself which is at stake and babies are not just desirable but urgently required. Because for a film in which the future of the human race is at stake, Interstellar is remarkably sterile.
This piece was originally posted on the Telegraph website in November, 2014. It has since been edited and added to.
The headline (not chosen by me) was “Why Is There No Sex in Christopher Nolan’s Films?” and most of the readers posting the Below The Line comments showed no indication they’d read anything more than the title or, if they had read the piece, of having comprehended it. Either that, or they’d simply skipped the line, ‘When I say “sex”, I don’t mean Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway should take off their spacesuits and start bonking.’