June 17, 2024

Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003)

Very Disco

In 2004, when my brother went off to college in faraway Boston, he came back his first winter break a changed man. Always cool, he was somehow cooler and even more knowing, and I was desperate to be anything like him. He endowed upon me a hard drive with the following mysterious cultural gems, offered as small clues to his coolness:
  • All of Futurama 
  • Flight of the Conchords 
  • A CD of 80s music (Manic Monday, Toto’s Africa, Safety Dance, etc.) 
  • Interstella 5555, the anime music video film created for Daft Punk’s album Discovery

This last one felt like my weird, special little secret. I never heard anyone ever mention the movie in pop culture or in real life—and I’ve loved it desperately since my brother first gave it to me 20 years ago. I thought it was the most romantic piece of art, with brilliant, mesmerizing colors and figures, free of overbearing dialogue and scored with the incredible, adrenaline-pumping, groovy, expressive Daft Punk. 

The film centers around a creative/cultural heist and a global conspiracy: that all of the finest musicians our planet has ever seen are/were actually aliens sanitized of their memories and held captive on our planet. Some music and musicians are just so inexplicably exciting, captivating, and intriguing that it feels like they are too good for this world; this movie speaks to that sneaking suspicion.

Watching this movie a bit older, I’m now much more aware of the capitalist critique in the movie, of the way creative output can be thieved of all its joy and humanity by greed. The movie shows different instances of music being played for enjoyment versus created for profit, with a stark difference taking place in the soul of the artist. The audience IN the film seems pretty happy whether the music is joyfully being expressed or cruelly being wrenched out of the artists, but the audience OF the film is meant to feel sad for them. These are the people giving us such joy; and they are being tortured and dehumanized in the process.

There is also another element I noticed watching it more recently: the rage of seeing your culture appropriated and stolen, especially by a corporate, profit-seeking entity. The hero of the movie is ultimately a stan, but a stan who nonetheless saves the day when he sees his favorite band stolen from their homes and whitewashed. I have bitter, rageful feelings about cultural/corporate appropriation, and it was these points of the movie that ended up evoking the strongest feelings in me when I watched this time around. 

Here are some screenshots of Leiji Matsumoto‘s brilliant visuals and characters:




The reason this movie is coming up for me right now is because I got to see it on the big screen, loud, with a very enthusiastic audience at Tribeca Film Festival on Friday (!!!). When the screening was first announced, it was going to be the first time the newly-remastered Interstella 5555 was being shown on the big screen. (We were soon eclipsed by the announcement of another screening in Paris that would take place a week before ours  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.)


We arrived 45 minutes before the movie was to start, and there were already a large contingent of Interstella devotees waiting, keen to get the best spot in the theater. I had foolishly thought I would out-geek them and arrive earlier than anyone else.

The sponsor for the screening was OKX, a Web3 startup. I personally was annoyed to see the name splashed everywhere, and even more irritated to see an advertisement precede the movie. But my irritation was quickly dissipated by a collective hooting, hollering, and booing at the OKX ad. It was a euphoric feeling and a reminder that we don’t have to accept these often-useless, harmful, predatory technologies funded by people searching for a greater fool. It was greatly validating to be in a room of people who share this awareness.

Because of the reaction to the OKX ad, I already felt the audience was fantastic. I loved the audience even more as the movie progressed: people cheered after many songs/scenes, and heads silently bobbed in unison the whole hour long.

However, there has been some souring to the experience since—I became aware that the festival partnered with OpenAI to screen AI-generated short films. Generative AI in art is quite simply not inevitable, and Tribeca humoring it only gives it more credibility, and furthers the wrong-headed notion that this technology will be the future. There is also some discussion online on whether the film we saw was restored/remastered with the help of AI—and how Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk would have been extremely at odds with such a move. 

In the Q&A after, Cédric Hervet, one of the writers of the movie alongside Daft Punk, shared that the inspiration for the movie’s allegory was the emergence of the 90s’ corporatized boy bands. Though a reaction to a moment in time, it’s unfortunately still applicable to creative production today, maybe even more so. 

I’m disappointed in the ways the film continues to be relevant, and that it had to be sullied by association with AI—a technology that is chillingly being used by enterprises looking to exploit humanity and artistry for profit. But I’m grateful that the film exists and that it has such thoughtful, enthusiastic fans ❤️. May the movie’s lessons one day speak to those who seem to be fighting so hard against humanity.