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Non-Review Review: Interstellar

Interestingly, Christopher Nolan seems to have generated a reputation as a rather detached director. Common wisdom around Nolan’s films suggest that the film-maker is perhaps too cold and clinical in his approach to the material; that his films lack warmth or humour. This reputation is probably a result of the director’s fascination with non-linear storytelling. After all, The Dark Knight is his only straight-arrow-from-beginning-to-end film.

Probably also due to the narrative contortions and distortions of films like Memento or The Prestige, Nolan is generally presented as a film-maker who constructs visual puzzle-boxes. His films are frequently treated as riddles to be solved. Consider the discussion of narrative “plot holes” in The Dark Knight Rises that fixates on how Bruce Wayne got around back to Gotham, or the discussion on the mechanics of the final shot of Inception. This approaches to his work tend to divorce the viewer from his films.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Interstellar will likely be Nolan’s most polarising film to date, replacing The Prestige or The Dark Knight Rises. The film offers an extended two-and-a-half hour rebuttal to accusations that Nolan is detached or distant. Much has been made about the attention to detail on Interstellar. The physics on the movie were so exact and precise that physicist Kip Thorne actually made theoretical advances while working on the film.

However, at the same time, one character posits love as a force more powerful than gravity or time. Interstellar might be precise and meticulous, but it is not a film that lacks for an emotional core; it is not a movie that lacks for warmth. Interstellar feels like a conscious attempt to cast off the image of a cynical and cold film-maker.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

That said, it is not as if previous films have lacked for emotional depth. For all the complexity of Nolan’s plotting and staging, his characters are all motivated by very clear and very basic emotional needs. The plots to Nolan’s films all hinge on very understandable and relatable anxieties. There might be some question about how exactly his protagonists hope to accomplish their goals, but they relationships are always clearly defined and raw.

The broken father-and-son relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth anchors his Batman trilogy. Memento is about a man trying desperately to atone for the fact that his own love of his wife could not transcend limitations. Inception is about a man haunted by his ex-wife and a son seeking acceptance from his father. The Prestige is about one man seeking fame and security, while another looks for answers about what happened to his wife.

Showing flare...

Showing flare…

This does raise legitimate issues with Nolan’s character work. After all, the argument has frequently been made that Nolan struggles with female characters. They often exist as motivation for his male leads. In Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Rachel Dawes exists as an aspirational romantic interest for Bruce. In Inception, Cobb is haunted by the memory of his dead wife. In Memento, a dead wife spurs our protagonist to action. The death of Angiers’ wife drives the feud at the heart of The Prestige.

This is a legitimate criticism, and there are traces of it to be found in Interstellar. Once again, the protagonist has a dead wife – although her role as an aspirational or inspiring figure is downplayed. At various points in the film, Cooper is motivated by his desire to return to various female characters. There are traces of that familiar storytelling device at play in Interstellar, and the movie might have downplayed these particular quirks.

"Alright, alright, alright."

“Alright, alright, alright.”

At the same time, there is evidence that Nolan is working to get past this weakness. The Dark Knight Rises offered Nolan’s most compelling female characters to date. Not only does Selina Kyle have a compelling character arc in her own right, the entire film is structured so that the audience writes off Miranda Tate as another aspirational romantic interest before pulling a fiendishly clever twist on the set-up. It feels like Nolan is trying to evolve as a storyteller, and work past this particular quirk.

Similarly, while Interstellar retains traces of Nolan’s frequently-critiqued approach to female characters, it also works hard to off-set those problems. Although Cooper is very much the protagonist of Interstellar, and at the centre of the story, the movie plays with the idea of Cooper himself as the absent figure – the aspirational character. As much as Cooper is motivated to return to his young daughter, she is driven to reconnect with him. At the climax of the film, Cooper assesses his own importance in terms of her life.

"It could be worse. I could be Thomas Wayne."

“It could be worse. I could be Thomas Wayne.”

It doesn’t quite subvert Nolan’s traditional approach to female characters, but it does a lot to offset some of the director’s historical problems writing  prominent female characters. Which is one of the most intriguing things about Nolan as a film-maker. There is a sense that the director is still pushing himself; he has not entirely settled in his ways. There is no sense that Nolan has quite reached the limits of his ability or his ambition, and he continues to push himself.

Interstellar certainly never lacks for ambition or scale. It is almost three hours in length. It deals with the fate of all mankind. It sends its protagonists hurdling into the void across the galaxy. It features waves that are effectively moving mountains and clouds so solid that you can walk on them. It features beautiful IMAX cinematography, breathtaking sound mixing and cutting-edge special effects. It ruminates on the human condition, with Professor Brand even quoting Dylan Thomas to provide some sense of depth.

Off on cloud nine...

Off on cloud nine…

Interstellar is a big movie in just about every way that a movie can be. And yet, despite that, the film is also incredibly intimate. The film might feature impressive space sequences, but the first spacecraft we see are toys on a child’s bookshelf. The film’s first act consists of Cooper attending his children’s parent-teacher conference. At one point, it seems like Cooper’s entire universe consists of his daughter’s bedroom.

The obvious point of comparison for Interstellar is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film practical invites the viewer to make the link. Nolan himself has conceded that certain special effects evoke “the ultimate trip” that Stanley Kubrick brought to the screen in 1968. The movie not only features artificial intelligence, but these robotic companions are designed to remind the audience of the iconic obelisks from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Turning a corn-er...

Turning a corn-er…

Certain plot points echo and reverberate, filtered through Nolan’s sensibilities. Naturally, something goes wrong on the mission – but the problem is decidedly human rather than mechanical. A key sequence towards the end of the film features a major character in a hospital bed, an image that calls to mind the memorable and distinctive imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, Interstellar‘s bedside scene stands in stark contrast to that in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nolan is frequently compared to Kubrick, in terms of style and tone. The similarities between Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey only invite further discussion of these similarities and differences. (At one point, it is suggested that the United States faked the moon-landing, in what appears to be a shout-out to the urban myth about Kubrick’s alleged involvement.) However, Interstellar is positioned as a much more humanist film than 2001: A Space Odyssey, a romantic ode to mankind’s potential and the power of love.

Not failure to launch...

Not failure to launch…

There is something potentially cheesy in that idea – it is hard to accept a trained astronaut arguing that love is force of nature that exists like gravity or time itself. It is something that could easily collapse into itself, becoming a black hole that threatened to swallow the film. However, Nolan plays with these ideas very carefully. He reigns in the score; he keeps the camera respectfully distant from the actors while they talk. He doesn’t treat this as a revelation or a deus ex machina, but a self-evident universal truth.  Love is so central a theme of Interstellar that the second act features a climax positively Freudian in its imagery.

Interstellar hinges on emotion. It is a story about humanity, and how the universe must exist as a vehicle for humanity’s exploration of itself. At one point, Cooper and Brand discuss the nature of “evil.” Brand rejects the idea that evil could exist in the universe independent of mankind; it is something that mankind carries with it. The film seems to prove her correct towards the end of the second act as the astronauts find themselves fighting for survival.

"I'm just going outside and may be some time..."

“I’m just going outside and may be some time…”

Interstellar pays a great deal of attention of physics and relativity. The science may not be bullet-proof, but it is relatively deep and well-constructed from a film on this scale. However, the film never loses sight of the heart of the story. One astronaut talks about spending years on a “cold, stark” – but positively beautiful and hauntingly fascinating – planet, detached from mankind with only an artificial intelligence to keep him company. It does not end well.

Interstellar also provides a nice intersection of the director’s core themes. It feels like an understatement to suggest that Nolan is a director fascinated with storytelling – particularly film-making as an art form. Memento is a story about the narratives that people construct around themselves. His Batman trilogy is based around Bruce Wayne transforming himself into a legend. The Prestige is about magic as a metaphor for movie-making. Inception posits dreams as stories – as film genres, in particular.

Rings around the competition...

Rings around the competition…

Here, Cooper ruminates on something his wife told him after the birth of their children. “Now we’re just memories for our children,” he repeats. In the early part of the film, his daughter claims that her room is haunted by a ghost, a story that she made up to explain something she did not quite understand. As Cooper prepares to leave, he assures her that he will be more than just a story to her. “I am not your ghost,” he assures her as he prepares to leave.

Indeed, the film engages in its own myth-making. It is suggested that Cooper and his expedition will become little more than legends themselves – they will be gone for so long that entire generations might pass on Earth. The first act is intercut with characters telling their own stories, talking heads from some PBS documentary. The moon-landing itself has been incorporated into a collective fiction, one that suits the needs and mood of the time.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

The film reinforces this sense of fictionality. Hans Zimmer’s score is occasionally linked to monitors inside the film itself – characters turning off a video will abruptly cut the movie’s soundtrack. Similarly, conversations are staged around cuts in ways that draw attention to the editing. Nolan filmed a lot of the movie on IMAX, but some sequences were shot on film. He generally keeps the sequences clearly separated from one another, but he starts blending them towards the climax.

As action unfolds on Earth, it is shot in widescreen ratio – the black bars creeping back into the frame in sharp contrast to the wider IMAX sequences cut into the film serve to remind the viewer that they are watching a movie. The aspect ratio also shifts as Cooper tries to see his daughter in her room. The sequences in the room are shot on film, while Cooper’s sequences are shot on the bigger IMAX camera. There is a sense that Nolan is literally narrowing our vision and focus as he takes us back into the room.

Looking up...

Looking up…

The movie calls attention to its fictitious nature in a number of ways. The film centres around a work hole discovered in orbit of Saturn. We are told that the wormhole was discovered forty-eight years ago. While Interstellar is set in the future, it’s hard not to do the math. Interstellar comes forty-eight years after the début of the original Star Trek, the first soft-landing on the moon, and the first orbit of the moon. Given the movie’s affection for sixties utopian space fantasy, it feels rather conscious a decision.

Similarly, the movie centres around the idea that the characters are being manipulated and guided by a force they cannot perceive. It is suggested that all the answers might lie at the heart of a black hole, a void that sits at the centre of the alien planetary system and the centre of the plot. “All the answers are there,” one character theorises. “We just can’t see them.” At another point, it almost seems like Brand catches a glimpse of the mysterious force driving the story.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

There something at work here that transcends the understanding of the characters in the film. Brand theorises that such powerful beings might have mastered the manipulation of time – a line that feels almost like wry self-commentary from Nolan. After all, manipulation of time is a cornerstone of narrative and particularly film-making. (What with editing and all.) As Cooper plunges into the unknown, he perceives, “Flickers of light. Then darkness.”

Light and darkness sit at the centre of Interstellar. Effective thematic devices, they serve to reflect the best and worst in humanity. However, they also conjure up images of film projection and movie-making. Professor Brand is keen to “rage against the dying of the light.” While any excuse to hear Michael Caine quote Dylan Thomas is a good one, it could just as easily refer to Nolan’s champion of film as a medium.

Kidding himself...

Kidding himself…

When Cooper ventures forth, he perceives black and white images that slowly and gradually give way to colour, recalling the history of film. At another point, he perceives three-dimensional space compressed down to two-dimensional images, recalling Nolan’s own rejection of 3D movie-making. At one point, he seems to perceive his world as a sequence of frames of light literally structured on top of one another. At the same time, Cooper finds himself as an audience member.

Interstellar also serves as a romantic ode to sixties utopian science-fiction. The movie feels like it could have been adapted from an Arthur C. Clarker story, and it’s not too difficult to imagine some of the images as covers to a range of pulpy paperbacks. The visual homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey only reinforce this sense. The film seems to lament mankind’s loss of interest in space, suggesting the people are beginning to forget that mankind even set foot on the moon.

The mission was a bit of a wash...

The mission was a bit of a wash…

In a heated argument with a teacher, Cooper demands, “You don’t believe we went to the moon?” When Professor Brand reveals that NASA has secretly been developing tools for space exploration, Cooper wonders why this has been kept a secret. “Public opinion wouldn’t allow for it.” After all, one of the legitimate criticisms of the space programme is that it is difficult to justify massive budgets for space exploration when people are starving and homeless.

In many ways, Interstellar captures a lot of the romantic nostalgia for sixties science-fiction that has swept through popular culture recently. After all, classic sixties properties like Star Trek and Planet of the Apes have enjoyed a recent revival. Young adult science-fiction like The Hunger Games, Divergent or The Maze Runner seems to evoke the post-apocalyptic utopian/dystopian science-fiction associated with the decade. Even Doctor Who seems to be harking back to the sixties a lot lately.

"Open the pod bay doors, Matt."

“Open the pod bay doors, Matt.”

Interstellar conveys a great deal of sympathy and nostalgia for the dreams of the sixties. Early on, Cooper reflects on how mundane the world has become – how all the hope and fantasy seems to have evaporated. The principal at his daughter’s school argues that they are just “a caretaker generation”, a listless generation with nothing to do except survive. “We used to dream about being something,” he confesses to his stepfather. “Pioneers, explorers; not caretakers.”

Nolan is a director who has a great deal of affection and admiration for old-style storytelling and cinema; he cites Richard Donner’s Superman as his favourite superhero film. It makes sense that he would harbour the same affection for the aspirations and hopefulness embodied by the sixties space-age science-fiction. Interstellar is quite possibly the director’s most optimistic and hopeful movie to date.

Interstellar is a lovingly-crafted masterpiece.

9 Responses

  1. Great review. I especially enjoyed your comparisons to other Nolan works, though it may take a little time to figure out where exactly Interstellar should be placed within the Nolan “canon”.

  2. I think Nolan is easily the best director in all of cinema history. Every film he’s done is one of the best ever, not even in the same crowd as everything thay comes nowadays. Hitchcock and Kubrick can go roll in their Graves for all I care.

    • I’m not sure I’d go that far, but he’s certainly my favourite working director. I think that we need a distance on his work that I am unlikely get in my lifetime. But then I’m not a big fan of “greatest ever” as a classifier, because there are so many variables at play in it.

  3. Interstellar is one of my three favourite space movies along with 2001 and Gravity. I loved the look of the film and the soundtrack. The only two parts I didn’t like was the Anne Hathaway “love” speech and the logic leap you need to take to get Cooper back safe and sound after passing through the black hole sans space craft. I prefer this to the critically acclaimed Inception (I still can’t make up my mind whether I like Inception or not).

    • I loved it to death. The “love” speech is interesting because it marks the point at which popular criticism revised its opinion of Nolan somewhat. The stereotypical depiction of Nolan was that he was the next Kubrick, a rational filmmaker with little room for emotion in his compositions. I always found the opposite to be the case. Emotion powers so many Nolan films, to the point where it trumps rationality in Memento, The Prestige and Inception. (And the Batman trilogy to boot.)

  4. Christopher Nolan gave some of the most beautiful movies over last few decade. Although, apart from his well known movies, he gave a lot of less known but equally competent.
    Here it goes https://goo.gl/5KRILP

  5. The most baffling review I read for this film was the AV Club review for it, which basically spent the first paragraph panning Nolan as a wannabe ‘cerebral’ filmmaker. It was quite odd, coming from the site that raves about just about every Terrence Mallick film.

    Anyways, I like this movie. The message may be extremely cheesy, but at least it’s clear. I enjoyed it way more than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    • I like this movie. And I’ve liked it more and more every time that I come back to it. Although I think it’s also the fact that this was the moment that I realised I had perhaps a stronger read on Nolan than a lot of mainstream or established critics, in that the film’s emphasis on emotion was something that took a lot of reviewers by surprise, but which I thought was a logical extension of Nolan’s core themes. (How many of his protagonists have their lives (and their perception of time) warped and distorted by love, even if they’d never acknowledge it? It’s not a healthy love, certainly, and the warping is often monstrous, but love has always been a guiding and shaping force in Nolan’s narrative universes.)

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