Film of the Week: Interstellar
In an interview in The Guardian this week, Christopher Nolan mused: “What I’ve found is, people who let my films wash over them—who don’t treat it like a crossword puzzle, or like there is a test afterwards—they get the most out of the film.” That’s a fair enough approach to cinema, although hearing it from this director may come as a surprise to anyone who spent time furrowing their brows over the logic of the backwards storytelling in Memento, or that closing shot of the spinning top in Inception. For those of us who earn our living writing about cinema, there usually is a test of sorts after watching movies, and with Nolan’s work, there’s often the temptation to concentrate on solving the crossword of his narratives, to figure out whether or not all the squares really can be filled in coherently.
Not that, as a rule, I care so much about whether narrative hangs together: there are usually more involving things to discuss in any film. But I won’t even try to make sense of the logic of Interstellar. Given that much of the story seems to hang on the rules of quantum mechanics—on the relation of time to mass, velocity, black holes, and so forth—I’ll leave the unpicking of that to people more qualified than I am on the topic. And I’d imagine that Nolan and his co-writer Jonathan Nolan are themselves pretty qualified by now, given that their adviser (and executive producer) on Interstellar is eminent theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. So if you feel that anything in the film doesn’t quite make sense, you might want to consider what the Nolans’ ample scientific expository dialogue has to say about the problem of incommensurable theories, and then give up on worrying too much about Interstellar’s hard-science aspect. You might want to just think about whether Interstellar works as something that, as Nolan recommends, washes over you. But, much as I went into Interstellar with goodwill, ready to immerse myself in the oceanic vastness of a 70mm IMAX projection—well, I’m afraid the film and its visionary aspirations simply didn’t wash with me.
The premise is dead simple, although it gathers some mind-bending complications along the way—narrative complications, that is, rather than the intellectual complexities which quite a few critics have seen in it (including Vivian Sobchack, who has hailed the film’s “complex multidimensionality” in the new November/December issue). The setting: the American Midwest sometime in the future. Earth’s crops are failing as a result of a global blight, and humanity has abandoned wars to concentrate on agriculture. But some still dream of what lies beyond our planet, including Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-NASA pilot turned corn farmer, whose young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) shares his dream. As Cooper huskily muses, in McConaughey’s aw-shucksiest down-home drawl to date: “We used to look up in the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dust.” Hard to know if this is only Cooper’s elegy for faded dreams of space exploration, or Nolan’s complaint because people keep telling him that one of these days he should tone down the genre bombast and make a nice sensible piece of earthbound realism.
While giant clouds of dust loom menacingly, Murph muses that a “ghost” is trying to communicate with her in a book-lined room in her family’s Andrew Wyeth–esque farmhouse. Of course it’s not a ghost, Cooper says, reminding her of the imperatives of rationalism: “Record the facts… analyze… present your conclusions.” But something appears to be talking to Murph in dust, and in code—and in the film’s first wild leap of credibility, father and daughter read some lines on the floor as map coordinates, jump in their jeep, and keep driving until they reach a metal fence. Behind it is the secret HQ of NASA itself, where Michael Caine, as scientist Professor Brand, has been waiting for them. NASA has not in fact been outlawed, as we’d been told, but has been working on a project to send astronauts through a wormhole into another galaxy, to seek out new planets for humanity to live on. Brand has very nearly cracked the problem of gravity on his formulae-scrawled array of old-fashioned blackboards (a metaphor, you imagine, for Nolan’s own favored analogue approach to image-making), and the ship’s ready to go up: all that’s needed is an intrepid astronaut to lead the voyage. “I can’t tell you any more unless you agree to pilot this craft,” says Brand—and the deal’s done, making this the most casual recruitment for a space project since the Tintin book Destination Moon.
Given the initial emphasis on rationalism, the expository style at NASA veers weirdly between nerd science and wide-eyed mysticism. On one hand, there’s a wormhole to fly through—and just how these phenomena work is helpfully explained by crewman Romilly (David Gyasi) using a piece of paper with a hole punched in it. On the other hand, the wormhole itself has a touch of the unearthly, in more ways than one: it’s positioned so conveniently, somewhere beyond Saturn, that the boffins can only conclude, “Someone placed it there”—to which Anne Hathaway, as Brand’s daughter Amelia, adds: “Whoever they are, they’re looking out for us.” In fact, although faith plays a big part in this story, it’s not really religious faith so much as trust in good old human determination, as embodied by plucky, level-headed types like Cooper and Murph (“as stubborn as her old man”). Or, as someone puts it, mulling over the question of saving humanity: “We’ll find a way like we always have.”
So Cooper’s crew head into the unknown, accompanied by a defiantly non-anthropomorphic pair of robots (one of them voiced by Bill Irwin), which you could picture as a minimalist strain of Transformer, made out of rectilinear metal blocks that nevertheless fold and unfold in an ingeniously unshowy fashion. The robots also have variable settings for human characteristics including humor—which might be Nolan’s dry way of acknowledging the oft-voiced complaint that he’s never had much of a funny bone. And so, as Caine’s solemn face fills the ship’s monitor (shades of the frowning on-screen visages of Solaris) and he starts to intone Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” the intergalactic awe begins…
And I’m not joking—there really are a number of vistas in this film that are as gorgeous as any space-scapes previously seen in science-fiction cinema. There’s a wonderful shot when Earth’s expanse sprawls vastly over the screen, and another in which Saturn with all its rings glides by, sharp and gorgeous, accompanied by flashes of lens flare. There are also more abstract imaginings: the wormhole, actually a shiny sphere in appearance, provides the film’s own “Stargate” sequence à la 2001, the ship’s cascade down it resembling a tumble down a swimming-pool flume at night. A singularity is also imagined as a sort of deconstructed waterfall of fire.
But it’s once our explorers pass into another galaxy that things take on a new dimension of banality and the film, however magnificently conceived in visual terms, becomes just another space adventure. They land on one planet that seems all sea, only to face mountain-high waves—at which point the film turns into The Perfect Storm. Another planet resembles the surface of Iceland (where this sequence was shot), with the addition of frozen clouds like icebergs suspended in mid-air. There, for reasons I couldn’t quite work out, a previous explorer (played by an uncredited major star: IMDb it unless you’re spoiler-averse) attempts to sabotage Cooper’s mission, and suddenly we’re into a hyper-austere remake of Lost in Space.
There’s nothing wrong in itself with flipping between these different modes of adventure, especially because Nolan’s analogue style—shooting on celluloid, minimizing digital illusion—gives even the more other-worldly episodes a distinctive edge of concrete realism. As designed by Nathan Crowley and shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, the hardware especially looks like hardware—metal that seems heavy, cumbersome and breakable, as distinct from the aesthetic of weightlessness promoted by most contemporary CGI futurism. Yet the flip side of this deglamorizing tendency is a banalization of the space experience: the explorers seem to get to the wormhole in no time at all, and they’re in that other galaxy (“We’re here!”) as easily as they might change subway lines. (You keep thinking they’ll pass Sandra Bullock, floating by with a neighborly wave.) That Nolan later starts cutting easily between events in the other galaxy and on Earth is ostensibly a daring move, but in fact it further domesticates the drama, the simultaneity of action (e.g., cutting between a spaceship revving up and a speeding car in the Midwest) somehow reducing the two narrative strands to the same level of mundanity.
There’s a further element that has been acclaimed as profoundly daring, and that is the trick of having different events run in parallel, but at different speeds—something Nolan previously did with the reality-within-reality-within-reality mise en abymes of Inception. Here we learn that time on Earth and in parts of space, notably on planets of radically different mass, runs at different speeds, so that on the water planet, as Romilly explains, “Every hour we spend . . . will be seven years back on Earth . . . That’s relativity, folks.” (Something similar also holds for cinema, I suppose, which is why the average Lav Diaz film is actually infinitely shorter than Guardians of the Galaxy.) That means that, while Cooper barely ages on his mission, his daughter Murph grows up to be Jessica Chastain, and his son to be Casey Affleck, and he gets heart-tugging messages from them, prompting thoughts of love, distance, and mortality. “Do not go gentle…” is heard again, and yet again, and a lachrymose tone creeps in, this film’s substitute for genuine emotional depth.
What happens at the climax is barely describable: suffice to say that Cooper plunges boldly into a singularity, emerging in an alternative dimension that’s weirder by far than the peerlessly haunting place where 2001 finally led us, and that seems to be visually and conceptually modeled on one of the best-known Jorge Luis Borges stories. The payoff is that love and old-fashioned book-learning will conquer all. The coda seems to go on forever—neatly illustrating the concept of time’s elasticity—and once 165 minutes are over, you’ll either be left gasping at the metaphysical and scientific amplitude of the film’s vision, or you’ll be muttering my favorite line in it through gritted teeth: “This data makes no sense!”
All credit to Nolan’s ambition, and his dauntless “why not?” energy. But the scale of Interstellar’s execution sits ill with the banality of so much of it, and made me think of other science-fiction films that once made me marvel and filled me with a melancholy sense of the universe as a place of deep, haunting solitude: 2001 most ineffably, but also what you might call the econo-sci-fi likes of Silent Running, Dark Star, and most recently Duncan Jones’s Moon, all pragmatically executed, pared down and yet mustering a massively deep, sad resonance. Interstellar, by contrast, boosts its own resonance with a Hans Zimmer score that sometimes strikingly, sometimes all too overpoweringly, hits us with a distinctive mix of strings and church organ (when Cooper takes his big moment-of-truth ride, the score swells up like a turbo-charged “Liebestod”).
For all its aspiration to the sublime, Interstellar can’t escape the ridiculous. The characters, and consequently the acting, rarely transcend comic-strip simplicity; Cooper’s family inhabit their own belt of purest corn somewhere between Field of Dreams and Ray Bradbury at his folksiest. Admittedly, there’s something boldly simple about proposing to represent our apocalyptic near future and only showing us a rural patch of America, rather than cutting to the gasping multitudes from Canberra to Kolkata, as Roland Emmerich would have done. Yet my Brit sensibility recoils at the idea of an English director so wholeheartedly embracing American myth that he can cheerfully present us with the idea that the destiny of our entire species is being forged in a Midwestern cornfield.
But that’s all part of the film’s crazy oscillation between the infinite and the domestic, between the imponderable Beyond and the cozy old backyard (making Interstellar more than a little Malickian). As the older Murph says, in another choice bit of dialogue: “If there’s an answer here on Earth, it’s back there in that room. Somehow I have to find it!” The answer indeed is found in the form of magnetism, gravity, and love: “Love isn’t something we’ve invented, it’s observable, powerful . . . Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Hmm. Well, excuse me for being cold-blooded in my critique—but someone has to stand up for “Record the facts… analyze… present your conclusions.”