If Interstellar is filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s (Memento, Inception, The Prestige) most ambitious film, it’s not because of its cost or its intergalactic scope, but rather because “love” is the most speculative and unscientific concept that he’s ever tried to explore. When Nolan was recently quoted as saying that his film is about “What happens when scientists bump up against these things that defy easy characterization and analysis — things like love”, his comment engendered skepticism from people whose enthusiasm for “the next Nolan film” was irrevocably hampered by the increasingly derided Batman-threequel The Dark Knight Rises. And while Interstellar drowns itself into near Speilberg-levels of sentimentality almost every time it’s on the precipice of arriving at a moment of cinematic wonder, Nolan’s approach to love is ultimately as blunt and practical as we should expect from the man who in Inception imagined the human subconscious into a labyrinth of color-coded videogame worlds. However it’s the core of Interstellar that presents a change of pace from his oeuvre: it doesn’t just contend that love is real; the film argues that it’s an evolutionary necessity.
The story is set in motion by Cooper (played with warmth and vunerability by Matthew McConaughey), a widowed former pilot who’s raising his two kids on a corn farm on an Earth experiencing a vague die-off scenario. Cooper’s daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain, both extraordinary), is a character who seems born as a rebuttal to criticisms regarding the female characters in Nolan’s previous work. Whereas the Nolan of old would have used the memory of Cooper’s wife or perhaps kill the daughter off to drive the hero well beyond the bounds of reason, Interstellar replaces those tropes with a paternal dynamic that serves as a strong core to the film. Beyond Cooper’s bond with Murph, Murph herself easily shares the title of “protagonist” with her father. Both father and daughter are set on separate paths on a time-sensitive quest to save humanity: Cooper in outer space and Murph back on Earth. Neither are a suicide mission per se, but every true explorer knows that safety isn’t guaranteed. Cooper is forced to choose between staying with his young daughter and family or potentially saving humanity from extinction. The familial love between the two is the dramatic through line that keeps all of the film together even when the two are apart. Also along for this fantastic voyage are Ann Hathaway as Dr. Brand (an excellent foil to the wily Cooper), David Gyasi as the down-to-earth Romilly, Wes Bentley as Doyle and stage actor Bill Irwin as the voice of robot assistant TARS (who is built to resemble the obelisks from 2001 A Space Odyssey). While Muph’s scenes are set on the increasingly desolate & rural earth, Cooper’s space crew are gliding by the rings of Saturn on awe-inspiring 70mm IMAX film (don’t even bother seeing the film in any other format if it’s available).
Christopher Nolan is an undeniably talented filmmaker. Even his biggest detractors have to begrudgingly admit to some of the filmmaker’s skills and sense of ambition that’s increasingly uncommon with populist filmmakers. Make no mistake, Nolan is by trade a filmmaker for general audiences, insultingly referred to as “the lowest common denominator.” However to begrudge Nolan’s appeal is to begrudge the existence of blockbuster moviemaking in general. Undeniably works of art, “blockbusters” are less like the latest museum piece and more akin to the proverbial campfire yarns of old. These types of films are less important for what they contribute to the collective conscious of the masses than for the shared experience they endear. We live in an era where majority of blockbusters are largely commercial endeavors designed to delight, Nolan makes the case that giving even the “lowest common denominator” something “real” to chew on can be its own kind of escapism as well. In a time when budgets have grown bottomless due to the cost of conjuring artifice, Nolan makes films which are intoxicated by the “real.” While that philosophy extends to his preference for practical effects and his enduring commitment to shooting on film, his hard-nosed rationalism is most explicitly seen in his habitual approach to narrative structure, which has less in common with traditional storytelling than it does with mathematical proofs. This leads to the most common criticism with Nolan films, that they are coldly logical (even when the logic never perfectly adds up), devoid of warm emotional content. Interstellar is an evolution of Nolan’s oeuvre as an auteur as the coldly logical filmmaker sets forth a grand sci-fi odyssey that hints that he may have a warm heart after all.
The films of Christopher Nolan generate emotion in much the same way how supercolliders generate particles, they accelerate until they achieve a velocity that allows the abstract concept at their core to be seen and confirmed. Nolan may not be looking for the unknown, but he uses a similar approach to distil and demystify the elements of popular narrative fiction. His films cross-cut between parallel planes of action until the tension generated between the structure and the emotional stress of their characters synthesizes into snapshot of a single core idea — memory (Memento), sacrifice (The Prestige), vengeance (the Batman films), and dreams (Inception). His films don’t begin with characters, they begin with an idea. In the case of Interstellar, the main idea is love.
If anything else, Interstellar has more ideas than it may know what to do with but that’s the opposite problem common to the current slate of blockbusters. However, the ideas and concepts that Nolan does manage to pull off are brought to life in compelling visual spectacle. Combining modern computer-generated effects with countless practical effects (miniatures, forced perspective etc) Nolan has crafted a series of imagery that has the same sort of handmade/back-to-basics style to it akin to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah which was also released this past year. Beyond the visual splendor, the film’s approach to narrative, while not groundbreaking, is novel in its own right. Scientific theories such as relativity and the ”time dilation” effect are about as much a part of the plot as they are in Nolan’s execution. Hours and days may fly by for one group of characters whilst decades pass for others and they are all cross-cut, juxtaposed and play off of one another in interesting ways. The film’s depiction of relative time between worlds is similar to how Inception toyed with relative time between dreams, but Interstellar leans on (some) science in order to create a strong emotional bedrock for a story that can’t convey the logistics of its telling. Unfortunately even with the consultation of renowned real-world theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the film and the filmmakers still play by the rules of filmmaking and storytelling thrives in the limbo between logic and emotion, levelling the playing field between the two by riffing or bending the former in order to properly crystalize the latter. While the pedantic will doubtlessly pick apart the logic and details of the film, they are missing the point that those elements, much like the visuals and even the ridiculously overbearing Hans Zimmer music score all exist to serve the character arcs and emotional beats which is a much nobler ambition when it comes to story.
Interstellar may be the best and most comprehensively satisfying big-budget spectacle of the year… which is an unsettling reminder of how unimpressive such a feat has become. Nolan has based much of his career making populist crowd-pleasing popcorn flicks without sacrificing a sense of wonder, scale and ambition; making them stand out among our current blockbuster cinema. His films, even when they fail, play as a sweeping condemnation of complacency. Every blockbuster is a comment on the circumstances of its making, and while Interstellar may not take us to new heights, its reach is nevertheless an urgent reminder that these multi-million dollar campfire tales will suffocate if we don’t at least try to get there. Interstellar illustrates why Christopher Nolan’s most ardent fans think that he can take us forward, but it also proves to his detractors that Nolan can’t and should not do it on his own.