Christopher Nolan revisited: Interstellar (2014)

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Our look into the films of Christopher Nolan arrives at Interstellar – one of the writer/director’s more emotionally-driven movies.

The next person who tells me that Christopher Nolan’s films are cold and emotionally distant, I intend to refer them back to Interstellar, a picture that, for me, entirely punctures that argument.

The irony is that it’s the closest film Nolan has ever made to the work of Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaker he has been summarily accused of walking in the footsteps of and trying to emulate, when in truth his work lies somewhere between the wonder of Steven Spielberg and the technicality of Alfred Hitchcock. Interstellar very clearly takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey in how it represents the cosmic frontier with an operatic sense of grandeur.

Where Interstellar differs is how readily it engages with deep human connection, eschewing the Kubrickian philosophical arguments to instead relay a treatise on the transcendent power of love to cross time, space and dimensions. Nolan and his co-writer/brother Jonathan have in previous movies engaged emotional connection and the recurring themes inherent in Nolan’s work with a technical precision, be it the dream space logistics of Inception or the slight of hand in The Prestige, but Interstellar is intentionally more earnest. There are no tricks or subversions in the bag here. It is a far straighter arrow.

Part of this lies in the casting. Matthew McConaughey is by far Nolan’s most grounded leading man, his future farmer Cooper the kind of charming, all-American man who could exist both in the 2050s and 1950s (though Nolan never puts a precise date on the ruined near human future he presents here). Cooper aligns with Nolan’s leading players in the sense that he is another brilliant man, flecked with tragedy (a wife who died of cancer after failing technology failed to detect it), but he is riven with a buoyancy often missing in Nolan’s leads. It’s the world that is falling around Coop in Interstellar, not the man himself. Cooper is the idealist chasing the dream of a world fit for his children to live in. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Though Interstellar pivots around the destruction wrought by a rapidly changing climate and humanity sundering its own world, there’s a greater level of hope inherent in Nolan’s storytelling than we’ve seen before. Perhaps following the bittersweet but hopeful climax of The Dark Knight Rises, as the idea of Batman continues to hold in a saved Gotham, so too in Interstellar does Nolan play with the notion that by dreaming once again, by looking beyond our current obstacles, we might envision a future where we survive. Cooper exemplifies that idealism, even if he is tethered to the world by the tragedy of losing his children, not being there to raise them. Nolan suggests dreams have a cost, that much like Newton’s Third Law, “you’ve got to leave something behind.” Nolan has played with dreams before, but Interstellar feels like his dream.

The 21st century he perceives is initially bleak. Climate change, human strip mining of resources, depopulation have all led to a world where dust contaminates farms and crop development, creating a ‘blight’ on the food chain, and even where schools no longer teach the Moon landings as fact but write them off as American propaganda to encourage Soviet decline as they bankrupted themselves in the Space Race.

Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

“If we don’t want to repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it,” states the teacher of Coop’s daughter Murph, in trouble for fighting a fellow student over the subject. Nolan posits a future where we lose faith in the power of technology and machinery to make our lives better.

He discussed the genesis of this in an interview with Collider:

What I always loved about Jonah’s original draft, and we always retained this, was the idea of blight, the idea of there being an agricultural crisis, which has happened historically if you look at the potato famine and so forth. We combined this with ideas taken very much from Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl and spoke to Ken at great length and availed ourselves of his resources, because what struck me about the dust bowl is it was man-made environmental crisis, but one where the imagery – the effect of it was so outlandish we actually had to tone it down for what we put in the film. But the real point is they’re non-specific, that we’re saying that in our story man-kind is being gently nudged off the planet by the earth itself and the reason is non-specific, because we don’t want to be too didactic or too political about it.

Nolan spends much of the first hour establishing these desperate parameters, with Cooper as the voice of a different age. “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, that our destiny lies above us.” As his father in law Donald (John Lithgow, who really ought to be in more Nolan films) states, Coop was born either 40 years too early or too late. Which, again, sees Nolan believe that a future exists in which we do overcome, that we collectively work together against titanic odds. In a very different fashion, Nolan will explore the same parable in his next film, Dunkirk.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Previously: Revisiting Chistopher Nolan’s Insomnia
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Inception
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises

Here, he is looking forwards. He embraces the possibilities of space technology as Kubrick did in 2001, or Arthur C. Clarke in the novel that spawned it, developing craft which operate in elliptical fashion and utilise physics as supported by MIT professor Kip Thorne. The artificially generated wormhole is the crux point where Interstellar voyages into the speculative, in a similar fashion to either the ‘Spock wall’ sequence in Star Trek: The Motion Picture or the moment Jodie Foster enters the machine in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, a movie that would make a fine double-bill with Interstellar. Both explore the idea of humanity pushing the edges of the known scientific frontier, while retaining a strong humanistic and theological element. Interstellar is simply riven with a deeper level of anxiety at how the human race will only make such strides on the eve of destruction, that it will take near cataclysm to galvanise us into action.

One wonders though if Nolan really believes we can save the world. Oppenheimer, almost a decade later, suggests not, but here Nolan appears on the fence. A sequence in which the adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) talks to her friend Getty (Topher Grace) in a car as a whirlwind of dust piles up around them across a town being evacuated contrasts with the voyage into the stars to, ostensibly, find another habitable world for humanity.

Jessica Chastain in Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan.

Nolan certainly doesn’t seem to believe here that we can save Earth, at least. The plan is either to move or, as Murph discovers at the film’s bleakest moment, potentially let humanity die so the NASA mission can repopulate another world and start again. Michael Caine’s elder Professor Brand is the Oppenheimer-like figure here in that sense; the scientist who makes a terrible choice and puts the extinction of humanity into action. Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann, the pioneer who led the first mission – Lazarus – knew no plan to save humanity existed and ultimately is revealed to be a venal figure, the illusion of a saviour.

Even with these grand choices, immersive visuals and Hans Zimmer’s operatic score providing the vacuum of space with a grandiosity as the Endurance craft sails through the void, Nolan grounds Interstellar at every possible moment in the human. It is science fiction, but only loosely. Perhaps most specifically in the time dilation factor, core to the heart of the picture, as Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s younger Dr. Amelia Brand lose decades in travelling down to one of the possible planets, thanks to the gravitational effects of a nearby black hole, Gargantua. The Nolans manage to ensure Coop’s journey away from Murph remains the heart of the film. McConaughey crying at watching his grown up son Tom (Casey Affleck) lose faith in his return, and Murph come to believe he left them behind to die, is visceral and brilliantly portrayed. Nolan manages to take a broad science fiction idea and make it core to the central family of the film.

Nolan is, as we have seen in exploring his films, fascinated with time. He often employs a non-linear structure of storytelling. He enjoys unsettling his audience in this regard. Memento is the key text for this, but we see it across his work. Interstellar allows him to utilise time as a direct, scientific factor in generating emotional tragedy. Cooper’s journey is not necessarily new in science fiction terms, but rarely has it been presented in such powerfully relatable terms. Murph spends her entire life, from Mackenzie Foy’s curious teenager through to Ellen Burstyn’s at peace octogenarian, grappling with her father’s fate and legacy. Chastain gets the meat of that drama, as the bitter grown up scientist haunted by his absence. Literally, indeed, via the suspected poltergeist in her childhood room, knocking books over.

This is where Interstellar no doubt loses people. Once Cooper enters the wormhole, Nolan voyages into a world of fantasy, and in some sense engages the visual wonder of Inception via the Tesseract powering the wormhole. Cooper finds himself in a recursive, repeating, refractive pattern of Murph’s childhood, a space built by evolved future humanity to allow Cooper to give Murph the message she needs to save humanity. As irreverent robot TARS (an enjoyably light play on the sinister HAL from 2001), Coop’s closest buddy throughout the film, states: “You’ve seen that time is represented here as a *physical* dimension! You’ve worked out that you *can* exert a force across space-time!”

Gravity, Coop realises. Gravity being the central problem across the entirety of Interstellar, and yet another motif that represents Nolan’s fascination with falling, rising and the state of being in between. Coop falls into the wormhole by choice, convinced by exerting gravity he will find the answer they seek. Nolan brings these concepts together for an ending which takes a leap of faith. It asks us to believe in an ephemeral, emotional, human idea. Love. The power of love, here quite literally a force from above. The love between Cooper and Murph existing as a tether across space-time. You might buy that, you might not. It is, for all of Nolan’s creative artifice, the biggest leap he has asked his audience to take in any film to date. Your investment in Coop and Murph will no doubt dictate how ready you are to leap with them.

Though it is, for me, one of the weaker denouements in Nolan’s work, I always take this leap whenever I watch Interstellar. It lacks the beauty of Contact’s ending, or the enigma of 2001’s, but it fills me with warmth and hope every single time. He asks us to trust him as he moves beyond science, beyond theory, into the true unknown, before emerging from the other side into a future we can all aspire to. The key is belief. The key is faith. The tether to that is love. And the lesson is that unless we work together, we might never see that world.

We must rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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