Thoughts on Interstellar

It’s that time again.

A glorious and terrible time of convergence where casual movie goers, cinephiles, and critics alike enter a theatre knowing not only the name of the picture, but the director as well. To some, he is not the director we need, but the one we deserve. To others, he’s an overrated pseudo-intellectual with a blank check and every studio’s good graces. Unfortunately for the latter group, I am in the former category and speak the name of Christopher Nolan only in hushed tones of reverence (half-joking).

All sarcasm aside, in my opinion, Christopher Nolan is one of the most intelligent and imaginative filmmakers around right now. He thinks big and his trust of the audience is commendable (if alienating to less intellectual viewers). Due to the massive success of the Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has been able to let his imagination run free in recent years, first dazzling us with the big budget, science-fiction caper Inception in 2010, and now with Interstellar. Christopher Nolan, teamed once again with his brother Jonathan, has delivered unto the masses a thinking-person’s take on the late fall tent-pole; a lavishly produced yet cerebral film with a heart to match.

“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.” So intones Matthew McCounaghey’s ex-pilot Coop as he laments humanity’s stagnating spirit. In the near future, Earth no longer has armies because there is no need for war. Environmental disasters have led to a second, world-wide dust bowl. Corn is the only sustainable crop and it too will soon die out. The only way for humanity to survive is to leave Earth. After being led to the remnants of NASA, Coop is told by an old associate and scientist that an unprecedented and exciting development has come about that allows one to travel farther in space than ever before, even to other, possibly habitable planets where humanity can start over. Though Coop has two children, their survival and future ultimately proves more important than seeing them grow. Coop agrees to be a part of the mission and he, along with a small team of scientists and engineers, leaves Earth to seek a new home among the stars.

At its core, Interstellar is about the wonder of exploration and the insatiable human drive to know. Coop represents this idea in its purest form. His desire for the human race to expand and persist is not one motivated by manifest destiny; space does not belong to us, it is foreign, a dangerous realm of innumerable unknowns, but one that must be forded just as well if humanity is to survive. With Interstellar, the McCounaissance continues as Matthew McCounaghey delivers another powerfully human performance worthy of praise. Coop represents an intriguing duality; he is a hyper intelligent everyman, able to speak about the woes of humanity’s recent ideological and philosophical shortcomings while sipping a beer on his porch. He’s relatable and human in an immediate way, despite his intellect and engineering skills. This is aided by the presence of his children, Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy and later, Jessica Chastain) and Tom (played by Timothée Chalamet and later, Casey Affleck). Their active involvement in this story makes it Nolan’s most personal, emotional story to date. Whereas Cob’s children in Inception were largely an off-screen motivation, here Coop’s children are his life. He lives and works so they can persist in relative comfort; yet when he learns that there is a way to save them from a slow, painful death on the dying Earth, he knows he must go. And herein lies the cost of exploration: sacrifice. In a way, the film is as much a discussion of love and sacrifice as it is about maintaining wonder and an exploratory spirit. Coop’s sacrifice is not being able to see his children grow and ultimately, not knowing if he will return at all. His troubled relationship with his daughter Murph over his perceived abandonment forms the foundation of the human drama that unfolds on screen.

I fear that is where I must leave the story, for Interstellar is an experience that benefits from knowing as little as possible. That being said, I will say that it is the most unique blend of science and drama that I have seen in some time. Based on the works of theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne (who worked closely with the Nolans on the science presented in the film), Interstellar deals out a fair amount of scientific exposition, yet never feels stale or surgical in its presentation. Science, like the machinations of Nolan’s dream layers in Inception, serves as a framework through which the story functions. However, in the time since the film’s release, much criticism has been leveled at the film for the supposed science that it presents. In this, I think that people have ignored the “theoretical” bit of the theoretical physics that Kip Thorne proposes based upon his observations of our world and space. What occurs is not exactly what is possible, merely what Thorne thinks could be probable.

On the dramatic side, the performances are just as strong as one would expect. Nolan stalwart, Michael Caine plays the scientist Professor Brand, Coop’s former associate and friend who persuades him to join the mission. Caine, as always, doles out sage wisdom and complex exposition with practiced ease. Unlike many other Caine characters however, his Professor Brand carries a potent sense of world-weariness, the reason for which becomes apparent as the film nears its conclusion. His daughter and fellow scientist on Coop’s mission is referred to simply as Brand and is played by Anne Hathaway. The complete opposite of Catwoman’s snarky assuredness, Brand is a woman fully aware of the improbable nature their mission, yet wholly determined to see it done even if it is at the expense of Coop and the rest of their crew. Humanity’s survival is her goal, and Hathaway does a wonderful job at portraying Brand’s determination in a realistic way, mingling it with understandable fear and self-doubt. However, though the Brands are significant to the story, it is Murph who trumps all other characters in her importance. If Murph and Coop’s relationship wasn’t believable, then much of the film’s potency would be lost. Thankfully, it’s perfect. Mackenzie Foy, who plays the 10 year old version of Murph, perfectly embodies the adventurous spirit and inventiveness that Coop wants to protect. Her interaction with McCounaghey, especially when Coop is forced to leave her, is heartbreaking and feels exceptionally genuine for such a young actor. Jessica Chastain plays the older version of Murph, calloused by her father’s absence, bitter, yet determined to accomplish all that she can on Earth as a scientist to aid the planet’s future. Chastain brings the same intensity that she showed in Zero Dark Thirty, making Murph’s grim determination compelling for the small amount of screen time she has.

 As a visual/auditory experience, Interstellar is dazzling. Christopher Nolan directs the camera with an assured touch; his direction, along with the cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema (in place of Nolan’s go-to Wall Pfister who was busy making a different film) makes even corn stalks look stunning. The dilapidated, dust-strewn Earth he presents is both grim, yet understated; this film is not post-apocalyptic, yet still terrifying in plausibility of what it presents. No matter how impressive Earth looks in this film, Interstellar belongs to space, and in space Nolan excels. In Interstellar, the effects pass unnoticed. The spacecraft looks real, debris looks real, the reality-bending wormhole looks real, the glowing spheroidal maelstrom surrounding a black hole looks real. It’s incredible and baffling and something that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. You may get teary-eye from awe; I know I was left stunned by many of the visuals in this film.

And who should be there to add the sound to the vastness of space and the alien planets found therein? Hans Zimmer is the answer and has been for Nolan for every movie he’s done since The Dark Knight. Zimmer, who has always been one of my favorite composers, continues to prove why he’s one of the best around; his score here is both quiet and thunderous when appropriate, adding wonder, tension, and awe where it is needed, and lingering in the background when accented silence is best. I find it amazing how versatile Zimmer is, from the quiet and tragic score of last year’s 12 Years a Slave to the bombastic and instantly recognizable score of Inception. The man scored The Lion King for God’s sake!

All of this being said, I must comment on the ending (don’t worry, no spoilers). Many have come out of this film positively bewildered by the events of the last thirty minutes. It’s some truly mind bending, trippy stuff. Bananas, some would say. However, I would not fret overly much about it, compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is merely ponderous and thought-provoking, in a good way. There’s nothing in this film that cannot be explained, nothing that is not a click away on the internet. Kip Thorne has even written a convenient book called The Science of Interstellar if you want to go to the source. This last paragraph, conversely, is also a reason why I loved this film. Few inspire this amount of debate and critical thought, especially about science. That, joined with the fact that the majority of the characters in this film are scientists and engineers, half of them being women, even makes it better. This is a timely film as well, one that questions the audience, and challenges them to find that spirit that once drove humanity to put a man on the moon, and then go farther. In the end, no matter what one thinks of the film, one must admire the staggering scope of Christopher Nolan’s imagination and the care and exactness that goes into each and every one of his movies. With everything that he does, one cannot say that Nolan doesn’t shoot for the stars. An inspired and challenging film.


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