Thursday, November 6, 2014

Exploring the transcendent vision of Christopher Nolan’s "Interstellar"

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has finally arrived in theaters around the country this week, expanding from its initial run in 35mm and 70mm IMAX formats to a broader digital rollout. My quick recommendation: I feel this is a brilliant and beautiful film, a major evolution for Nolan’s craft and storytelling that, while imperfect, is positively awe-inspiring and life-affirming nearly every step of the way. I cannot recommend it enough, and I urge viewers to seek it out on film, whether that’s IMAX or good old 35mm. I really do imagine the experience will be diminished in digital projection, so if you have the opportunity to see Interstellar on film, take it.

And once you have seen the film, come back here and read my in-depth, unnecessarily long thoughts on it below. This is not a film I have any interest in tackling without getting into plot specifics, so please be aware this analysis contains spoilers for the entire picture. Only read further if you have seen the film.

Read my spoiler-filled analysis of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar after the jump…

There is a scene, about halfway through Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, that tested the thematic, narrative, and logical strength of the entire film for me. After astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his team lose 23 years’ worth of Earth time exploring a doomed planet, Cooper and crew member Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) debate which planetary prospect they should journey towards next. She argues for visiting the planet explored by her former lover, and when Cooper accuses her of having compromised judgment, Brand posits a theory that love might not be impairing her thinking, but heightening it – that the strength of the love she feels, across time and space, may not just be the answer to this particular navigational problem, but the key to all the major metaphysical questions these characters are saddled with as they strive to find a new home for the human race. In essence, Brand – and, by extension, Christopher Nolan – is arguing that the single most unknowable, enigmatic, painful, and euphoric element of the human condition – the bonds of human relationships – might unlock the scientific keys to our species’ salvation.  

If Interstellar had not been good enough up to that point to earn some patience – had not provided so many wonderful character moments, and so many great performances, and such immense technical prowess – I might well have rolled my eyes at Brand’s speech, because it is a big, potentially cheesy, possibly catastrophically silly sort of thing to ask the viewer to buy into, especially in a film that is so overwhelmingly concerned with getting the science of its storytelling right (or, as right as such things can be in service of a cinematic narrative).

The single best thing I can say about Interstellar, then – a film that is flawed and imperfect, but also beautiful, inspiring, and masterfully made – is that by the end, I believed wholeheartedly in the nonsense Nolan was selling me. I went from nearly rolling my eyes at Brand’s ‘love’ theory to spilling copious, embarrassing amounts of tears from them at the suggestions being made about the limitless capacity of mankind’s ability to feel. The film is, in essence, about the power of love. When I type those words, it sounds silly – but while watching Interstellar, such a notion seems vital. Because while Interstellar is a film about so many things – wonder, thrills, family, fatherhood, daughterhood, exploration, scientific possibility, human ambition, etc. – it is ultimately about how love, that one thing that makes us great and which we can be unambiguously proud of, even as it confuses and tortures us on a daily basis, may be our only salvation. It is a film grounded in hope, and the key source of hope the film identifies is the unbreakable bonds we feel for one another across time and space. If we can feel love, and be hurt by it, and be elated by it, and fight harder than we ever thought we could because of it, then maybe we can, when the chips are down as far as they will go, be able to hold on to that emotional strength, and reach further than we ever have before.

I find this to be a beautiful, life-affirming vision, and whatever missteps Interstellar makes here and there along the way, I feel Nolan sells this vision with incredible power and clarity. The film marks a major evolution for the director, both stylistically and, more importantly, thematically. In anticipation of Interstellar, the Sie Film Center in Denver recently did a retrospective series of all of Nolan’s films, and watching each of them in one weekend not only reaffirmed how entertaining, accomplished, and provocative I find much of his work, but also made it dawn on me what an intensely emotional filmmaker he is – even though his films are not ‘emotional’ in the traditional Hollywood sense of the term. All of Nolan’s pictures are fundamentally about trauma – deep-seated, scarring, eternally aching kinds of interior pain – and characters who are pathologically incapable of overcoming it, and in fact force themselves to keep reopening their emotional wounds over and over and over again (think of Leonard (Guy Pearce) in Memento, constantly denying himself closure over the role he played in his wife’s death by setting his future self on a path of continual murder and confusion; it is hardly the only example). While these are dark, tortured sensations, they are emotions nevertheless, and each of his films can be seen as an attempt to qualify the extreme ethereality of human pain and self-inflicted suffering through reasoned and understandable (if complex) lenses. I think this is simply how Nolan’s brain works – he feels the emotions of his characters intensely, but he cannot simply put that pain or elation on screen raw, without some kind of rigorous narrative or structural framework supporting it.

There are two sides to Nolan as a director. The man who feels deeply, who is compulsively driven to explore pain in various forms, and the man who acts as a cinematic clinician, taking a step back to objectively explore these emotions through a quantified, ordered narrative framework (the backwards structure in Memento, or the arrangement of story like the three individual parts of a magic trick in The Prestige – literally trying to quantify how humans create and experience ‘wonder’ by breaking it down step-by-step). These two halves don’t always coexist in perfect harmony. Even at Nolan’s best, as in The Dark Knight, the emotional side can hurt the rational half, with the delivery of the film’s major themes sometimes leaving narrative logic in ruins. At his worst, as in The Dark Knight Rises, it works the other way; there are some interesting themes to be had in that film about leaving one’s trauma behind and trying to re-ignite hope in one’s heart, but the film’s humanity is stifled by a wildly overwrought plot. Inception remains Nolan’s best film, I feel, for how flawlessly this balance between emotion and rationality operates; the framework of a clearly delineated, architectural dreamscape gives the film’s emotional side – another story about a man riddled with guilt – a stage on which it can be explored in great cinematic detail. All parts of the dream world – including the incredible action sequences played out therein – serve to literalize the protagonist’s emotional journey on an aesthetically observable level, while those emotions, in turn, give weight and impact to the spectacle. The thematic maturity of Inception lies in how completely the two sides of the film feed into one another at all times, creating a work that is ultimately about a similar division in the human condition – between our unconscious and conscious selves, our sleeping and waking beings, our emotional and rational halves – and how those internal parts of ourselves also exist in constant dialogue with one another.

Interstellar is a less mature picture than Inception overall, and feels slightly less solid and complete on the whole, but that is largely because it sees Nolan pushing himself and his ideas farther than he ever has before. Messy as it was, The Dark Knight Rises seemed to me an attempt to strike out into uncharted thematic territory, choosing a path of healing and redemption rather than further trauma. It did not work, but the choice to start letting characters rectify their pain (also seen in Inception, depending on one’s interpretation of the ending) signaled a compelling evolution for Nolan, one that Interstellar delivers on powerfully. This too is a film all about human emotions, with loss, grief, and guilt front and center once again, but it also incorporates the elating, inspiring sensations of love and connection that drive human beings forward. It looks at the worst of us, at where we may ultimately drive ourselves and this planet as a species if we continue to act with selfish abandon, and then wonders if harnessing the best of what we are – our capacity for exploration, ambition, and love – can save us from destruction.

And it works, beautifully so, precisely because the film is such a clear utilization of Nolan’s two component halves. The film’s conclusion – in which Brand’s theory about love does indeed prove true, and Cooper’s paternal connection to his daughter provides a link through space-time so that he may communicate all he has learned to her – is another attempt to quantify human emotion within a logical construct (a scientific one even, or at least metaphysical). Amongst everything the director has ever done, this may be the narrative beat most characteristic of Nolan’s worldview and thematic approach, and it feels to me like an invigoratingly singular ending to a science-fiction epic. I cannot think of another filmmaker who approaches emotion in quite the same way, or would paint the big emotional masterstroke of a film in similar fashion. Fans and critics like to compare Nolan to Stanley Kubrick, but it’s a faulty association on just about every level. Kubrick also analyzed the human condition from a characteristic remove, but it was a totally different sort of stance. He was an alien analyzing human civilization, a foreign being attempting to understand who we were from afar, and seeing things always on a macroscopic level. Nolan, on the other hand, is a human being, flawed and feeling, trying to take a step back and assume the posture of the foreign analyst. It is a subtle but important distinction. It means his movies access the macroscopic through the microscopic, going up close with specific characters and experiences to try discerning larger truths. It results in imperfections, but it also creates an intense depth of feeling.

The conclusion of Interstellar is a perfect illustration of this ethos, a climax that is on one level about Cooper’s love for his daughter and need to rectify his guilt, but is also a moment of looking to humanity’s future and imagining what we might one day become if we strive to live as the best of what we are. That the intimate action of a man reaching out and trying his hardest to be a father again could result in ripples significant enough to save all mankind is a powerful union of the micro and macroscopic scales Nolan alternates between – and of the quantified, scientific way he attempts to access emotion. There is a whiff of nonsense to it all, of course, but I bought into it completely, both because I was consistently moved by Cooper and his family’s story, and because I found myself fascinated and elated by the hard science the film relies on up to that point. Frankly, I found Cooper’s experience in the fifth-dimensional time tunnel – being pulled through dimensions by love, and pushing love back in return across the chasms of time and space – emotionally overwhelming on a scale I have not seen in Hollywood cinema all year. And it’s not even the moment that ultimately broke me. But more on that in a bit.

If the sheer level of hope and optimism on display in Interstellar marks a clear thematic step forward for Nolan, as I have argued, then the film must also be viewed as an evolution of his style. Nolan first made a name for himself early on with his idiosyncratic out-of-sequence storytelling, and over the course of films like Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, he kept honing that narrative format until he simply didn’t need it anymore, eventually finding a way to tell stories in an intensely continuous fashion. Starting with The Dark Knight, Nolan’s scenes flowed non-stop into one another, bigger and bigger moments cascading on top of each other breathlessly from first moment to last (Hans Zimmer, in this way, was a prime collaborative architect of this style, composing similarly unceasing volumes of music that layered and connected nearly every moment of film). Inception, once again, saw this breathless propulsion done best, a tight, non-stop, absolutely lyrical piece of cinema that is constructed with all the fluidity of a great symphony. But this kind of long-form montage is a demanding style that can only hold so much, and The Dark Knight Rises – which structured itself the same way, but buckled hard under the weight of its own needlessly complex story – suggested Nolan needed to evolve once again.

In Interstellar, he does. It is the first film he has made since The Prestige that really breathes, allowing for pauses – in the forward momentum and, crucially, in the musical score – that let moments linger when need be. Think of that beautiful, brilliant shot after the botched mission on the water planet, when Cooper sits down to watch 23 years’ worth of messages from his children, and instead of providing a standard shot-reverse-shot between the video message and Cooper’s reaction, the camera simply hold on Matthew McConaughey as he reacts. It is all about his real-time emotions in this moment, allowing both the character and the audience to process the weight of what has happened thus far. There are many such moments in Interstellar, and so much of why the film earns its biggest and most audacious ideas is because that breathing room exists. The film still has a powerfully propulsive pace and build, but it is not a sustained two-and-a-half hour heart attack, as I like to describe The Dark Knight. Nolan leaves that sort of sensation for the film’s final act. The betrayal by Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) on the ice planet may be the film’s faultiest narrative move – a conventional moment ripped from dozens of other science-fiction films, and which leaves the talented Damon stranded without any real shadings to play – but it results in one of the most breathlessly tense extended sequences I have ever seen on film. Extending from Brand rushing to save Cooper from asphyxiation, on to the chase back to the Endurance, through Cooper’s attempt to manually reattach the shuttle and on further still to his journey into the black hole and the metaphysical climax, Nolan delivers another masterful piece of symphonic montage filmmaking (one that, like Inception, employs copious intercutting, between Cooper in space and Murph back on earth), and I found myself riveted, exhilarated, and exhausted in equal measure. And so much of what makes this climax powerful is how clearly Nolan builds to it, holding off on such a sweeping interconnected construction until the events of the film have fully earned it.

Earn it the film does, as nearly everything we get along the way is so rich and rewarding. I actually feel that the first act, on Earth, needed to be a bit longer, especially after Cooper is asked to pilot the mission. While so much of the Earth material breathes and lingers in a way that makes the pain and confusion of this quietly apocalyptic scenario palpable, Cooper’s decision to leave, and the complex emotions involved therein, are mostly confined to the one charged exchange he shares with Murph in her bedroom. That scene is an absolute knockout, but much of the material around it played out slightly too fast for my taste, as if Nolan were impatient to get Cooper into space.

Which is understandable, I suppose, since Nolan’s vision of interstellar travel is pretty wildly effective, especially for viewers who get a buzz over cinematic depictions of space exploration. I love the sheer attention to detail on display in the space sequences; the mission’s take-off, and Cooper’s first time attaching a shuttle to the Endurance, is another one of those wonderfully slow, methodical moments from which the overall tapestry of the film is built, and the second act of Interstellar is simply bursting with similar scenes. Nolan’s passion for the science of space travel is obvious, and while the exposition can be clunky at times – I doubt a pilot as brilliant as Cooper would need the mechanics of a wormhole explained to him with pen and paper – I found myself eating it up all the same, because this is the rare science fiction film that takes the time to get its science right, and absolutely revels in the wonder astrophysics provides. Sequences like the journey through the wormhole or Cooper slinging the Endurance around the black hole inspire awe not just because of the incredible effects and immersive IMAX photography, but because the plausibility of the moment is well established beforehand. Interstellar is great sci-fi precisely because the science fuels the fiction, something too many films in this genre forget to consider (it usually works the other way around). When it’s pulled off well, as it is here, there is a tangibility to the spectacle I don’t feel from faulty science or pure fantasy (and again, the metaphysics of the conclusion work in large part because the film pushes towards that point with such attention to scientific detail).

Yet no matter how deeply Nolan delves into the details of the film’s space-time journey, the emotion is there always, omnipresent and powerful. The relativity conundrum that loses the team 23 years of time is a complex bit of exposition, but the stakes of the science matter because of what such a time loss means for Cooper. That terrific moment I mentioned earlier, in which Cooper watches the string of messages and weeps, is characteristic of how the film uses big scientific ideas to add weight to the character journeys. Because every decision the team makes in space will have major consequences for Cooper’s family back on earth – and, by extension, every surviving human on our planet – the science and the emotion of the storytelling are inextricably linked. The weave between them is seamless, allowing for broad existential wonder in some moments – the journey through the wormhole, or the visits to alien worlds – intimate emotional punches in others – any scene involving Cooper and his children – and a knockout combination between the two, as when Cooper communicates with Murph in the fifth-dimensional time tunnel.

The actual ending of the film – all the material that takes place after Cooper finds himself on the other side of the black hole – is problematic for me after this first viewing, even as I was intensely moved by it in spots. If the film concluded with the space-time envelope collapsing around Cooper after he has successfully relayed the black hole data to Murph, and seen evidence of where humanity is headed, then it is a powerful, thought-provoking, transcendental ending, the kind that would leave the viewer simultaneously disoriented and invigorated, high on the inspiration of the bright future the film envisions for mankind. That could have been a great closing moment, but I see the value in where the film actually chooses to end, with Cooper seeing Murph one last time, and then heading back out into space to help secure humanity’s future. Because while the actual ending inspires slightly less awe, it also makes me sob, and seeing as this is ultimately a film about emotional release and catharsis, about coming to terms with the pain and ecstasy of being human, I understand the importance of that. The ramifications of Cooper’s journey gets spelled out more than it needs to be as he tours the space station, and his mere survival after entering the black hole stretches plausibility too far. But we also get to see Cooper reunite with Murph, a beautiful moment of reward for both characters; it may not be ideal for either one, but he gets to see his daughter again, in a way that shows him the scope of her life and fills him with pride for her accomplishments, and she gets to be by her father’s side one more time before dying – gets to summon this childhood loss back into her life just before her existence is extinguished.

And yes, as someone who recently lost a father, that idea, and the simple, beautiful power with which it is presented, pretty much broke me. The tears flowed especially freely when Murph explained that she always had faith in Cooper, because “my dad made me a promise.” I was a wreck, and if that was Nolan’s intention, I applaud him. Not all cinematic manipulation is bad. And the final story beat, of Cooper going back out into the stars to give Brand some hope again in her darkest hour, is more than thematically fitting, reinforcing the significance of hope in the perpetuation of the human existence. If human bonds are indeed the path to our species’ salvation, then they have to be honored, and Cooper returning to space to make sure this remains true ties the narrative together with aplomb.

On a technical level, Interstellar is simply peerless. The effects, mostly practical (and obviously so – I grinned broadly whenever I saw the optical outline around one of the ship models), are just tremendous. They were even more effective to me than those in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity – another recent space drama similarly fetishistic in its attention to the details of space travel – in part because of the quality of the IMAX film stock, but also because there is such an extreme tangibility to the film’s spacecraft. As good as the CG work in Gravity is, nothing beats physical models like these, and the way Nolan lingers on images of the spacecraft doing what they were intended to do simply filled me with joy (the near-destruction of the Endurance at the film’s climax hits as hard as it does because we have spent so much time observing how the ship operates). Meanwhile, the biggest visual effects moments – like crossing the wormhole, flying around the black hole, or entering the fifth-dimensional time fortress, all of which appear to blend practical and digital effects – are truly awe-inspiring, legitimately filling me with wonder. Moments like these are astonishing, and terrifying, and beautiful – all the things they would be, if human eyes actually glimpsed these sights. I really found myself getting lost in the journey being illustrated.  

The cinematography has a huge part to play in this, of course. I don’t think Interstellar is quite on par, on the whole, with what Nolan and longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister were doing in their final collaborations (Inception is, once again, the high mark for me on that front), but Hoyte van Hoytema has nevertheless done great work here, further asserting himself as one of the most talented visual craftsman working today. His cinematography is dour and thought-provoking when it needs to be, as on earth; observational and clinical on the Endurance; and vast, broad, and wondrous in outer-space and on the individual planets. The relationship between IMAX sequences and standard 35mm footage is a bit rougher than it was on prior Nolan films; the switching between stocks (and aspect ratios) is far too rapid in the film’s first half, and the difference in lighting between the two formats proves distracting. The IMAX shots all look clear, bright, and deep, but the 35mm footage is photographed with too complex a lighting scheme to work on an enormous IMAX screen, where dark palettes can become indecipherable. I suspect this footage would look fantastic on a standard 35mm projection, but blown up to IMAX 70mm, certain images are obscured. It stops being a problem in the film’s final hour, which is almost entirely comprised of full IMAX footage, and on the whole, I still think IMAX is the definitive version of the film, and absolutely the one to seek out. It is so immersive, even when the lighting becomes a problem, and combined with the absurdly good sound mix(*), the IMAX version of the film is a wondrous experience in and of itself.

(*) I have heard reports of certain IMAX theaters (particularly the Chinese in Los Angeles) having sub-optimal sound quality, to the point where large stretches of dialogue are completely obscured. This was not my experience at all. At the UA Colorado Center IMAX in Denver, the sound mix is excellent – big and booming and powerful, but also clear as a bell throughout. There was no line I had to strain to hear, nor any effect that sounded anything less than perfect. I suspect it is a case of theater optimization, rather than the film’s actual sound mixing. This was also the case on The Dark Knight Rises, which I saw twice in two different IMAX theatres (one at the Colorado venue, and the other in Iowa) and had two totally different experiences with. In Iowa, sound effects and music drowned out dialogue frequently, obscuring Bane and Commissioner Gordon in particular. In Colorado, everything was crystal clear. It’s not the mix – it’s the theater. I would suggest doing some quick research to make sure your local IMAX, if you have one, has calibrated its sound equipment properly.

It is an experience Hans Zimmer once again plays a crucial hand in propelling. Interstellar does many things well, but the musical score is undoubtedly the film’s crowning technical achievement. Zimmer pushes himself more than he ever has before, writing a score that is intensely emotional, often hypnotic, and downright experimental at times. It is a score of pure feeling and total ethereality, using a church organ and an assortment of undefinable (to my ears) instruments that create a vulnerable atmosphere throughout, a musical sense of something larger than ourselves, a sensation we cannot quantify. For a film that is fundamentally about quantifying the undefinable, trying to put a scientific framework around the power of love and human relationships, Zimmer’s score does a huge amount to enable and empower the strange equation the film is built upon.

The performances, too, are something else. My favorite Matthew McConaughey performance remains his role on True Detective – the light is indeed winning, my friend – but his work here comes incredibly close to topping that, and he excels with a demanding part that asks him to do a little bit of everything: action heroics, a commanding presence, the everyman archetype, and expert dramatics. He is good at all of them, but he wows most clearly at that final, most important piece. This is a fiercely human performance of raw power and dimensionality, and thinking back on some of the soulless roles that made me hate McConaughey for a time back in the 2000s – Fool’s Gold, Failure to Launch, etc. – the wholly believable vulnerability he projects here astounds me even more. In just the last two years, he has quickly refashioned himself into one of America’s best actors, and Interstellar is one of those roles I suspect he’ll be remembered for.

While Jessica Chastain is very good as the adult Murph, the second-most special performance in the film behind McConaughey comes from Mackenzie Foy, the talented young actress playing Murph as a child (and whose previous most notable role was as Bella and Edward’s creepy demon spawn in the last Twilight movie – again with the challenging of career expectations). This is a truly wonderful child performance, a piece of acting that is powerful and well-defined without coming across as overly precocious or inorganic. Foy’s work is such a crucial lynchpin to the emotional tapestry of the film, especially in her scenes with McConaughey, that Chastain honestly doesn’t have a ton of room to work with; everything she does is simply an extension of the character Foy establishes.

But everybody here does excellent work. Nolan once again uses Michael Caine expertly – though I look forward to a time when he might have a more substantial role for Caine to play again – and I think Anne Hathaway would be wise to continue working with the director. Brand is not a fully defined character as written, and that is one of the bigger weaknesses of the script, but the depth and variance and passion of the performances Hathaway has given in Nolan’s films, between The Dark Knight Rises and this, are beyond anything I have seen from her in other work (even though she has been consistently great for years now). And while Casey Affleck has barely been featured in the film’s advertising, one has to praise the small but pivotal role he plays in making Cooper’s son feel like a vital part of the story, given how heavily the family dynamic is weighed toward Murph.

Ultimately, Interstellar is something so many films aspire to be, but rarely achieve: It is a journey in and of itself, an experience that takes the viewer outside his or her own body for three hours and explores the outer ranges not just of space, but of the human experience, probing at huge existential issues on both broad and intimate scales, and drawing some profound, powerful conclusions along the way. The film may not be perfect, but given what it is trying to quantify – the possibility for the importance of emotion in our scientific exploration of the universe – I doubt it ever could be. Emotions are messy business, and nearly every misstep the film makes – the talking-head interviews in the first act, the protracted nature of the ending, and even Dr. Mann’s betrayal (which is an attempt to illustrate the selfish fallibility of mankind’s survival instinct, in contrast with the heights that same instinct instills in Cooper) – comes from a sincere effort to understand the complex feelings the film engages with.

Moreover, what Interstellar does well it does so well that those problem points hardly seem to matter. It is entertaining, thrilling, and transporting, but also intimate, rich, and beautiful, and the way those disparate elements almost always work in tandem with one another is what makes the film great. It will take time and multiple viewings for a full analysis of this film to emerge, and I think response will remain mixed towards it for a time; whether one finds the movie good, bad, or mediocre at first blush, it is not a film built to process in one sitting.

For me, Interstellar is the kind of film I walk out of deeply shaken, while simultaneously high on the power of cinema, drunk on what I just saw, elated, enlightened, inspired and made better by the three hours I spent sitting in a dark room, watching light flicker past on a screen. I love that movies can do that, and I love that even as he has long-since been absorbed by the studio system, Christopher Nolan still dreams big enough to create works of this potential power. No matter where one falls on the film, that kind of ambition is undeniably admirable. We need movies like Interstellar, just as we need filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, using their cache to push cinema to its limits. With Interstellar, I believe he has succeeded wildly. If this is what he can do only sixteen years into his film career, I look forward to pushing those boundaries right alongside him for decades to come.


  1. Jonathan, this article is the embodiment of everything I have felt towards this movie. I think you really hit the nail on the head with this article; and quite frankly I'm glad Ice found someone physically write down something so close to as what I've been processing this movie as. Kudos sir, well done and thank you

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  3. Nice Article and Amazing Movie