Nolan Feels His Way to a Beautiful Brainy Blockbuster
“Do not go gently into that good night. Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” These lines from a Dylan Thomas poem are used repeatedly in Christopher Nolan’s newest colossal undertakingInterstellar, and this quote, which seems a cheeky, obvious, and heavy handed play at drama turns out to express far more about the underpinnings of the movie than one might first think. The nearly three hour epic has the rare distinction of being both a jaw-dropping experience that goes bone-deep and rattles around in the brain and heart, and a respectable but uneven addition to Nolan’s filmography, depending on how one approaches viewing the film.
It is difficult to write much about the plot of any Nolan film because almost without exception they involve big reveals and convoluted plot twists that need be kept fresh for his audiences. The basics have been shown in several well-spliced previews. We see former space cowboy Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is tapped by a wizened wise scientist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to man a mission into space to find a way to save humanity. With him are several fellow pioneers, including the professor’s daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), and a robot (voiced by Bill Irwin) with a dry sense of humor that brings to mind a smaller version of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is also a scientist played by Jessica Chastain back at NASA working with Professor Brand…
Left behind at a run-down midwestern homestead reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s painting ‘Christina’s World’ are Cooper’s children. There is farm-friendly young teen Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and precocious science-loving Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) who must soldier on in an increasingly hostile environment where something is killing all Earth’s crops and dust is so omnipresent it is causing severe lung damage. This Steinbeck-ian dustbowl world is a powerful visual counterpoint to the vast dark expanse of space the story moves to in short order. With the seeming inevitability of our planet’s demise looming, the rest of the movie is about what happens once they leave Earth to find answers and a solution for the future of mankind.
I won’t be saying any more about what happens once they depart Earth. Suffice to say it involves physics, a wormhole, and other planets, and features gorgeous inter-galactic spacescapes that rival the best seen on film. This is an exciting sci-fi adventure with human drama that incorporates intentional odes to a variety of former sci-fi classics, most especially Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zemeckis’s Contact, and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Nolan, who can walk into a meeting with a studio and walk away with 200 million after pitching something far more esoteric or brainy than the norm, is also one of a vocal few auteur directors in Hollywood that eschew the use of digital in favor of film. Interstellar was made with anamorphic 35mm and IMAX film photography, with physical sets instead of green screens. The environments and landscapes are the biggest stars of the movie, with the largely well cast actors working secondarily in the service of the story, as they weave through the visual experiences in which the audiences become wholly engrossed. The set pieces build the story together, sometimes in contrasts that prove too sharp against each other. However, Interstellar is never boring for a minute. The nearly three hours go by easily, and leave one wanting to perhaps see it again to catch aspects not noticed or taken in on first viewing.
Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who collaborated on the 1997 film Contact) was not only a consultant but received an executive producer credit for his work in developing and guiding the scientific accuracies, such as they can be utilized in a film that goes beyond the things we know to date. He collaborated with the visual effects team Double Negative by providing theoretical equations from which the artists wrote new CGI rendering software. That software would create computer simulations of what’s called “ gravitational lensing” the rendering of which would often take up to 100 hours for each individual frame of film. Dr. Thorne said these visual effects gave him new insights into the possible effects of black holes. These led to two scientific papers, one for the astrophysics community, and one for the computer graphics community. This is a mind blowing example of art imitating life, and life in turn learning from art in a potentially profound way. Although Nolan was concerned that these effects might not be translated visually in a way that viewers could embrace, from at least this critic’s perspective, they were a fascinating immersive visual experience well integrated with the rest of the film.
Christopher Nolan has both rabid fans and detractors, which speaks to his willingness to reach beyond Hollywood business as usual. There will be plenty of opportunities to parse out what the many themes and plot points mean in terms of philosophy. Perhaps the simplest way to explain how this is the most emotional and personal film for Nolan is to describe how he enlisted Hans Zimmer to create the score, one which interestingly also already has a split of haters and passionate fans. Nolan gave Zimmer a single page of information on the story. He wrote of a father who had to leave his children for an important mission without knowing if or when he would return. Zimmer wrote a piece of music that balanced grandeur and intimacy, which became the basis for the entire score. Of course he injected some of his usual bombast, but the completed piece also enhances both the feeling of Cooper’s personal journey and the enormous scope inherent in intergalactic travel.
As a director and co-writer, Christopher Nolan always offers his audiences a variety of messages of lesser or greater ambiguity. The one clearest to me in Interstellar was that although this extremely ambitious story is presented as an epic that traverses the vastness of lonely space, at its center is something very human. It is about the value of time as currency, and the belief that time is love. While that sounds like an overreach, the director has never shied away from big ideas. What makes this one compelling is thate we love. The most compelling a it connects so intimately to individual experience.
As anyone will attest who has lost a loved one, it is in the passage of time, however short or long, where grief is palpably felt. As anyone who is in love will attest, time slows and speeds within the moments shared with thosspect of the script written by Christopher and his brother Jonathan is the examination of how time and love are knitted together. Can physics effect how we can use time and show us a way to get it back, thereby creating opportunities to regain lost experiences, or is that the one way in which we as humans are forever held captive?
As to the quality of the story as a whole, there are some inconsistencies of character, and certainly aspects that stretch credulity towards the end of the movie where some might think Nolan is attempting tidying plot points into neat little bows. Flawed Nolan is like weak Meryl Streep. Even in their imperfection, they represent a bar few other A-listers getting green lit in Hollywood can reach.
For my part, and for those who approach the movie less from an analytic point of view and more from an emotional or humanistic perspective, it is all of a piece. There are big payoffs in the ample visual wonders as well as the potential for an intimacy and individual resonance to open minded viewers.
As to the Dylan Thomas poetry, it speaks to human struggle, to guilt, to the loss or retention of hope that is a choice on a daily basis as we live and as we careen toward our last days. It speaks to our potential, which at any age and at any time can be either squandered or achieved even in small part. If Interstellar makes a few viewers contemplate these ideals and feel inspired to consider their own potential, If it makes them feel, to quote another classic, ‘a new hope’, Christopher Nolan more than deserves however much money the studios are willing to keep giving him to make these brainy beautiful blockbusters, in which he can feel free to use whatever quote he wants.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars