Interstellar Wows While Asking Big Questions

Interstellar posterProbably no director in the world successfully combines intelligence and artistic ambition with commercial success the way Christopher Nolan does.

His movies often orbit around exactly the kind of high concepts Hollywood hates because they can’t be explained in a trailer. Whereas most movie trailers seem to reveal the entire plot, trailers for Nolan’s films tend to focus on a few stunning visuals — which Nolan’s films inevitably provide — and gestures towards themes or big ideas. In an industry that seems so intent on rushing to the artistic bottom, Nolan bucks the trend with intelligence and panache — and be brings in the box office anyway.

It’s easy to focus on Nolan’s penchant for paradoxes, puzzles, and manipulation of time. What’s often lost on people is how intelligent Nolan’s movies are. In Hollywood today, most movies seem to have a half dozen screenwriters, yet somehow feel like they never got a second draft. Nolan’s films tend to be remarkably thought out, as if every storytelling possibility has been considered and only the best ones chosen. Ideas aren’t window-dressing, or mere grace notes to spice up how run-of-the-mill the movie’s plot is. In Nolan’s movies, ideas are followed through, and dialogue is polished almost to an absurd degree. Not only is there actual foreshadowing, but the dialogue functions like a web, not only setting things up for later but weaving themes throughout the work. Nolan might be a postmodern director, but he’s committed to the old-fashioned nuts and bolts of good writing, which even reviewers now tend to ignore. Like his preference for physical filmmaking over computer simulations, Nolan’s a classic structuralist, even if he’s smart enough to play with post-structuralist techniques and ideas.

Nolan’s got an impressive track record, but that’s not to say he hasn’t had his misses. Insomnia strikes me as filled with interesting ideas, but I don’t think it works. And The Dark Knight Rises is a rare logical disaster that also manages to ignore the tensions Nolan’s previous two Batman films set up. But The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. Batman Begins might be antiseptic, but it’s a masterfully coherent reworking of Batman’s origins that in many ways puts the comics to shame. Memento is as impressive an experiment today as when it was released. The Prestige is a wonder, and his Inception manages to be both ingenious and moving while also a visually stunning action movie.

Interstellar manages to be both a return to form, after the misjudgments of The Dark Knight Rises, and a departure from Nolan’s past work. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema brings a different aesthetic than Wally Pfister, who has gone on to direct. Gone are the quick-cut, close-up action sequences with little sense of place, which had arguably been a weakness in Nolan’s films.

But nowhere is Interstellar‘s departure clearer than in its soundtrack, by past Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer. Especially in Nolan’s last two Batman films and Inception, his movie’s soundtracks have been distinguished by the use of rhythmic bass to build tension. The technique has been so frequently copied as to become a cliché. The bass is still strong in Interstellar. In fact, my seat rocked so much during the noisy flight sequences that I felt like I was on a ride. But the bass is more ambient here, and the score itself has an orchestral, classical feel.

In part, that’s due to the subject matter. Insterstellar borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and the music reflects this. Long takes of spaceships rotating, or drifting through space, are accompanied by more than one sequence recalling the transcendent 2001 finale, although they’re far shorter (and arguably less self-indulgent) in Interstellar. And like 2001, Interstellar hinges upon ambiguous and oddly detached actions apparently taken by some highly advanced extraterrestrial intelligence — although Interstellar puts a twist on this now-old formula.

Interstellar even has its own monoliths, after a fashion: one of the most ingenious robot designs of any sci-fi film.

One of the criticisms of Nolan’s work is that, while his films tend to be cleverly put-together puzzles, they’re sometimes not very emotionally engaging. I think there’s truth to this criticism, when it comes to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. But The Dark Knight is gripping, and its finale devastating in the way it manages to tie together all the movie’s themes of imitation and influence into a statement about what it means to be a hero. And the love story of Inception moves me, although I’m perfectly willing to concede that may be due to my own feelings of distance and fascination with how love intersects with our inherent subjectivity and the ambiguity inherent in knowing others.

Interstellar might take us to another galaxy, but it’s utterly grounded in human emotion. In fact, a case could be made that the entire movie is about love. It’s a very intellectual exercise on the limits of intellect. These scenes work, and they’re intermixed with a different emotional register, focused around the survival of the species and the majesty of space. Let’s hope that this emotional success is also part of Nolan’s somewhat new direction.

Not enough movies work emotionally. Not enough movies have big ideas and novel visuals that leave an impression. Even rarer is the movie that unites the two. Interstellar fits this bill, probing issues such as human survival, teasing whether our evolution-molded concerns are capable of adapting to new and abstract challenges.

Indeed, Interstellar is an environmentalist movie. It takes place against the backdrop of environmental collapse and a severe reduction of the human population, although this is never explicitly tied to global warming — or climate change, as it’s more accurately called. Without seeming preachy in the slightest, Interstellar explores how we care so passionately for our kin, yet are so poor at making species-level distinctions. It’s a capacity our brains didn’t need to evolve, in our ancestral environment. And yet it’s a capacity we may well need to survive as a species.

As with the limits of the intellect, Interstellar dares to ask some pretty big questions.

And while I’m waiting for a cinematic adaptation of the brilliant and essential novel The Forever War, no sci-fi movie has presented a more compelling depiction of time dilation than Interstellar.

That’s not to say the movie’s perfect. I figured out the most central mystery of the film very quickly, although it’s still clever and resonant; after all, it’s how something’s done in fiction that matters most. I also don’t buy the movie’s presentation of the physics of black holes. And you could complain that the planets visited in the movie feel a little too much like video-game levels, much like the different dream levels in Inception.

But at least those planets are harsh and inhospitable, much like the movie’s presentation of space. Interstellar captures much of the same outer-space harshness as last year’s Gravity. Here again, this is wedded to the movie’s thematic and philosophical content. Death is ever-present in Interstellar. It defines these alien environments — a much-needed correction to the easily habitable worlds that dominate science fiction. But of course, Interstellar is also about the ultimate death: the likely extinction of our species. Still, Interstellar isn’t gloomy; in fact, it may well be one of the most hopeful movies ever made.

When defending the glitzy but disposable nature of most big-budget movies today, people often argue that the primary function of a movie is to take the viewer on a visual journey. Interstellar certainly accomplishes this. But it leaves you thinking too. On the way home from the theater, I didn’t turn the radio on. I didn’t want to disrupt my thoughts or my mood. I didn’t want daily reality to restore itself. Instead, I just drove. The roads seemed so flat and the asphalt so tenuous, so temporary. Interstellar put me in an altered state, and I didn’t want it to end.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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