Symeon J. Thompson reviews Christopher Nolan’s film, Interstellar (rated M).
Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s immense exploration of cosmic matters, be they our place in outer space, or our place in a family. It is a film of awe — awe at the wonders of creation, awe at the potential of humanity, awe at the power of love.
Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar
It is also a cryptic film — one in which even though so much is said, so much is left unsaid.
Various diseases are wiping out successive subsistence crops, similar to the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845. Massive crippling dust storms are common, much like those in the Dust Bowl in the United States in the 1930s — except that this is in our future.
(NB: The film doesn’t support a green-left agenda. The problems aren’t put down to global warming. Nolan hasn’t made any left-leaning movie, as I discussed when reviewing The Dark Knight Rises in News Weekly, August 4, 2012).
Technological progress has ground to a halt, and even gone backwards. Schools teach that the moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviets and that life-saving medical technologies have disappeared.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer, who doesn’t want to be a farmer. He had trained as an astronaut and engineer, was considered one of the best, but never made it into space.
Cooper lives with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and his children Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy). His wife died because the technology disappeared, so he has a bitter edge regarding the neo-Ludditism of the authorities.
While trying to make sense of the “ghost” in his daughter’s room, he stumbles across a NASA base where a team of scientists, led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), are seeking a way to save humanity. They’ve discovered a worm-hole near Saturn that leads to another star system where the planets may be able to sustain life.
Cooper reluctantly agrees to lead the expedition. Apart from their time gone, there’s the risk that time spent in the worm-hole will pass more slowly than on Earth, and that the astronauts may return a great many years after they’ve left, but without having aged.
Murph is none too keen on this, and remains angry at her father even when grown up (played by Jessica Chastain), while Tom (Casey Affleck) focuses on farming and looking after his small family.
The stage is set, quite deliberately, for a grand, multi-layered drama. There are the usual themes of space movies — our place in the universe, the drive to survive, the potential of humanity.
Nolan is well aware of his forebears and, on this level, the film reflects such influences as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (remade by Steven Soderberg with George Clooney) and The Mirror, Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Pixar’s WALL-E, Alfonso Cuarron’s Gravity and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (which also starred Matthew McConaughey and also had the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as an adviser).
The aesthetic is one of grandeur. Even if the folk on Earth are covered in dust and in dire circumstances, they are still presented as being of intrinsic worth and beauty — unlike, say, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a story of despair was filmed with an aesthetic to match.
Space is shown less as a cold abyss, and more as a place of wondrous sights and majesty, unlike Gravity in which space might be beautiful, but it’s going to kill you as surely as the shark in Jaws.
Hans Zimmer’s score reinforces these motifs. It has a vibrancy to it that emphasises the light that bathes most shots, without hiding the potential for horror.
Nolan doesn’t downplay the horror or anguish of the situation, but he doesn’t let it consume him. He focuses on characters who hope. They believe in something. This sets him apart from filmmakers such as Michael Haneke (Amour), who sees the depths and drowns in them; or Michael Bay (Transformers), whose idea of depth is a scantily-clad female saying something inspiring.
This idea harks back to another era of filmmaking, in which the focus was on entertainment for the masses. This populism didn’t lead to a dumbing down of cinema, but on finding ways to communicate so that as many people as possible could understand. Stephen Greydanus, film critic for Crux, calls them “family films with depth” and puts Nolan’s work in the same category.
If one thinks back to the films of yesteryear, say those of Alfred Hitchcock or Frank Capra or John Ford — these were movies that everyone could watch together and get something from. Strict industry censorship aided creativity; it didn’t suffocate it.
Interstellar plays with themes and ideas, but a prominent one is the poem by Dylan Thomas that is incessantly quoted: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).