Interstellar Redefines The Way We Make Science Fiction Films

The world is getting safer every day. When Cooper was a kid, people were killing each other just to get enough food. Now there’s more or less plenty to go around, though there’s less variety. We’ve traded in a world of innovation and ambition for a more stable world, a more sustainable world, and so far it seems to be working. Smart kids have to settle to be farmers to keep the world fed, and getting into university is once again a meaningful challenge. Maybe in a few decades things might get better; it seems like for now all humanity can really do is wait and hope.

But there are things going drastically wrong even in this simpler, unambitious, safe world, that no one is willing yet to face. There is a plan to do something about these problems, a plan so huge, so ridiculously bold, that even its strongest supporters can’t imagine it all the way through to success. But it also happens to be the best plan we have.

There are, roughly speaking, two kinds of science fiction films. One has ordinary stories to tell and tells them in a science fiction setting: the future, outer space, the-1800s-but-with-computers, and so forth. When done well, as with Star Wars or The Fifth Element, they’re one of the most exciting forms of diversion I’ve found. Maybe things don’t quite add up in terms of plot holes, and maybe the physics isn’t always technically correct, but we’re too busy having fun to care. As entertainment they’re gangbusters, and we expect no more from them than that.

Then there are movies which aren’t dependent on setting. Like any good story, what matters most are the characters. In good science fiction, ordinary people come into contact with something new, a technology, a way of living, maybe a philosophical idea, usually stemming from some scientific discovery not yet reconciled with the world as we understand it. Because of this new thing their lives are changed, and in the end they have to find a new way of looking at the world. When done well, we get to share with the characters in building that new way of seeing the world, and that’s one of the most valuable things fiction can do, whether it’s science-fiction or not.

Now, does Interstellar belong to the first category of film, or the second? I’ll leave you to decide. But I encourage you to go see it, because whether it’s just entertainment or something more, there is no doubt that it is very, very well made.

For better or worse, Christopher Nolan seems to love making tragedies. All his heroes, to date, experience their journeys against a backdrop of grief, pain, and loss. In this film, Nolan brings his wonderful knack for putting dreams smack down on the kitchen table and his expansive, sophisticated sense of style to perhaps the oldest story people have to tell: of going out to see, to discover. And we have here a Nolan hero with a chance, albeit as slim a chance as can possibly be imagined, for finding redemption.

The world is spinning in Matthew McConaughey’s hand these days, and anyone left in doubt of his formidable abilities after his coup in Mud (2012), Magic Mike (2012), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), and True Detective (HBO series, 2014) most likely either hasn’t seen the work or they weren’t paying attention. After winning the Oscar last year, his first choice of script is a science fiction picture, a genre that has always suffered for lack of real acting talent, and  how lucky for us that he brings every ounce of his charisma, sincerity, and pathos with him. Funny thing about film, that there can be scenes which break our hearts and somehow uplift us at the same time; there is a scene of that kind in this film which is one of the most powerful I have seen, solely through emotion McConaughey delivers. It is absolutely and undeniably because McConaughey nails it, that we are unable to not feel for his character, that the film succeeds.

McConaughey plays Cooper, a corn farmer who used to be much more, raising his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck) and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain) with the help of their grandfather Donald (John Lithgow, for the win) following their mother’s death. When a seemingly inexplicable phenomena leads him to discover the hidden last remnant of humanity’s best and brightest, and their wild secret project that he is the best possible candidate for leading, the worries he was struggling with in the terms of a farm’s household are suddenly dwarfed by those of a planetary, and then an interstellar scale. Guided by his acquaintance from a former life, Professor Brand (regular Nolan co-conspirator Michael Caine) and in cooperation with the professor’s chilly daughter (Anne Hathaway), he undertakes an expedition that has become, he is unhappy to learn, the best final hope for mankind to last more than about one already-fleeting century longer.

1This covers roughly the first forty-five minutes of the picture. I want to talk about the rest, and believe me, I could keep dropping names from its remarkable ensemble cast for paragraph after paragraph, but with a movie as intricately crafted as Interstellar, you’ll find I can’t really tell you much more than this without affecting what you’ll think it’s about, and that’s part of the journey you experience for yourself.

As a space movie, Interstellar has a heavy legacy to live up to, built up mainly in just the past few decades. Following Apollo 13 (1995), Alfonso Cuarón’s brief and masterful Gravity (2013) (the most recent peer and the most likely to be compared), and the gold standard, at least from a purely technical point of view, Stanley Kubrick’s immortal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Here in 2014, humans can’t easily go into space to get real footage, and so outer space movies generally either live or die on the strength of their visual effects.

One of Nolan’s imminent charms, and one of the reasons the world desperately needs more filmmakers like him, is that he understands the limits of what special effects can do for telling a compelling story. Every film of his from Batman Begins (2005) onward has made use of CGI effects to a limited extent, but whenever possible he’ll try to make a shot or sequence work using purely practical effects first. Be they lavishly constructed sets, meticulously detailed costumes and props, or good old-fashioned user-friendly models, he does whatever he can to really photograph his footage before he resorts to digitally-attached illusions to make his vision a reality.

By keeping the action focused on what the characters can really touch and interact with, Nolan grounds the story firmly in a more real-feeling, believable experience for his audience. Nolan wants the amazing things happening in his pictures to happen to his characters, not to happen with some characters off to the side, no matter how amazingly the images are contrived.

When it’s something only CGI can do, he makes sure it is so well-made, and happens for such a good reason in the story, that he can be sure it’s something we’ll remember. Like a fine jeweler, he knows when to bend the settings and events towards a set-piece of visual action, and he knows how to define, limit, and polish those set-pieces to make the whole work shine brighter.

It’s in this spirit of dreams checked and well-grounded by reality that we’re coaxed into believing in his homely, ordinary, roughly futuristic world, and it’s on the same principle that the rest of the movie is carried out to such powerful effect.

In all other technical aspects, the film is excellent or better. Nolan’s composer of choice Hans Zimmer provides another intense, minimalist, and largely melancholy score that perfectly agrees with the tone and action, while paying tribute here and there with huge swells of organs, yes organs, to some of the classic pictures and scores that came before it.

Since shooting The Dark Knight, Nolan has favored the use of the 70mm IMAX format camera for giving his visuals an enormous feel and texture. Sequence after sequence from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In (2008), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)) is so rich and engrossing that it’s largely worth the price of admission alone.

Like in the great space films mentioned above, the sound department here knows exactly when to use wonderful foley, or the claustrophobic sounds of a character inside their helmet, or unsettling silence, to sell the experience’s authenticity.

My favorite thing about this movie however may well turn out to be its art department, solely for giving us the coolest movie robots I’ve seen since Oblivion (2013) or earlier.

Like every film Nolan has made, the aspect that shows the most careful finishing and agonizing attention is also the most important: the script. As with the masterful Memento (2000) and Inception, it’s penned by Nolan himself, together with his brother Jonathan. Along with the usual hallmarks of their work (dead-on dialogue, incredible one-liners, endless call-backs and call-forwards, and a plot designed like a puzzle and masquerading as an illustrated lecture course), the script carries, integrates, and often elevates some of the best ideas from some of the best sci-fi novels of the last century, from Frederick Pohl’s Gateway (1977) and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956) to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and even C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938). And like any great science fiction film it has space marines and sassy robots, only here they happen, delightfully, to be one and the same thing.

2Of course, when we get to discussing the legacy of excellence in science fiction writing, it’s inescapable that 2001: A Space Odyssey be further considered. In some ways, Interstellar is like a version of 2001 where people are actually allowed to speak to each other. To be more specific, what differentiates this film’s version of a somewhat similar story from its predecessor’s is the understanding that the audience needs characters who have compelling reasons for the things they do, and whom they can sympathize with in a memorable way.

2001, its script by Kubrick himself and the well-famed novelist Arthur C. Clarke, sought to first raise profound questions about the cosmos, reality, and humanity’s place in it, and then to underscore the profundity of its questions by declining to comment on them. Interstellar, on the other hand, raises similar questions on a similar journey, and is brave and, ultimately, limited enough, to pursue guesses about what the answers might be. Because of this, the narrative is the basis of the film’s only unmistakable flaw: It is overambitious.

Clocking in at just under three hours, the picture still seems rushed, like it’s often saying “Alright, look. Ideally, we’d give this idea more time, but there’s just too much else to we have to see, we’ve got to keep going.”

It’s the terrible paradox of movies about ideas. If you spend enough time on the characters to make a good story, then you usually don’t have time left to give the theories and their supporting details their due. If you spend all your time on your ideas, and none on your characters, and when you answer all your own questions, not only do you deprive the audience of an opportunity for wonder, there’s no time really for the characters to advance, and therefore no reason for anyone to care.

Kubrick and Clarke settled for ineffability, which is perhaps a wise move when you’re trying to make a movie about everything. Nolan gives us suggestions for answers, and tries to plant some new questions of his own. I would say the film and its ideas are for the most part a resounding success when it comes to crafting a compelling storyline; it’s just obvious that occasionally they wished to do more, to make an idea clearer or unfold part of the plot line longer, and they just couldn’t fit it all in. When this is a side detail it’s jarring, when the weight of the plot falls on points of this kind, it’s worrisome, but not so much so that the film’s feeling is diminished, or the ideas it does manage to get across are made less interesting.

In some ways the movie is about this very problem, about whether people will necessarily fail at undertakings fundamentally bey3ond their understanding, with consequences disconnected from their own personal interests. All the wonderful visual effects and technological innovations in the world will not help people believe in your story if there aren’t sympathetic characters and a meaningful struggle to overcome. And if we ever do venture out into new worlds, if there’s any evil out there, any hidden demon to ruin our chances, it’s something we’ll take with us, in our nature, in being too scared and short-sighted to be ambitious for the sake of others, for the people with whom we empathize.

When all is said and done, it’s a heavy film. It requires attention and a good deal of emotional stamina: it cuts closer to being an honest-to-god tragedy than many films I’ve seen in recent years, and will wring you dry before it’s done. It’s not something you’re likely to pop on at a party, or watch to wind down a weary day. But though it is enormous and challenging, it’s also beautiful and considerate and deeply affecting. If you wait to see it on the small screen, odds are you’ll wish you hadn’t. So clear your schedule for an evening, take someone you’re not afraid to feel feelings with, leave your earthbound worries at the door, and join these extraordinary characters on their journey. I doubt that it’s one you’ll soon forget.


Originally published on This Problem is Unsolvable 

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