‘You at the zero-end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.’
– Simon Armitage, Mother, Any Distance
Interstellar is a film which explores anchoring; between past and future, humanity and the Earth, and (most crucially) parent and child. It is also an essay on humanity as a species. It chronicles our faults and frailties but is ultimately filled with optimism, placing great faith in our ability to determine our own trajectory through a fusion of rigorous scientific method and a dedication to essential human relationships. The assertion that these relationships can be quantified – an argument made by the film’s inter-dimensional final act – is controversial, and may leave some viewers discontent with its departure from scientific enquiry. But it is important to remember that Interstellar is a film, one with a fiercely humanist agenda, and therefore ultimately places artistic concerns above the practical.
Sci-fi sometimes suffers from an inhuman coldness, and this is an estrangement which Nolan strives to refute. He roots the potentially ludicrous futuristic world in images of the pastoral, in corn fields and combines; specifically alluding to the ‘Dustbowl’ aesthetic of the US 30s which followed the Great Depression. The Depression this time is humanity’s; dust covers the world and the Earth turns against us. References are made by older characters to previous generations, including our own. Cooper’s father-in-law speaks of his childhood as ‘the excess of the 20th century’, where ‘everyday was like Christmas’. Providing the audience with an anchor in this futuristic world, Nolan defamiliarises our generation, forcing us to look at ourselves in terms of future’s history.
It’s worth noting here that discussions on Nolan must necessarily centre on the narrative and plot innovations, as he gives us little artistry in the other, potentially more cinematic aspects of film. The standard one-character mid-shot reverse sequence, serving Nolan since at least 2005 (Batman Begins), again features strongly here. This is serviceable, not striking storytelling; not to say that Interstellar is without spectacle, which it has in abundance, but that the visual language of the film is pedestrian. I still believe that Nolan needs the visual commitment and innovation of perhaps Wes Anderson or, fittingly, Stanley Kubrick, to be a truly great director in the most cinematic sense. Kubrick’s space odyssey hangs over Interstellar like a black monolith, but its shade is something Nolan consciously aligns himself within, citing in interviews the profound effect Kubrick’s film had on him as a child.
In the spate of 2001 references, one moment seems closest to the original tone; the launching of the Endurance towards Saturn, the ‘space-opera’ label conjured by the classical soundtrack and elaborate tracking shots. Professor Brand’s (Michael Caine) voice is heard relaying Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle…’, itself a call to the human race to explore, to fight against invisible barriers and impossible odds. Instead of cutting from the parabola of an animal bone to a spacecraft, Nolan cuts from this ‘space-opera’ shot to an extreme long shot of the Earth visible though Cooper’s porthole. Instead of revelling in how far we’ve come, Nolan chooses this moment to turn back and look where we came from. This constant presence of ‘earth’ grounds the film (literally); a concept I’ll explore fully a little later.
There is another cinematic spectre at the feast, this time unwanted, in the form of Cuarón’s Gravity. Gravity’s ghost haunts the film’s space sequences, which feel dated in comparison to Cuaron’s masterful innovation. Ironically, the ‘ghost’ of gravity proves to be the key to the film’s tricky plot, originating from Cooper, forever trapped behind his daughter’s bookcase. We are given the template for this key, as it were, in the first minute of the film, when Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain/Ellen Burstyn) states ‘I thought you were my ghost’, straying closer to the truth than either she or her father manage to conceive.
It is this father/daughter relationship which forms the emotional core of the film, which I think is arguably, and surprisingly, Nolan’s most touching and relatable. McConaughey was chosen specifically for his ‘everyman’ persona, a way into the film’s complex scientific ideas for the audience. The film’s emotional core comes in the heart-wrenching sequence where Cooper receives his children’s messages after relativity delays his clock by some 23 years. Milestones flash by on the screen – babies being born, his father-in-law’s passing – while Cooper is compelled to watch; torn between the impossibility of seeing and not seeing. By accelerating time for Cooper’s children, Nolan accentuates the feeling of every parent that they are watching their child grow up too fast. The anchoring bond between parent and child is stretched unnaturally, the grounded end reversed (in the positioning of Murph as responsible adult) and rusting (in her refutation of her father’s connection). Aboard the Endurance, Cooper is powerless, unable to intervene in his children’s lives. It is the spectral nightmare of parenthood, realised through a chilling interaction of screen and spectator. The simultaneity of forced separation and intimate documentation provides the scene with an unnatural, inhuman aspect, as if Nolan is forcing together two magnets of the same polarity.
And yet Cooper carries on. He is obviously deeply affected by the sequence of messages, but manages to complete his mission regardless, perhaps inspired by the disembodied images. Early in the film, Cooper quotes his late spouse when he says to Murph ‘we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ Refuting this definition, Cooper illustrates how parents can still divorce themselves from their children, asserting that they are still a person in their own right; able to make new memories for themselves instead of handing that privilege to their offspring. This is a radical view of parenthood, legitimising its constitutive figures as individuals while never negating the special connection between them.
The film estranges the relationship between parent and child in much the same way as it divorces humanity from its eternal parent, the Earth. Interstellar has a complex relationship with the Earth. In addition to the ‘Dustbowl’ scenario back on Earth, where the generative Earth becomes destructive, we also hear the opinion of Brand Jr. (Anne Hathaway) that ‘nature cannot be evil’; foregrounding the essential awe of nature necessary for humans. This emotion is widespread, shown by Romilly’s deep-space acoustic refuge, where he listens to rain amongst leaves, accompanied by thunder in the distance. Nolan here shows our complex, contradictory relationship with nature – we are in awe of its destruction, yet comforted by that familiar power. Although our own Earth has turned against us, the need for some kind of planetary grounding is illustrated in Cooper’s arrival at his daughter’s space station. It is a recreation of the world as he knew it, but this time without the dirt. His impression is that it is ‘too clean’. By looking back into the past too much, we memorialise it as a museum, a point explicitly conveyed in Cooper’s old home’s literal transformation into an exhibition, complete with red rope and talking heads. Going further, we can say that humanity is temporarily living inside an image, both literally and figuratively, in its recreation of the earth. In this warped space, humanity is living on the inside of a sphere, an image made 3 dimensional. Ironically, this anaesthetised existence is lacking a key component: dirt. This neatly ties into Cooper’s final mission to find Brand Jr. and start a new earth, this one grounded, contingent and original, instead of turning the previous earth into a museum piece.
The film’s overarching humanist (perhaps ‘species-ist’) message runs in tandem with these anchoring concepts. Reveal shots repeatedly point us towards knowledge as the tool for understanding – and hopeful survival in – the universe. Two examples stand out. First, the slow track which starts in the hallway and slowly reveals the size of Murph’s bookcase; the books are shown to exceed the barriers of the framing doorway, suggestive of the powerful and barrier-breaking potential of accumulated human knowledge. The plot serves to further mythologise the library, a place enchanted with the presence of Cooper’s ghost and his gravitational disturbance. This is similar to the second instance of reveal, this time a two-stage reveal of NASA and their rocket. The same ‘through-the-doorway’ track is used, but the true reveal is held off until Professor Brand opens a secret door, where a rocket’s engines dominate the revealed space, its true size exceeding the frame’s boundary. Once again, human achievement is shown to break the boundaries placed upon it. In this mythologizing manner, Nolan places pinnacles of human civilisation at the core of the film.
Later on in the NASA scene, an absence of visual identification with Dr. Mann is evident. When Professor Brand mentions his name alongside shots of the other pilots, there is a perceived disconnect; we never see Mann’s face on the wall, leaving us wondering why we did not get to see this ‘extraordinary’ person. Matt Damon’s delayed reveal serves a greater function than its celebrity accompaniment. It is because Mann is not a typical character; he is instead symbolic of a particular mindset – that of pure self-preservation, evident in his lecturing to Cooper about survival instinct. This is a man who has chosen not to have a face; settling down for the ‘long sleep’ after pressing the button for help. He places his own well-being above the human race, which is unforgiveable, but understandable. That some of his words (when we eventually meet him) hit so close to home makes him more than an outright villain. Nolan postulates that given enough forced solitude morality is lost, and self-preservation wins out. It is cathartic to see Dr Mann destroy himself in his final act of self-preservation, trying to dock his ship to escape aboard the Endurance. He is a troubled character, but still essentially human, as is Professor Brand.
Brand Sr. is described as ‘sacrificing his humanity to save the species’ by Dr. Mann. Whether the film endorses this description is debatable; after all it comes from a former leader of men who has fallen far from his moral heights. Without his sacrifice however, Cooper would never have agreed to go to space, and so his ‘sacrifice’ is proved necessary, whether we like it or not, by the film’s narrative. Despite Mann’s messianic description however, Brand is decidedly human, as are all of the extraordinary, potentially supernatural aspects of the film.
The striking reference to sacrifice therefore brings us to one of the notable absences from the film: God. Interstellar repeatedly replaces God-like powers or sights with the human species. These occurrences include the God-like ability to bend spacetime (in the wormhole, Brand Jr.’s inter-dimensional handshake, and the miracle of Cooper Station) and also the creation of worlds (or at least the plan to), in both atmosphere and populous. Instead of God’s son, it is an eminent scientist who makes the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the species’ survival. Even the God-like vastness of infinity is humanised here, in the film’s 3rd act. In the tesseract, human love and connection forms a point around which infinity can pivot; in this iteration, five dimensions using the father/daughter relationship as a point of origin. It is a singularity of sentiment, a placing of profound human connection at the centre of this (admittedly manufactured) universe. Nolan’s elegant solution to the film’s puzzle is a meditation on finding meaning in the universe; without inter-personal interaction, the 5 dimensional beings can only see infinity. Nolan therefore places huge significance on the specificity of human interaction, the validation of our lives in the universal minutiae, an assertion that the meaning of life is forged by us, a demonstration of meaning conferred onto otherwise lifeless matter.
The film is ultimately then full of optimism for the human race, in spite of its presumable self-destruction and evident failings of character. It is a challenge to improve and inspire, a call to recognise our own place in future’s history. Nolan successfully anchors his audience in space and time, making this high-falluting story seem intimate and grounded. More radically, Nolan stretches the anchoring of father/daughter relationships into new and challenging iterations; asserting that prominent individual life continues into parenthood, and that distortions in time and space cannot break this essential anchor –it can even form a pivot around which infinity can orientate and be imbued with universal significance. This is Interstellar’s greatest achievement, and is surely one to be widely commemorated in cinematic history.
N.B. (1) If Inception is a cube, where narrative levels regress inwards like walls in a maze, then Interstellar is most definitely a sphere, where narrative spirals around a subject. Remember the Endurance and its centrifugal set-up; the pivoting of infinity around a human relationship; the harsh spiral landing on Miller’s planet; the spherical entrance into the wormhole; the inverted sphere of Cooper’s Station; and of course, the Earth itself.
(2) The film’s soundtrack deserves an independent analysis. It is a challenging score which stands removed from Zimmer’s oeuvre, after Nolan told the composer to consciously depart from his previous work and collaborations. Here is an excellent article discussing it better than I can: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/why-interstellars-organ-needs-to-be-so-loud/382619/