It’s funny how some Nolan naysayers bemoan an apparent lack of surprise in his films, that he signposts events and twists, then throw their hands up at the apparently baffling and ludicrous climax in his latest, most expansive film yet, Interstellar. Well, were you paying attention? He was dropping breadcrumbs (or corncobs) right from the start. It’s all leading up to love in the fifth dimension, and so much more. The beauty of such high-level theoretical physics is the story maker can go further than you’d thought. If he chooses to explain (to a degree) what happens to his McConaissance pilot “beyond the infinite” in contrast to Stanley Kubrick’s philosophical head scratching in 2001 A Space Odyssey, that’s because one of the central themes, apart from rekindling the yearning to explore, is the human capacity to love.
Christopher Nolan, with each advance in scale and scope in his films, has become the caretaker generation of his film idols. In a Hollywood of franchises and the lowest common denominator, there is a need for more film makers to be as bold. I was enthralled, gripped, moved and intrigued by Interstellar. It was science seemingly made easy, yet eye opening. Grounded by human foibles, in space and on a crop blighted Earth, where teachers have banned old federal textbooks (I thought that was an interesting aside – what is taught elsewhere?) in favour of writing the Apollo Moon missions off as propaganda, designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union (a nice sly wink to the Kubrick conspiracy theory).
Matthew McConaughey is Cooper / Coop, former NASA test pilot, now frustrated farmer, – “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” While his son Tom is content to plough on, his sparky daughter Murph (a brilliant Mackenzie Foy) shares his love of science. When mysterious signals generated by a gravitational anomaly in her bedroom (shades of Amelia Pond’s crack in the bedroom wall from Doctor Who) lead them to the now underground, top secret Nasa, Cooper is offered an incredible opportunity, yet impossible wrench – save the human race, or stay with his kids, and watch them choke as the Earth’s oxygen supply dwindles away.
One of the most affecting and awe inspiring scenes is the difficult attempt Coop makes to square his decision with a tearful Murph, before she runs after his pick up as it takes off up the farm’s path, overlayed with a mission countdown and the powerful space craft’s take off ignition, that thunders into your bootstraps.
Once in space, the team, comprised of professor Michael Caine’s biologist daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and multi-purpose monolithic robots CASE and TARS, are tasked with two plans: either secure one of three habitable planets discovered by the previous “Lazarus” explorers on the other side of mysterious, miraculous even, wormhole, so that Brand Snr (and latterly a grown Murph, played by Jessica Chastain) can finalise his equation that will enable the remaining population to leave our dusty home; or failing this plan, to begin a new colony with frozen embryos.
From here on in, it is impossible to discuss the plot without giving anything away, which leaves us with the themes, as discussed earlier, performances, and technical aspects of the film. Christopher and brother Jonah’s screenplay tacitly balances scientific curiosity and the survival extinct against the power of love as a fundamental part of the human equation. A key quote between Brand and Coop concerns evil in nature – it doesn’t exist, it’s there to be feared sometimes, but as Malick’s soldier mused in The Thin Red Line, there’s only what we bring into the world. The film’s character’s struggle with loneliness, hope, despair, time’s winged arrow, and much more – it’s surprising how much the film can address. The film is long, but it simply flew by, there are no dull longueurs.
Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who was also consultant on Rober Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact, not only advised on the central theories of warped space time, he is also responsible for the revised look of the black hole that plays a central part, Gargantua. The explorers space craft Endurance is a tiny, revolving speck against such behemoths, like Carl Sagan’s dandelion craft from TV series Cosmos. Special effects are grounded in model work, large practical sets and craft, locations and front projection – what the actors see out of their spacecraft window is what we see. And it is flawless.
A thrilling journey through glowing space “debris” is intercut with Jessica Chastain’s character levelling a corn crop to persuade others to safety (If you burn it, they will leave?) that recalls the “firefly” effect described by astronaut John Glenn, intercut with aboriginal fire sparks from Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, one of many influences on Nolan’s film.
But ultimately, this is also a film about the longing for contact, on a human scale. The working title was Flora’s Letter, named for one of Nolan’s children (each other child has been used thus with previous projects). On requesting the score (very good) from Hans Zimmer, he presented the project as a precis about a father who leaves on an important job, with two key lines – “I’ll come back” “When?” and quoting a remark from Zimmer himself: “Once your children are born, you can never look at yourself through your eyes any more, you always look at yourself through their eyes.” That line reimagined as Coop’s enigmatic “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.”
The future is what we make it, Nolan seems to be saying. Endlessly, perhaps, with that Dylan Thomas villanelle:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.