WARNING: SPOILER ALERT! Now, you can’t say complain.
When the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar first appeared, a friend of mine noted that he wouldn’t have any interest in seeing it, aside from that fact that it was a Christopher Nolan film. The issue for my friend, apparently, is that the material seemed to have be old hat. However, I did not have that. I loved the concept of a space-faring film, set in an apocalyptic future, or nearly, with the tag line dictated by Michael Caine “we must confront the realities of interstellar travel.” It looked like the big, sweeping epic that Nolan, freed from the constraints of the Batman universe, could do well.
When I read the A.V. Club’s review, it compared it to the 1972 Soviet Union film Solaris, which I had seen and appreciated, I had a possible concern. For its legitimate brilliance, Solaris is a boring movie; don’t get me wrong, it’s moving, it’s thought-provoking, but it’s not an exciting film, nor is it intended to be. My concern for Interstellar was that it would be a three hour behemoth, slow, philosophical, with a sound story. All the signs pointed to it: Christopher Nolan is a student of film history, he has a nice touch, and as the Dark Knight trilogy showed, he enjoys playing with the audience’s expectations and ideas. Still, it could have been worse; I wouldn’t have trusted some other filmmakers like that.
What we got instead was a deep, moving, well-paced film, which discussed the themes of human extinction, space flight, and unusually for a science fiction romp, the effects of actual relativity, specifically the bending of space-time, which notably allows for Matthew McConaughey to play against three different actresses playing his daughter, for instance. We also have an American film, albeit made by British filmmakers and filmed largely in Canada, that continues the great science fiction works begun by 2001: A Space Odyssey, continued by the aforementioned Solaris (1972), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the original Star Wars trilogy, Firefly / Serenity, and of course the Star Trek franchise. However, like I said, Christopher, and no doubt his brother and collaborator Jonathan, Nolan are both students of film.
McConaughey is brilliant as the understated Cooper; he is everything you want from an anti-hero, which Cooper really is. He does what is right, but not really what he wants to do. Cooper is the man who dreads humanity’s ultimate fate, but dreads leaving his family more, and ultimately pays a heavy price for it, something conveyed not by his words, but by his eyes, his downtrodden face, and even how he walks. To counter that, Anne Hatheway’s Dr. Brand is an eternal optimist, although that also gets tested as the film progresses. Christopher Nolan mainstay Michael Caine is great, as usual. MacKenzie Foy, Jessical Chastain, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Topher Grace, Matt Damon (in an unpublicized role), and David Gyasi all play supporting roles, and as with most Nolan films, all perform excellently. However, for me, the key is the triumvirate of McCanuaghey, Hatheway, and Caine, who to me represent the core aspects of humanity: love, hope, fear, and despair, and this plays out against the surrounding cast, sometimes through connections that take place even before the film’s timeline.
Christopher Nolan wanted a soundtrack that would be free of sci-fi clichés, so he enlisted Hans Zimmer with a one page request; the request made no reference to science fiction, space opera, or anything abstract; it was all about a man’s relationship with his son. When Zimmer’s nugget impressed Nolan, Nolan revealed that (a) it was science fiction, and (b) the son was actually a daughter. Hans Zimmer then enlisted Roger Sayer*, an accomplished organist, to play the massive organ at London’s Temple Church, which provides the backbone to the film’s amazing score; a score which complements the amazing soundtracks of sci-fi films past. It also uses the score to let us know where we are, establish connections between characters, and remind us of how lonely space is.
I don’t know if this is the first film to have a physicist as an executive producer, but it is certainly one of the few if it isn’t; Kip Thorne, attached to the project before even Christopher Nolan, made him adhere to the laws of physics, with any conjecture being within reasonable limits and based on actual laws of physics. The result is a science fiction film which seems like it could actually happen; the space suits are both modern, but updated for the future (i.e. they look like the ones today, but are slimmer and designed to allow more movement), the ship looks like it could actually exist, given some advancements in the next fifty years, and the depressing nature of the world is in line with what would happen if the world took a turn for the worse. However, the most striking visual is the supermassive black hole; to make it work, they have it swallowing a star, which does happen in reality, and that makes it scary and beautiful to behold; a visual, by the way, that led Kip Thorne to review his work on supermassive black holes, and write a paper on it for the physics community, and another for the visual effects industry.
However, as with all great films, Interstellar succeeds because of the synergy when all these elements come together. For instance, the ship (a model) flying through the vastness of space (CG visual effects), following a shot of Matthew McConaughey staring into the black vastness of space, coupled with a lone piano playing precious few, ever so slightly dissonate notes conveys the loneliness of space, where our characters have gone, and how far from home they are, far more than any of them do alone. The whole film works because of how well each element binds with every other one. Like many filmmakers who utilize long run times, Nolan does not waste a moment, nor can I see any moment that should be cut from the film. Perhaps its greatest asset is its ability to kick start discussions about physics, family, and the themes of the film, long after the film is over.
*Of note, Roger Sayer was excited to use the organ as part of the soundtrack for music instead of being used to convey horror, the typical use for it.