In Christopher Nolan’s first film Doodlebug, a three-minute black-and-white short released in 1997, a man hops around his apartment like a Neanderthal thwacking at bugs with his shoe. He becomes increasingly paranoid by the societal fixtures around him—a ticking clock, a ringing phone. His sanity is slowly unraveling, like the claustrophobic narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart. Suddenly, a handkerchief glides across the floor. Thwack. Underneath, a miniature version of the bug-crazy man is revealed, himself thwacking away in an alternate dimension. The man takes aim at his mini-me, and thwack. As he relishes his triumph, a larger, grinning version of the man materializes in the background, eyeing his prey. Thwack.
Nolan has long been fascinated by the notion of interdimensional beings—or sliders—as well as the myriad ways man can manipulate space and time. He grew up fascinated by works like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, dense explorations of entropy and the lengths to which mankind will go to survive. And, whereas David Fincher has adopted the great cinematic dictator's fastidiousness, Nolan is perhaps the only filmmaker around today whose scope, or cinematic grandeur, approaches Kubrick.
On the iconic “Dawn of Man” opening of 2001, a sequence set to Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” wherein an ape, in Darwinian fashion, smashes an animal skeleton to bits before hurling a bone into the air that match-cuts into a ship floating in space, Nolan remarked:
“You look at the cut in 2001, this vast jump forward—the confidence that takes to do that is actually enormous. Would I love to do things like that in my own work? Yes. But I don’t think I have the confidence to do that. Which is why there is only one Stanley Kubrick. I do believe he is inimitable. But you can be inspired. You can be inspired to aspire to be that confident.”
Interstellar, in theaters Nov. 7, is Nolan’s attempt to reach for the cinematic stars. Yes, it’s a fascinating, wildly ambitious space odyssey, but one that’s grounded in humanity; in a father’s love for his daughter. The plot of the film runs secondary to the spectacle, and is denser than a TED conference. It’s set in a future Earth, say 50 years from now, where mankind has regressed to a primitive, agrarian society. Due to blight and dust storms, the only fertile crop is corn, and its days—and the days of the human race, which has been reduced to, seemingly, the hundreds of thousands—are numbered. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former astronaut and widower raising his kids, son Tom and daughter “Murph” (it’s McConaughey, after all), on a corn farm.
Now, Murph believes that a ghost is haunting their house, responsible for the odd paranormal occurrences that plague her—books flying off the shelves, doors slamming shut. Through some True Detective-lite investigating, they determine that the “ghost” is some sort of extraterrestrial life form sending them coded messages via gravity, which leads them to a top-secret NASA fortress operated by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), and his chic daughter, also Professor Brand (Anne Hathaway).
Cooper learns that NASA launched an expedition, dubbed the Lazarus Mission, through a wormhole just past Saturn and discovered three possibly inhabitable planets in another galaxy. So, since Cooper is presumably the only astronaut alive, he’s chosen to lead a space mission through the wormhole to survey the three planets and determine if any of them can sustain human life, and potentially be colonized. He, along with the younger Prof. Brand and a few others, set off on the spaceship Endurance for the cosmos—much to the chagrin of Murph, who’s torn up by his departure.
The second half of Interstellar is basically one giant SPOILER ALERT, so forgive the nebulousness. But the film looks absolutely stunning, shot by the inimitably-named cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (really) in IMAX 70mm and anamorphic 35mm. Kubrick once said, “A film is—or should be—more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” There are scenes of poetic beauty in Nolan’s film—calm, arresting shots of outer space and unknown worlds. There are also scenes of clunky, clichéd dialogue (at one point, Hathaway goes on a tangent about how “love” is the only force that “transcends space and time”) and scenes that only theoretical physicists will understand (characters huddled about a spacecraft debating quantum physics, wormholes, and spacetime singularities). There is Michael Caine dictating Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in voiceover over Hans Zimmer’s strident organ-heavy score while a spaceship takes off (subtlety is not in Nolan’s vocabulary), as well as a strange, Hobbesian interlude that seeks to derail the entire enterprise.
Interstellar is executive produced by Kip Thorne, the theoretical physicist who also advised another McConaughey space flick, Contact. There are numerous parallels between the two films, including the exploitation of wormholes, the father-daughter relationship, and a very important plot device (a watch that Cooper hands over to Murph, similar to the compass that McConaughey’s character gifts to Jodie Foster). But where Nolan’s film surpasses that Sagan-conceived flick is in sheer cinematic grandeur. These visuals, which must be seen in IMAX 70mm, will sear themselves into your brain, especially a thrilling sequence on a planet with crashing waves bigger than the one from Deep Impact—as will the performances, which are uniformly impressive.
Like Spielberg and Kubrick before him, not enough credit is given to the performances in Nolan films (save Heath Ledger’s), as if they’re swallowed up in these vast cinematic universes. Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn in Inception, in particular, is a career-best, and here, McConaughey delivers some of his finest work as a wounded father struggling to reconcile his mission and his abandonment of his family.
Much ink has been spilled over the wonky science and plot contrivances of Interstellar. But the “moods and feelings” are undeniable. You will come away from Nolan’s magnificent film feeling like you’ve witnessed something at once familiar and truly unique, which in today’s cinematic climate, is cause for celebration.