This may be the purest 'Nolan' film, next to the Prestige and Memento. I say pure because his other films are genre films: Inosmnia is a noir, Inception is a heist, and the Dark Knight Trilogy are super hero movies. In each case Nolan brilliantly bends the genre to his fancy and in doing so shows us more about those genres. But where is the genre comparison for the Prestige? For Memento?
And that brings us to Interstellar.
In this film, Nolan makes the bold proclamation that 'love is the one thing that transcends time and space.' The entirety of the film's technique is dedicated to this pledge.
We have several instances of bold filmic technique that advance the film's core idea. In order to make a film about love, we have to be inside the hearts of the characters, and one character in particular: the protagonist. To accomplish this, Nolan uses editing -- the very essence of film as an art form -- to brilliant effect. He manages to use a singular editorial decision to place the sorrow of leaving with the coming adventure. How many times in a hero's journey do we see the cost of leaving?
Another technique Nolan uses are first person subjective shots in the midst of action. In IMAX, these shots present the purity of the experience: a camera rushing towards water, underneath a wave, beneath frozen caves... all of these are used to push the viewer to the edges of visceral experience.
The film uses silence in bold ways that highlight the danger of space as well as refocus the audience to the frame. As a result, when silence is interspersed in the midst of ongoing sequences, it develops the rhythm of morse code, conveying meaning in the midst of action.
"Time as a resource" is another major component of the film's ideas. Nolan posits that time and love related, if not altogether connected. The film features several motifs of clocks and time. Consider that the Endurance itself, a circular ship with TWELVE pods, is constantly rotating, and in silhouette bears strong resemblance to a watch. That the Endurance is constantly rotating conveys to the audience subconsciously the notion of time... ticking and ticking as we move farther from home. The climactic sequence involving the Endurance signifies a shift in how time is being used in the film, in that the characters' constant fear of it has now given way to a stronger desire -- the desire to reach through time, to command it through connection with the Other. This gives way to a new visualization of time -- ironically a place that is of complete and utter silence.
So we have motifs of clocks, silence acting as morse code, and visceral editing that draws us deeply into the emotions of the experience. But none of this would work without Zimmer's score, which I view as the composer's crowning achievement to date. I say this because a composer's job is not simply to make beautiful music, but to harmonize his music with the images the director has managed to put upon screen. There are elements of this synchronicity of image and sound that are truly astounding, terrible and terrific in their power. In the climactic sequence involving the Endurance, the score becomes pure emotion, displaying chord progressions heretofore unglimpsed. It is not an accident that the whole movie seems to stop spinning and reach a moment of profound stillness at this point. All things: gravity, time, sorrow, and evil, converge upon this singular point. As the Endurance rotates, the Ranger synchronizes with its motion, and the two ships in silhouette appear to be the hands of a watch.
Interstellar is a film about huge ideas but those ideas constantly resolve to the simplest version of their execution. Its visual effects are seamless. How many people are discussing how this film literally NEVER gives you cause to doubt its reality? Not one shot. In Gravity there are shots that on repeat viewing appeared to be a bit shaky, but that's because it is really a giant animated movie. Interstellar is a reality of heightened intensity and the director has summoned all of his collaborators to the highest essence of their skill to achieve this.
A marvel of cinematic execution, the film's quality is revealed to be high above all current cinema when one considers what it is about
. This film owes so much of a debt to one of Nolan's favorites, Koyaanisqatsi.
Nolan on Koyaanisqatsi:
An incredible document of how man’s greatest endeavors have unsettling consequences. Art, not propaganda, emotional, not didactic; it doesn’t tell you what to think—it tells you what to think about.
John Lithgow's character comments that "it's about the Why... don't trust the right thing done for the wrong reason." Nolan invites us to ponder the film's reality -- of science awry, of our culture's preoccupation with apps and gadgetry over what really needs to be done. When we look at this reality, of dust and corn, we have to ask, "why?" How did we get here? What is this reality telling us about our own?
An implicit answer is the divorce between science and the supernatural. Not supernatural in terms of bogeymen and vengeful gods, but super
-natural, a word literally meaning that which is above nature. As a race, we proceed underneath the myth that we can master nature, that we can take it apart like a watch, learn its true names, and build something better in its stead. We use this myth to justify the harm we've done to the world, much of which comes from the wasteful production of those gadgets.
Is science to blame?
No, says Nolan. It is us, "what we bring into it." We as a society have divorced science from its super-natural origins, and because of that science is unable to answer the "why." This dark vision of modern day humanity is present in every single villain's viewpoint in the Dark Knight movies, and is far from optimistic.
But it's not enough to bring up old ideas for Nolan. He has to make it extraordinary. So rather than do what he has done before, he tells us that this is just one half of the equation, literally. One half IS the investigation of the material world. But the other half is that mysterious force that binds us together, which originates from a source we cannot glimpse. Again, we return to the word supernatural
, which is used at choice moments during the film. This is not mindless superstition, but a movement towards the Platonic notion of philosophy, in which before we act we must consider the 'why' of a thing. For Plato, there was a Prime Mover and First Cause that existed outside of the sensory realm, and this is by definition supernatural.
So Nolan shows us a world ravaged by ourselves. He gives us an Interstellar journey across time and space. We literally transcend time and space with Cooper. And in the end, it's the simplest form of the idea. What can seize hands of a watch? What can rage, rage against the vicious onslaught of time? What can reverse the dying of the light?
Love. A promise. A father. A daughter.
Best of all is that Nolan uses the story, the formal elements of the film, and our own place and time to cause us to reflect. In this he has achieved a film of pure and utter excellence. As I lay awake in bed last night, the film's meanings slid into firm place, where after the first viewing my brain was an amorphous pile of emotionally charged white matter. Each successive contemplation unsheathed another layer of the film. I was unable to sleep. Like the characters, I was unable to go gently into that good night.