The most common critique of Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it is cold, detached. Clinical. Kubrick had no emotional investment in his characters in that movie, and they only served as catalysts for the plot. Interstellar is director Christopher Nolan’s epic, sweeping counterpoint to Kubrick’s coldness. It seems clear to me that Nolan was not only inspired by, but was possibly obsessed with Kubrick’s film while he crafted his own.
Interstellar tells the story of humankind’s attempt to find a new home among the stars, on the heels of society’s imminent collapse; all spurred by Earth’s dwindling ability to sustain life. Where Kubrick’s film lacked any human emotional contact, Interstellar is steeped in it. Love is supposedly the last unknown scientific quantity the universe has to reveal to humans and is the invisible bonding agent that can ultimately save us. Unfortunately, it is this plot point that is the weakest link in the film. The attempt to explain the mysteries of human emotion in terms of scientific detail causes Interstellar to come off the tracks, if only a little. But don’t misunderstand. What I have just described above is arguably the only flaw in a work of art that is breathtaking and humbling to behold. This period of Nolan’s career (from, say, The Dark Knight through Interstellar) has proven his mastery of latter day epic film making in the grandest of scales. That he is able to produce huge summer blockbuster-type films that explore the human condition with both heart and brains is something to be appreciated and cherished.
In addition to Tina Turner’s secondhand emotion, Nolan also weaves several of his other pet ideas into Interstellar. Most intriguing to me? His fixation with time shifts, specifically the effects of relativity at the speed of light.
Nolan seems uniquely fascinated by the concept of some characters experiencing only hours of their lives, while other characters experience years, even decades, in that same narrative window. He most notably grappled with one aspect of this in Inception, only there he used the thematic device of dreams to play with our perception of time. Different from Interstellar by being unreal and ultimately reversible, the time-dilation there was dramatized to show that the dreamers moved progressively slower through time in each level of their shared consciousness. Radically different, yet with the same core idea, is the plot of Memento. The protagonist in that film is essentially stuck in time, because he has no way of making new memories. While everyone around Leonard Shelby grows and changes with the passing of time, he is mentally the same as he was yesterday, a month ago, and even years ago. Like the black hole in Interstellar, and dreams in Inception, memory itself causes people in the film to operate on different timelines.
With Interstellar, the visual effects are breathtaking. Made with the incalculable help of literally hundreds of digital artists and a handful of science advisors, Nolan really has updated 2001 for the year 2014. Recently, Kubrick’s epic has come under fire against charges that the movie is starting to seem dated after 40 years. I think that case can be made with regard to the “beyond the infinite” laser light show in the last third of the film, but the rest of it holds up. (Especially any shot containing heavenly bodies or the mechanics of human beings moving in three-dimensional space.) Watching Interstellar, I sat dumbfounded in the theater as the black hole that figures prominently (and is nicknamed Gargantua) is seen for the first time – I felt the barest of hints of what it must have been like to behold the groundbreaking special effects that Douglas Trumbull assembled for Kubrick’s 1968 classic. I say just the “barest of hints” because, at the same time I was awed, the over reliance on CGI in today’s movies has jaded me to its very presence.
In addition to the visuals, no discussion of Interstellar would be complete without mention of Hans Zimmer’s pulsating, beautiful score. The composer’s collaboration with Nolan on The Dark Knight was singular, and here he has taken earlier influences to craft something uniquely wondrous. Within the first three minutes of the film, Zimmer uses the pipe organ in such a way that it must be evoking a piece famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Philip Glass is likely another of Zimmer’s influences, and is himself an artist of singular brilliance. Anyone who has heard any of Glass’ work on Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy of films will hear exactly what I mean.
Interstellar isn’t a perfect film, but by addressing humanity’s existential questions with a profound sense of wonder at the natural world, it achieves what so many science fiction films only aspire to, if they even try at all. Christopher Nolan’s movie expounds on many mysteries in the universe, but it also acknowledges the greatest mystery of all: the very fact of life in the first place.