Once again Christopher Nolan (writer and director) and Jonathan Nolan (writer) have succeeded in changing our perceptions with the visually stunning, Interstellar (2014). If you have not seen the movie, you may want to see it before you continue to read this blog which contains elements of the plot (in other words: spoiler alert). From the dust-bowl farmers of the “not-too-distant” future, to scenes of communication across time, I could almost taste the dirt, feel the pull of acceleration and gravity, sense the disorientation of astronauts facing challenges never before experienced, and share the suffering of the families as their lives were torn apart by time and circumstance.
The brothers have collaborated before (Memento (2000) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012); see my analysis of that Batman movie here), but their story-telling gets better each time. Interstellar is subtle; the audience is never subjected to preaching dialogue or pedantic scenes; and even the plot moves along largely through visual and musical elements. Hans Zimmer’s score is perfectly suited to their method. There are times when the dialogue is nearly drowned out by the score and flood of potent images; but one soon learns to wait for the resolution of the scene to understand its implications. Many times the film reminded me of the story-telling methodology developed in the Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke collaboration, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many other contemporary writers and directors seem to believe that the audience will not understand a story told through images and so they clutter the story with explanations. The Nolan brothers have recovered an art-form as old as cave-drawings and stained-glass windows and only a few times did they stray from this style. They did choose to explain wormholes and multi-dimensional travel and I could hardly fault them in that choice.
Then there is their visual depiction of a wormhole which is one of their great innovations and one which I am sure other film creators will imitate. Any fan of science fiction will be familiar with the standard depiction of wormholes seen in the Star Trek or Stargate franchises (to mention two of many). The usual images are of a two dimensional hole or lens which opens into a multi-coloured tunnel of stretched light. The creative development in Interstellar is that the wormhole is depicted as a three dimensional sphere and the approach of the Endurance space-craft is shown in a way that resembles an object being drawn into the orbit of a planet. This imagery lends itself to several subtle variations on the theme of wormholes, black-holes, and rapid space travel. At one point the crew of the Endurance skips through the “event horizon” of a black hole to slingshot themselves across a galaxy. I look forward to seeing what other writers and directors might do with such innovations and plot possibilities.
The cast is full of big names in the movie industry and it is somewhat surprising that actors who had smaller roles seemed to be the ones most likely to fail to convince me of their character. I expect that one or two of them will look back on this movie and realize the creative opportunities that were missed.
Near the end of the movie we see a rich interpretation of communication across time and space. The imagery is somewhat reminiscent of the layering of time and space in Christopher Nolan’s movie, Inception (2010); but here the key to communication is gravity and not dreams. The Nolans have rightly recognized that one of the last great mysteries of physics is gravity and that the resolution of this mystery will bring about a truly massive revolution in scientific development. They also realistically depict that mankind may never solve this mystery. Here, their art imitates life with an image that reflects perfectly back on their art. The brothers purposely and intelligently refrain from tying-up all of the loose ends and one is left with a sense of wonder and trepidation at the next years of life we may experience on this planet. In life and art, may we continue to encourage and celebrate the risk-takers and pioneers.