Paramount/Warner Bros./Legendary (2014) 169 min. PG-13
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema; Editing: Lee Smith
Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Garry Fettis
Costumes: Mary Zophres;Score: Hans Zimmer
Stars: Matthew McConaughey (Cooper), Anne Hathaway (Amelia Brand), Jessica Chastain (Murphy), Michael Caine (Prof. Brand), Wes Bentley (Doyle), Matt Damon (Dr. Mann), Casey Affleck (Tom), MacKenzie Foy (young Murphy), David Gyasi (Romilly), John Lithgow (Donald), Topher Grace (Getty), Ellen Burstyn (old Murphy)
Jingoistic homespun set in space, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar feels very loosey-goosey in its pseudo-intellectual way, propounding the universal truths as it does, while at the same time immersing itself in nativist and isolationist sympathies. It’s an unrestrained celebration of America’s expansionist policies, exalting the idea of manifest destiny by extending Western civilization’s never-ceasing spread. This time, we’re exhorted to push upwards, into the stars, in order to open up virgin territory ripe for the plucking to a whole new space age of exploration. Once depletion of this planet’s resources is complete, we set out for new lands and new civilizations to conquer, stripping their resources and raping the environment anew. Apparently it’s open season for colonization when the focus is outside the current ecosphere.
The country’s great age of empire building is mourned in Interstellar as if it were paradise lost, with the movie setting out to demonstrate how far we’ve fallen from the pioneering spirit the country was founded on. But for all its patriotic invocation of the past, the script by Nolan and brother Jonathan, still chooses to exercise selective memory when it comes to assessing the historical legacy of expansionism so it’s likely many will be as taken aback as I was by how blasély Interstellar’s script champions America for her less than stellar record of colonizing other lands. The movie is careful to ensure that all the habitable planets we’re seen touching down on are devoid of other life forms we’d have to supplant, ousting them from their ancestral lands the way we historically have here on earth. And though these airborne arks carry incubated human eggs to seed other planets there isn’t any mention of what’s to become of earth’s other myriad animal and plant life once we cut and run. Older movies along similar lines focused on manned space missions to save our planet. Interstellar has abandoned the proposition that the earth can be saved, advocating instead a complete and total exodus, with humanity picking up wholesale and hightailing it off the surface in search of greener pastures.
But while the existence of multiple colonies is mentioned, there’s no feasible way any space station could transport every human off earth. And with no explanation forthcoming as to who or how certain people have been selected to be whisked away to the cosmos, we’re left to wonder at the sort of lotto drawing that determined the most viable candidates. It’s unlikely for instance that the U.S.’s own nationally funded space program would have any vested interest in removing the foreign hordes of other countries to safety once the planet starts to buckle. With the entire universe to play around in, Interstellar’s view of our own ball of dirt is entirely too blinkered, the limits of life seemingly bordered by the four corners of a small farm belt in the Midwest. Industrious Americans appear to be the last Darwinian holdouts to withstand the worldwide blight and attendant famine, despite the nomadic native populations in far more inhospitable regions who have proven themselves capable of thriving under worse conditions since time immemorial.
Shot by Hoyte van Hoytema in anamorphic 35 mm and IMAX after the style of NASA documentaries, Interstellar has two near-great sequences playing on human extremes, both our sense of wonder and primal terror. First when Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper blasts off into the stars, going where no man has gone before, through the wormhole to catch a peek into the great unknown beyond the veil, we’re rocketing right alongside him, seeing what lies on the other side of the looking glass. Interstellar conceptualizes the distortion of spacetime as a rotating funnel, turning, bending and stretching in all directions at once and the accompanying visuals seem inspired equal parts by those plasma beings in The Abyss and that psychedelic acid trip made by the sole surviving astronaut near the end of 2001. Indeed, Interstellar’s link with Kubrick’s opus is quite strong, with the talking, ex-marine TARS machine recalling both the HAL 9000 with its very human personality, and the nondescript zinc obelisk design of those black slabs that inspired 2001’s journey to Jupiter in the first place.
Anne Hathaway’s astronaut Amelia Brand professes her belief that nature is not evil in itself but that 300 foot rogue wave that blindsides the mission on the first planet they touch down on, as Hans Zimmer’s symphonic score batters us into insensibility, would beg to differ. Bearing down on them inexorably, it taps into man’s primal terror of nature’s wrath by drawing on our collective memory of so many similar tsunamis in recent years. If nature weren’t cruel mankind wouldn’t be left starving to death and choking on the inch-thick dust coating the thinning oxygen no longer produced by the planet’s once plentiful plant life. Gaia herself seems to revolt, turning on the human species that have proven such poor custodians of the earth.
Early on, Interstellar suggests we’re going on a planet hopping expedition akin to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” finding one too cold and one too hot, one too wet and one too dry, before we ever get to the best of all possible worlds, but given the infinite number of parallel universes, this possible premise pulls up short. Still, with all the talk about failed crops, fertilized embryos and attempts to seed other planets, at least this grand ole opry in space has the good sense to end on a half humorous note, as Coop sets out to do what gramps John Lithgow had advised early on, planting more than his flag as he hooks back up with Brand to begin repopulating the barren new planet they’ve staked out for little America, like an interstellar Adam and Eve.
Philip Kaufmann’s The Right Stuff used western iconography to link America’s first generation of space cowboys to the adventurous, exploratory spirit of our pioneering past and Interstellar is striving for something along similar lines by incorporating the visual look of the past in order to anchor our view of the unspecified future in which it’s set (“We’ve forgotten who we are – pioneers, explorers, not caretakers.”). For their part, the testimonials that dot the opening scenes are intended to put us in the same frame of mind as a PBS documentary on the greatest generation (some were clipped directly from Ken Burn’s 2012 The Dust Bowl), the imagery making us wonder for a moment if we’re in the present or the past. Indeed, centuries of planting have depleted the nutrients and loosened the topsoil of America’s farm belt, turning the Midwest into another Dust Bowl and leaving earth’s inhabitants to reap the bitter harvest they’ve sown. The attempt of the higher intelligence to communicate with us through the whispering of the corn recalls other similarly supernatural, quintessentially agricultural tracts, cross-referencing the crop circles in Signs and the baseball diamond in Field of Dreams.
Mcconaughey amassed his qualifications for this film by starring in 1997’s Contact, which was also produced by Lynda Obst, who collaborated with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on the premise for Interstellar. With his laconic Texas accent and laid back good ol’ boy charm, Matthew Mcconaughey easily invokes other actors that have come to embody the Western tradition. Conveniently named ‘Cooper,’ he’s meant to be a man out of his own time, born forty years too late. As an astronaut farmer, he’s the last bastion of self-reliant, bedrock American values. And while he’s beginning to resemble Woody Harrelson, his cast mate on HBO’s True Detective, to an alarming degree these days, Mcconaughey still boasts a chiseled in granite profile that might have stepped straight down off Mt. Rushmore. Recognizing this, the superintelligence seems to have chosen him the way the extraterrestrials did Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, directing him to NASA like a homing pigeon. While it purports to have Coop question what he’s giving up, Interstellar actually upholds the single-minded philosophy of the workaholic father as a national necessity in times of need, fulfilling ‘Newton’s third law’ about humans never getting anywhere without first leaving something behind to lighten the load. Having him selflessly sacrifice his family for the greater good in order to reclaim the faded glory of his flyboy days, Coop willingly forsakes the life we see passing him by on video in time-lapse fashion, allowing us to flash forward through decades in a montage matter of minutes as people age, grow old and die out under Lee Smith’s editing.
With his brother as co-writer and wife as co-producer, the strong feeling Nolan betrays here for the importance of family ties is understandable, but Interstellar acquires an ickily Oedipal, Benjamin Buttonish aura with the father remaining eternally young while his kids keep growing into adults, until eventually they’re the same age he was when he left, then older. Perhaps because the visual scheme seems so similar, I couldn’t get out of my head that final scene in Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner was reunited with his father in the interest of resolving his daddy issues, despite the fact that the man has had his youth restored to him in the afterlife and looks to be younger than his son. The influence of gravity and time throws all the normal age elements out of synch, and perhaps this is meant to humanize parents in the eyes of their children, by pointing up their mortality. It’s impossible to be blinded by their stature as authority figures when they’re younger than you are.
The video journals beamed to Coop relay all he’s missed out on, though surely by the time he gets them (on the other side of the wormhole), centuries must have passed, like the once bright light of long dead supernovas that are only now reaching our skyline, millennia after they ceased to exist. All the same, Interstellar’s point is that, like film, these documents are the closest humans have yet come to circumventing the spacetime continuum successfully, capturing fleeting moments that go by far too fast for us to appreciate. Frozen forever on film (in the interest of preserving the endangered format, some prints of Interstellar were issued on film stock to theaters still equipped to project it), these shadows on screen become ‘ghosts,’ the same way Coop does, never aging, an increasingly dim, distant memory of times past, while life goes on unmindful of him all the same. His Lazarus mission intends to resurrect humanity, which is on its last legs (“Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.”), and Interstellar keeps raising the dead in one form or another, while emphasizing the importance of simple human contact by focusing on how cut off from everything astronauts like Coop are in the emotional vacuum of space, leading to psychoses in some, like Matt Damon’s symbolically named ‘Mann.’
Interstellar’s flag-waving celebration of Yankee pragmatism extends to its approach to time which is visibly manifested as a five-dimensional space that ‘we’ve created,’ feeding into the movie’s imperialist desire to master it, conquer it, bend it to our will, like diverting the course of a mighty river (as we’re told, time is a forward flow, no going backward, no returning to earth.). Apparently the untenable spacetime continuum only needed some good, old-fashioned elbow grease applied in order to run more smoothly. This desire to harness its power, circumventing the nature of time as an absolute flow, eventually results in a compromise, with Coop manipulating the watch face he gives his daughter, ticking out magnetic Morse code like a metronome as a means of communicating from the other side.
Over the course of his career, director Christopher Nolan has continually returned to such themes, betraying his ongoing interest in matters concerning time, mind-melding alternate realities, and the capability of modern technology to bend the established laws of physics in such films as Memento, The Prestige and Inception; even his dark vision of a burnt out world poised on the brink of social collapse was anticipated by his Dark Knight trilogy. Much as Alfonso Cuarón timed his Gravity last year between the incessant battering of that orbiting asteroid belt, which we could set our watches by (the way we could the ebb and flow of those waterworld waves here), the race against time Nolan cooks up for his own space movie becomes an equally sweat-inducing, heart-stopping battle to hold back the clock hands, but in a much more literal way. Few movies have played with the time element as cleverly in theory (if less in demonstrable fact) as this one initially promises to, with the fluctuating gravitational fields of each of its alternate earths equating the spare hours spent gathering intel on their surface to decades elapsing in human years back home.
Disappointingly however, Nolan, who crafted one of the most imaginative movies of the first decade of this brave new century with Memento, exploding the cinematic equivalent of the traditional Aristotelian unities by unfolding his film backward, moving forward in time by rewinding, makes no effort to extend his conceptual approach to time here in an equally exciting, creative, innovative way. His use of the medium in Interstellar remains as classical and old-fashioned as the American legacy he’s glorifying. This epic about mankind’s possible future feels unaccountably rooted in our film going past. Still it manipulates its own running time quite masterfully, so it’s unlikely you’ll notice how it runs on for nearly three hours. Nolan ensures that his movie whirs along pretty inoffensively, apart from that patently absurd bit not long after Damon’s introduction which serves as one of the worst examples of nonsensical cross cutting between two unrelated events since the bar mitzvah sequence in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Though he seemed possessed of better taste before, Nolan briefly lets his movie devolve into a phony tale of conventional heroes and villains, and for some reason Damon and Casey Affleck, baby bro of bff Ben, bookend the unkindest of the cuts.
Interstellar orbits around the importance of Gravity the same way Cuarón’s movie did, but as a constant, the one universal invariant, rather than toying with the concept of its absence in space. Consequently we don’t get to revel in the fun of watching these astronauts floating about to anywhere near the same degree we did the characters in Gravity, or even Nolan’s earlier Inception. Building on all the brouhaha surrounding Sandra Bullock belying common Hollywood wisdom by successfully anchoring a multi-million dollar action epic virtually single-handed, Interstellar, while not quite courageous enough to cast an actress in the lead, still goes out of its way to make its own gesture on a similar front, championing the contributions of women to the salvation of mankind in at least two crucial instances. Even if the film’s philosophy about love being the only thing capable of transcending space and time goes a bit gooey, it still makes an impressive point of vindicating the sort of feminine intuition which tells Brand which homing beacon they should follow to the most habitable planet despite all the analytical data to the contrary, and persuades Coop’s daughter Murphy (MacKenzie Foy) to trust her feeling that the message her ghost is trying to convey is important enough to decipher in binary code.
If we squint hard enough, we can imagine that Bullock has returned to us through the agency of long-limbed Hathaway with her similar, close-cropped space cut. And rarely has a child star matched up so well with her adult counterpart as MacKenzie Foy does here, right down to the slightly dolorous tilt of the head, even if she does seem a tad too somber to have grown into the pensive Jessica Chastain. Chastain, who already explored the metaphysical mysteries of space and time in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and stared down the apocalypse in Take Shelter, seems the ideal sort of actress for Christopher Nolan’s more cerebral, pseudo-Solaris form of sci-fi. And by linking her, Foy and Ellen Burstyn (as Old Rose) in the same line of descent, the director miraculously manages to tie together three different generations of famous, flaming Hollywood redheads in one fell swoop. This all-star interstellar apocalypse gives the phrase ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ a quite literal spin as famous faces keep popping up one after another among the other heavenly bodies, if to no feasible purpose apart from keeping viewers interested in who might drop by next. Intersteller is not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, in which celebrities pooled their resources like an emergency 24-hour telethon, zipping around trying to save the human race from extinction at the hands of a different sort of pandemic.
The space race has historically been a matter of national pride, fired by the fevered competition to get there first and Interstellar, taking umbrage, goes out of its way to refute the urban myth that the Apollo missions were faked in the interest of outdistancing the Commies. But without any pesky cosmonauts nipping at our heels (we’re helpfully informed that the Russian space program burnt itself out) we’ve lost our impetus. Space exploration is no longer regarded as imperative the way it once was. Much like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, the movie feels all the romance has gone out of the exotic notion. It’s become almost mundane. “We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Interstellar wants to raise our consciousness back up to the heavens.
The movie might have been conceived by NASA in the interest of drumming up additional funding. It plays like an extended publicity campaign, akin to Space Camp in the 80’s. Like the arts, funding for the space program is the first to get slashed in times of crises, when federal governments decree that taxes should be more profitably expended on earthly concerns like simple human survival and feeding the hungry. Interstellar however argues that our future lies in the stars, that space research is not expendable but a biological necessity if we’re to think long term about the continued survival of the species. This movie deifies NASA as mankind’s only salvation, but if its makers were genuinely interested in supporting space travel, they might have put their money where their mouth is, investing a percentage of the profits back into the program. Given the astronomical amounts ($165 million) expended on a cinematic venture like this, even when its brought in under budget, producers Nolan, wife Emma Thomas and Lynda Obst could have gone a ways toward funding a NASA space mission all by themselves.