The Reign of ‘Interstellar’
by Gareth Sénèque
“I will not be just a tourist in the world of images”
– Anaïs Nin
It feels like an act of hubris to write something about the cinematic achievement that is Interstellar. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom, the film effectively closes out the genre. It is a golden halo sitting on the finely etched skull of Science Fiction. What could possibly be said about such a grand synthesis of sight, mind, and memory?
A practical matter first: I saw the film at an IMAX theatre. Shot in 70mm film, the image occupies the entire screen. Three rows from the front and you have nowhere to hide. Wormholes, McConaughey’s tears, an undead Matt Damon, all these things I experienced in a visceral, fundamental way. I don’t know what it would be like at your local multiplex, let alone on your television set. I can only estimate that the loss of grandeur would be relative to the scale of your imaginative investment. When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, I was there. The impact on my preadolescent mind was profound despite seeing the film as a reconstructed analog signal displayed on a small, round television. If you’re able to both allow another’s story to transport you and experience it through the medium most intended you’ll be taken there on automatic stilts, but satisfying only one of those criteria – the willingness to give yourself over to the experience, should be all that’s needed to feel the vastness of the message.
IMAX 70mm film will not last forever. Chris Nolan champions the format, and his clout is one of the few things keeping it alive as most cinemas move toward completely digital projection. In terms of sheer fidelity, analog IMAX film is unsurpassed. Of course, this fact won’t last forever either. It is conceivable that digital will catch up. But the process of making, editing and cutting the film will change. So necessarily the films will themselves change too – angles, light, colour – the countless minor decisions made in editing suites everywhere that contribute to the final product. But to be clear, a giant reel flown to the home of an IMAX theatre under high security is very much an artefact of the present. We will have something new, but this new thing will be different. So Interstellar not only closes out the genre, but perhaps the format too.
I would like to acknowledge rather than dwell on matters of plot. We’re shown a dying earth, a hero chosen by unseen forces, a ship sent into a galactic singularity, an initial failure, Damon’s betrayal, sacrifice, epiphany, a dimensional connection between father and daughter, triumph, a final meeting, one last trip to the stars. The message that runs the length of the film is that every saviour’s is a one-way ticket and that love is science’s missing link.
Interstellar is a film that transcends the culture that produced it. There is not the density of reference in something like say Prometheus, a film similarly themed but in a way justified only by the contingency of you having had that early memory of seeing the crew in Alien climbing into the wedge of a ship housing the space jockey’s turreted throne, later seeing the big blue engineer do the same thing, completing the loop – Alien to Prometheus, 1979 to 2012. Interstellar stands alone, a stylistic and thematic evolution of all that has come before it, a thing connected to its past by a single strand of cultural memory rather than an element in a matrix of artefacts referring to each other.
When did Nolan really nail it? Scene: tension built slowly like a biblical tomb, “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, a lone rotating ship held in the vast, dark womb of space, a galactic exit taken for stakes. I wanted to scream at the screen and cry and draw my lungs through my opened chest. This is the timelessness of absolute reference, something that popular culture embedded in its own circumstances cannot achieve. This is also Nolan’s peak, an effort that casts his and others into shadow. Interstellar is the simulation that replaces the original.
I will take a step back from an impulse to offer praise I find difficult to restrain and attempt to offer a little substance to my argument. As a viewer, yours is the experience on the other end of a system of controlled variables staggering in both number and complexity. Thousands of cast and crew, tens of thousands of hours of work, a couple hundred million dollars, trillions of decisions by each person involved at every passing millisecond of the film’s production, and all these things subatomically comprised of an infinity of quanta vibrating in ways our mathematics has just begun to understand. It is this totality that links the fact of the film and its otherwise irreconcilable themes of science and love.
This system can be analysed in multiple ways. You can understand it through poetry, through vivid descriptions of cosmic aloneness, through the economics of filmmaking, through the psychology of personal and professional choice, or through the fundamental mathematics that attempts to to reconcile the two conflicting branches of our physics, gravity and quantum mechanics. In each case we’re describing the same thing, different segments of the same system, but in ways appropriate to the context in which the discussion is taking place. Truly understanding this is the only way to reconcile the roles of science and love in the film.
Interstellar depicts love as an algorithm that cuts across time, that parses infinity in a cinematic minute. It is the solution to the problem of too much information, a method by which that what matters is chosen. And this problem apparently afflicts even humans who’ve evolved to exist in five dimensions.
For art, any art, to deal with the theme of love is about as ballsy and bold a gesture as is possible within the domain of creative expression. Why? Because how the fuck do you represent the one thing that is at once common to most of the six billion souls currently orbiting our sun but also utterly personal, the most personal thing, mediated by an individual’s experience of life and memory and sense. Is the love of the street cleaner the love of the astrophysicist? Is it an exclusively human phenomena? What of the love of a mother for her cub? Whether you’re representing it in language or on a canvas or in a sermon the stakes are high, for your credibility, for the contribution to the stream culture your gesture makes, however minor. And it is here that Interstellar makes it’s largest gamble.
Nolan could have simply made his own 2001, all technical psychedelia and meaning pushed to the edge of awareness, what Ezra Pound described as ‘circumambient peripherization’ in Joyce’s final work. He could have trimmed the dialog of all emotional fat and had a spectacle with no heart, a new map of the grey cerebrum Kubrick first charted all those years ago. And we, the viewer, could have been mere tourist in this world of images. Instead he imbues the story with human meaning, with family, sacrifice, loss, virtues and facts lost on the aimlessly narcissistic, on scientism’s intellectual parasites. The propellant that casts the craft into space is not the will to explore for its own sake, but rather what Matt Damon’s character describes as the desire to avoid death, to avoid having to face that moment where your children superimpose themselves on your final image of life and all you feel is your failure to protect them.
The near-clairvoyant act of balancing the film’s humanity with the story’s mechanical tension, of shepherding the viewer between scenes and acts with control sufficient to elicit gaping-maw disbelief and rolling tears, both in myself and in those seated around me, is a feat unmatched in modern filmmaking. There are of course technical methods employed to do this, the perfect quantity of fast cuts, dialog-as-exposition, claustrophobic close-camera work, fatherly humour, limiting the use of grand establishing shots to moments of true release. But again this film is an example of a shiny object whose constituent parts, the bolts, plates, screws and rivets are so perfectly fixed together that they disappear under the weight of the thing they collectively represent. This is why three hours can pass without you remembering to empty your bladder or check your phone. Of course, not all viewers feel this way. Indeed many reviewers seem to have said otherwise. But you cannot control for individual pathology, and I’d suggest these folk require less Youtube and perhaps a gentle dose of pharmaceutical stimulants, to aid with their concentration. Good art is rare, and great art out of Hollywood on the budgetary scale of small nations is, well, almost without precedent.
The saviour’s fate I mentioned earlier is Cooper’s quest without end. He misses those 23 years of his children’s lives after the first planetary landing. He becomes both instrumental to but also entirely absent from earth’s salvation; he arrives home when home has evolved into a space station in Saturn’s orbit, complete with a clean replica of his old farmhouse. This is the true measure of his sacrifice – his is a path that diverges from and can never rejoin that of the family and species he has saved. This is why the film concludes as it does, with Murph sending him away, back on his path. And like many moments in the script, a once-oversold platitude is redeemed through juxtaposition: an old daughter says to her young father that no parent should watch their child die.
And so our hero leaves once again, a single-shot mission to rescue another from the only true terror beyond death: loneliness, the feeling that under a night’s stars our voice calls out into silence.