Ask any Chris Nolan fan what they like about ”Inception”, ”Memento” and (to a lesser extent) the ”Dark Knight” trilogy and the word ‘layers’ will inevitably come up. Nolan and frequent co-writer/brother Jonah build in details from the big picture on down like few other directors. It gives his work the unique quality not just of being endlessly rewatchable, but giving you something new every time you watch.
And here’s the biggest example of the levels within his latest globe-stopper, ”Interstellar”. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, Hollywood had an expansionist, exploratory feel. Science fiction like ”2001: A Space Odyssey”, ”Silent Running” and ”Planet of the Apes” asked big questions and intrigued a generation of moviegoers and directors.
They existed because people in charge of greenlighting scripts were interested in making money by bringing good stories to the screen instead of by signing a thousand backend licensing deals on a superhero or TV show. In the ensuing decades, movies have become as protectionist and risk-averse as space exploration.
Both the content of the film and the creative approach Nolan takes (thanks to the clout he’s garnered from a superhero franchise, ironically) are love letters to another time when scientists, politicians and Hollywood executives all understood that reaching for the stars could create something special that went further than the next quarterly profit statement. We climbed down out of the trees and suddenly we were intelligent and curious enough to launch spaceships to other worlds and dream about what we might find. As Interstellar asks, what happened?
In a world some unspecified time in the future, curiosity has given way to need. The Earth is dying and we’re running out of food, but Nolan grounds everything in a refreshing reality where people still wear jeans, drink beer and drive trucks. There isn’t a hoverboard, silver jumpsuit or whooshing metal door in sight.
One occupant of the now-doomed human race is former test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), now a farmer like so many others. As one character says in one of the film’s most insightful and prescient lines ‘we didn’t run out of TVs, we ran out of food’.
Amid worries about increasing dust storms, failing crops and his kids’ performance at school, Cooper and his cute daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) are trying to get to the bottom of strange phenomena at their cornfield farmhouse. When it leads them to a chainlink fence and razor wire out in the desert, they know they’ve stumbled upon something serious – especially when they’re taken prisoner and dragged inside under guard.
Cooper there meets the last remaining vestiges of the original NASA who tell him of an incredible discovery and subsequent plan. A wormhole has opened up near Saturn, apparently the result of an intelligent race somewhere in the universe. What’s more, 12 ships have already gone through, each carrying a single astronaut to search out planets that might serve as candidates for humanity’s new home.
Led by his old mentor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper is asked to lead the mission piloting the Endurance, following the 12 scouts to collect their data about the best choice and set up a new Earth. With him are Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway), Romily (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and the AI robot TARS – the science geek’s version of R2D2.
At nearly three hours, the Nolans’ script gives the mission and the parallel drama at home plenty of room to breathe and inhabit the plot. Just like the made up rules of dream-time in Inception, Interstellar knows and uses the real-world physics of how speed and distance affect time and uses it to tell a rollicking adventure tale. When the Endurance makes its first stop, its proximity to the other end of the wormhole means years pass back on Earth in the minutes the crew has to find and retrieve the beacon from the scout mission.
When Cooper and Brand return the landing craft back to the Endurance orbiting above, they’re heartbroken to find 23 years has passed. Romily is an old man and messages from home show his son Tom all grown up in the form of Casey Affleck, who tells him that because everyone considered the mission lost, he’s had to let Cooper go. When Murph finally sends a transmission, now grown up in the form of Jessica Chastain, it’s to break his heart all over again because he promised her he’d be back and she’s now the same age as him.
The crew has no choice but to press ahead amid the agony of loss, knowing they’re humanity’s last hope. But back home, Murph starts to wonder if the strange happenings in her house when she was a girl might be the key to the whole mystery of where her father is and the future of the world.
Like in every Chris Nolan film, the story is wound tighter than a drum. The levels he layers in to such good effect mean not a single word or gesture is wasted. Everything matters somewhere and the story construction is like that of a Swiss watch.
Then there’s the telling of the story, using sound and image like no other director working today. Hans Zimmer’s choral, orchestral score is as melancholy as it is majestic, and the visuals of spaceflight will turn you into a ten year old kid again, watching ”Star Wars”, the 1969 moon landing (which there’s a fun joke about) or watching ”Flash Gordon” in 1950s serials.
It’s no mean feat to impress with images of space when it seems every second blockbuster has a space borne battle or alien invasion, but Interstellar contains the most beautiful, haunting and realistic-looking space scenery since ”2001”.
And amid all the emotion and cinematic technique to sweep you away in sound and vision is Nolan’s other trademark – thrilling ideas packaged for mass consumption that make you feel smart for getting them. While musing about whether love is real since we can’t measure or capture it, Brand (Hathaway) wonders aloud whether it’s a literal other dimension to reality (look up string theory and get comfortable).
Despite the fact that Nolan’s work is a universe away from the endless superhero comic book pap we’re endlessly subjected to, he’s like a one-man Marvel in that he keeps getting bigger and better with each film, increasingly against the odds. ”Interstellar” is visually, conceptually, narratively and creatively brilliant, a film that not only stays with you but which you’ll want to revisit again and again.
Art’s power over society, technology and invention is well known to sociologists. We all know about great engineers or entrepreneurs who loved sci-fi as kids and wanted to invent the tools they saw that became the mobile phone, space shuttle or robot vacuum cleaner of today.
If a new generation gets us back to our roots of exploration and believing in science instead of cutting space agency budgets and teaching creationism in schools, ”Interstellar” might well be one of the influences that drives them.