Christopher Nolan is, in many ways, the most unique and unusual blockbuster director currently working in Hollywood. He is a man of old-school tastes and very specific sensibilities that somehow snuck into the mainstream and became something of a household name. With his Dark Knight Trilogy he singlehandedly reinvented the cinematic superhero (for better or for worse is up for debate), and with Inception he crafted an iconic, genre-bending, original action/thriller that delighted critics and audiences alike. He’s set out to do the same with his just released Interstellar, a film which finds it’s roots in films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey; science fiction with it’s eyes turned up to the Heavens, not in fear but with the desire to explore and discover. Interstellar sees a crew of astronauts taking to space to rescue the human race from most certain doom, embracing the long-discarded technological advances of days-gone-by to achieve the seemingly impossible. It’s an ambitious film, one of apparent deep personal significance to Nolan, and one that probably represents him as an artist more than any other film prior, for better and for worse.
Interstellar is the story of Cooper, a father and a scientist, who is employed by NASA during Earth’s waning hours to go out into the cosmos and find a suitable new home for the human race. It’s a race against time as he and a crew comprised of three other humans plus two robots traverse a new galaxy, exploring fascinating new planets while the people back on Earth fight for their survival. It’s, perhaps, the most intimate of Nolan’s films, which is somewhat ironic given that its scope far exceeds any of his previous ones. Despite the intergalactic span, Nolan keeps the whole affair tied to a very simple emotional core; a father’s duty to care for and protect his children. The magnificence of the cosmos takes something of a backseat to the urgency and immediacy of the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murph. He’s compelled to keep a promise he made to her the day he left the planet; that he would come back for her one day. It’s a story that bridges the relative emotional gap that can be seen in Nolan’s previous works, he’s not a cold, heartless director, but he’s hardly one for Spielbergian sentiment, at least, he wasn’t until he made Interstellar. There’s a surprising emotional warmth at the center of this film, one that should resonate with many people in a manner beyond the strictly intellectual, the plane Nolan has comfortably inhabited up to this point.
As with his previous non-Dark Knight films, Interstellar carries on Nolan’s tradition of exploring scientific concepts through narrative: specifically time. Time is a concept that has found itself central to his work since Memento. In this regard, Interstellar most closely resembles Inception. Different spaces and planes of being embody different times in and of themselves. The idea of two parallel narratives occurring at totally different speeds seems to fascinate Nolan, and he uses these concepts to their full narrative potential. Not only does distorted time feature in Interstellar, it’s a central motivator of the plot. While time moves slowly for Cooper out in space, his children back on Earth grow swiftly, until the film finds these characters on equal footing age-wise. Adult Cooper out in the cosmos is racing against the clock to finish his mission before his daughter passes away, and an adult Murph, now the same age as her father, struggles to reconcile her father’s abandonment of her while fighting to save herself and the rest of the human race. Interstellar may yet best exemplify Nolan’s tact for taking the scientific and convoluted and turning it into something of tangible narrative value. As the story progresses, the physics of time itself become more literalized, coming to a head in a finale that’s equal parts abstract speculative science and powerfully resonant emotional connection. Like the finale of Inception, one doesn’t need to immediately grasp all the technical nuances of the situation to understand it’s importance, one doesn’t need to grasp the science in order to grasp the scene’s meaning. Heightened science fiction is the zone in which Nolan’s writing and directing resonates the most deeply. There’s almost a spiritual reverence he has for intangible scientific theory, the deeper he drops into a wormhole of scientific idea, the closer to the soul of his story he gets.There are really two central tracks of thought, two separate themes to Interstellar, and they each represent a different facet of what defines Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. The first is, to phrase it simple; “love”. Love is a central theme to the film, a driving force that motivates each character in their own different way, and a force that, the film would argue, has tangible, quantifiable significance being the simply sentimental. In the world of Interstellar, “love” is a literal thing, a dimension of reality and understanding that we have not yet grasped but exists none the less. This, in a way, is the philosophy behind most of Nolan’s work, though it has seldom been seen so clearly as here; a rather distinct aversion to the supernatural, the intangible. Nolan is a literalist, one who interprets the fantastical through a lens of fairly ruthless pragmatism. A superhero trilogy completely devoid of the supernatural, a film about dreams where the dreams themselves are realized as clear-cut, easily comprehensible landscapes, a film where love has a tangible, quantifiable effect on the very fabric of the universe, on space-time itself. It’s curious, that though Nolan maintains an outspoken philosophy of “groundedness”, his films are all quite fixated upon the fantastical, and, at times, the completely ridiculous. It all paints a picture of a man wrestling to reconcile the importance of the spiritual with a mind that thinks in strictly literalist terms. It isn’t enough for Nolan to simply ignore these ideas, he has to deal with them, he has to solve them, he has to conquer them. Which, depending on whom you ask, is either his greatest strength or his greatest weakness (or perhaps both, depending on the film in question).
The second theme, and perhaps the more important of the two, is the theme of forward progress. Interstellar is an anthem, calling for it’s viewers to take up ideological arms in the name of pressing onward, in the name of human achievement. The words of one of Dylan Thomas’ most esteemed works are repeated often throughout the film:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Nolan holds achievement in high esteem. He fervently rejects the idea of fading into insignificance and mediocrity. What is the most interesting about this particular theme is not what it says in the context of the film (though that is, in and of itself, interesting), but what it ends up saying when applied to the larger context that surrounds the film. As mentioned before, Nolan is a filmmaker with a deep-seated reverence for the old school. A practical effects junkie and an avid proponent of film stock over digital cameras, he adheres strictly to traditional trains of thought when it comes to how to technically create a film. That being said, he is hardly content clinging to his cameras and practical effects simply for his own purposes, he is also deeply invested in what the future of cinema holds (thus the parallel with Interstellar). He envisions a bigger, grander future for the cinematic experience, one driven by traditional techniques but presented in grander, more bombastics manners. He shoots largely in the IMAX format, always on film, believing IMAX to be the future of blockbuster cinema, rather than the more popular 3D. He remains suspicious, if not outright hostile to recent developments in the digital realm, believing them to be definitively inferior to the traditional methods that they are swiftly replacing, a change driven by corporate greed rather than artistic value, to his mind. In addition to Nolan’s technical allegiances, he’s also an outspoken proponent of in-theater viewing over home media, feeling that the experience of watching a film on blu-ray is a massively insufficient replacement for the “real” theatrical experience. In many ways, he’s right, and as one of the most exceptional spectacle-crafting filmmakers working today, his credibility on the subject is undeniable. 3D is the most gratuitously misapplied piece of film tech today, and CGI effects in the hands of undertrained (and undertalented) filmmakers has resulted in many the visually muddy and aesthetically lazy blockbuster film.
But does this mean that Nolan’s solutions for these problems actually represent the future of cinema? Does the future of movies look like the 70mm, IMAXed, practical effects-driven landscape that Nolan envisions? I would posit; no. And Interstellar, though it may be this year’s most well-crafted blockbuster, may just be the proof of this.
Interstellar arrives on the cinemascape almost exactly one year after the release of another technically ambitious space epic; Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity. A film which, I feel, offers a perfect counter-point to the direction that Nolan took with Interstellar, and one that paints a much clearer picture of what we may end up seeing more of within the coming years. First and foremost, it’s worth clarifying that Interstellar, so far as my purposes here are concerned, is legitimately a great film. Better, actually, than Gravity. However, what each film says within it’s own context historically is sharply different, and, in this regard, Gravity will most likely prove to be the more important of the two films. Unlike Interstellar, Gravity achieved that which Nolan so desperately seeked to accomplish: it made the theatrical experience not only preferable, but necessary. Cauron’s film still stands on it’s own merit no matter what context it’s viewed in, however, it is one of the few films I can honestly say loses a solid dimension outside the context of a cinema (particularly an IMAX 3D cinema), even with all the advances HD TV’s can provide. What Gravity sold was not just spectacle, but experience. A tangibly unparalleled cinematic ride, specifically geared to take advantage of in-theater specs in a way previously unknown to audience members. Cauron’s use of 3D in the film is cutting edge, the manner in which he shoots using digital cameras feels clean and fresh, the CGI (which is seen in almost every shot of the film) is virtually photorealistic and meticulously constructed. All of these components are utilized with deft precision to engulf the viewer in the experience of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut protagonist Ryan Stone. It’s a testament to the technical brilliance of Gravity that the film’s plot could be so simple, yet the experience of watching the film itself could be so groundbreaking. It pushed the limits of all sorts of digital technology, expanding possibilities, blazing trails for future filmmakers.
Interstellar, by contrast, stays devoutly along the beaten path from a technical perspective. And while it is quite loud and grandiose, it doesn’t take much advantage of the unique possibilities of in-theater viewing beyond being “bigger” and “louder”. Rather than engage with the growing world of digital tech, Nolan opts instead to compound long-established analog technology. It’s his prowess as a visualist that creates awe-inspiring moments in Interstellar and yet it’s hard to feel that these particular images would be any less stunning in the context of home-viewing. The one truly unique theater-experience Nolan provides here is the opportunity to see the movie projected on it’s native tech; 70mm IMAX film. While it is an accomplishment for filmmakers to have an artist go against industry grain to have their film presented in the manner they intended, Interstellar as seen on film offers little by way of actual experiential advantage. It’s wonderful to see the world Nolan created in the manner he visualized, but it’s simultaneously easy to see why film projection has become an outdated form of technology. Warmer and slightly richer in texture though it may be, projected film is more wobbly and blurrier than it’s digital successor. It’s rather telling that, when given the opportunity to present something outside of the norm, Nolan has chosen to retreat to the realm of superseded technology. Beside this particular, unusual projection technicality, there legitimately is no notable manner in which Interstellar pushes the technical envelope. It is wonderfully imagined and shot, but the manner in which Nolan’s vision is experienced never feels like something representative of the future. Despite it’s advocacy for exploration and the breaking of boundaries, the film settles well within the explored realms and the well-worn pathways of the technical world. Interstellar is a great many things: a compelling drama, a fascinating adventure film, a clever take on the concept of space-time travel, an absolutely smashing and endlessly smart blockbuster epic. But what is it not? The future. Contrary to what Nolan may find personally compelling, the opportunity to see his movie projected on film will not compell movie goers to flock to the cinema (the vast majority won’t even have the faintest idea what the difference between digital and film projection is, anyway). Nor will the appeal of the IMAX format alone put asses in the seats. As a film, Interstellar is spectacular and compelling. As a sort of commentary on the film industry, or as an intended vision of the future of cinematic spectacle, it ends up being frustratingly off-base. Quite to the contrary, Interstellar feels most appropriate when viewed as an excercisein traditionalist filmmaking (rather like high-concept Paul Thomas Anderson), rather than a cutting edge cinematic experience.
None of which is to knock the film in and of itself. As a motion picture, Interstellar shines bright, possibly as Nolan’s most compelling and ambitious film to date. It’s just that whatever he intended to prove within the sphere of modern day blockbuster filmmaking as a whole, he simply did not prove it with this film. Nolan is a visionary, and he wants to see cinema progress and thrive, but he has seemingly trapped himself in a stifling manner of technical thought where he’s working against his own beloved sensibilities to try and make something groundbreaking. He wants to give audiences something new and exciting to experience, yet has dug himself so deep into his traditionalist hole that he doesn’t seem to really know how. Nolan’s value as a storyteller and a creative mind are clear. He’s still regularly churning out the best blockbuster films the past decade of cinema has to show for. But a representative of cinema’s future he is not, and will most likely never be. He is, rather, one of the last stubborn adherents to old-school trains of thought, one who persistently rages against the dying of the light of cinema as he knows and understands it. He is a classically trained artist with classically trained sensibilities. He is not a boundary pusher, he is a refiner of established concepts and techniques. He’s no Goerge Lucas, or Stanley Kubrick, or James Cameron. His school of thought, rather, sits amongst a class that includes Scorcese, Tarantino and Thomas Anderson. Narrative innovators, not technical ones. Interstellar, though spectacular a film it may be (let that be absolutely clear) is not a showcase of boundary-pushing cinematic experience. It takes established techniques and executes them with perfectly calculated precision to engage and amaze the viewer. It stands as a testament to the reliability and strength of film technique as it has grown and proven itself over and over again. The beauty of on-location shooting. The unique tangibility of practical production design. It’s a great film and a great experience. It isn’t a vision of cinema’s future, and it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great film. It’s a reverent look at our past; the decades of incredible technological advances and achievements innovators and visionaries have achieved in order to give us a film like Interstellar. It’s the cinematic equivalent of planting a flag on the moon: we’ve made it, look what we have accomplished.
In a way, Nolan’s message still rings very true, regardless of whether his film actually ultimately serves it. It’s time for a new generation of filmmakers who are fascinated by ideas and exploring the unknown to take charge and make films that will capture people’s imaginations once again. To give audiences cinematic experiences they haven’t seen before. To innovate, to create, to inspire. Interstellar stands on the shoulders of some of cinema’s greatest innovators, and with this new age of technological possibilities it’s time for a new wave of creatives to take charge and see what new, previously impossible opportunities lay out there to be discovered.
Andrew Allen is a television and film writer for Action A Go Go. He is an aspiring screenwriter and director who is currently studying at the University of Miami. You can check him out on Tumblr @andrewballen and follow him on Twitter @A_B_Allen.
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