“I’m not afraid of death. I am an old physicist. I’m afraid of time.” — Dr. Brand (Michael Caine)
Interstellar is director Christopher Nolan‘s most polarizing film, but there is little debate that it’s his most ambitious. Indeed, by the end of the film’s nearly three-hour run time, it becomes apparent that literally no movie has ever been larger in scope. This is not hyperbole: The plot hinges on the presence of a multiverse, a concept that has yet to be proven scientifically but is certainly perfectly plausible — and I would argue pretty likely to exist in reality. After all, the universe has never made one of anything — not one planet, not one star, not one galaxy — so why would there even be one of itself? That’s hardly a philosophical stretch.
Many films have skirted around the themes and science explored in Interstellar, but none have had such advanced scientific theory woven into the plot so directly and completely. For example, we have seen countless movies use time travel. Usually it’s just a gimmick, and often there isn’t even an attempt at legitimately explaining it — it’s such a common conceit that we just accept the existence of time machines and the like and say, “Hey, it’s a movie.” (Case in point: the existence of not one but two Hot Tub Time Machine movies.) Here’s the thing though: In order for time travel to be possible, it has to occur the way it does in Interstellar: with the existence of a multiverse, and with beings in a universe other than our own — that has more dimensions in it than ours does — facilitating it.
I see I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s back up and go over some more basic physics. In our universe, there are three spatial dimensions. Most people know that. Time is an additional dimension that allows for motion within these three spatial dimensions to occur. (Really, that’s the function of time: without it, nothing would move.) These dimensions — three spatial, one temporal — are fused together to create a four-dimensional continuum of spacetime. Time itself, of course, is not spatial — in our universe, anyway. However, it would be spatial if we could move backward and forward through it, but we can’t: we are forever prisoners of the present, moving forward in one direction from the past to the future.
Why would time be spatial if we could travel backward or forward at will? Think about it: in our current spatial dimensions, you can move left or right, up or down, in or out. This is a bit abstract, but to be able to move forward or backward in time at will — and access what has happened or what will happen — is to move through the three spatial dimensions (as a whole) in either direction exactly the same way everyone can already move through the three spatial dimensions individually. If time is spatial in this fashion, then it would exist in a five-dimensional continuum of spacetime. The fifth dimension would be the equivalent of what time is in our universe’s four-dimensional continuum of spacetime: it would enable motion to occur within the four spatial dimensions.
Are higher dimensions possible? Sure. In fact, a staggering 11 dimensions are thought to be possible. What causes “extra” dimensions to appear is the presence of extreme gravity. Any object with mass has gravity. The stronger the gravity (i.e., the more massive the object), the greater the amount of warping of spacetime surrounding that object. Hence why the farther inside an object’s gravitational well you travel, the slower time passes relative to someone who is not inside that gravitational well. As an aside, this scenario actually occurs in our everyday lives: the GPS satellites orbiting the Earth are farther outside the Earth’s gravitational well than our smartphones are here on the Earth’s surface. Since time passes faster for the clocks on the GPS satellites, time is automatically corrected to compensate for this slippage when we look at our phones so that it aligns with the rate at which time passes on the Earth’s surface.
Since most of us never leave the Earth’s surface, the concept of time being relative is not just unnatural to us, our brains scream that it’s insane. I don’t know about everyone else, but I find physics to be so abstract that, broadly speaking, I find it harder than any other subject to understand. The science tackled in Interstellar is far more ambitious than any other film or work of science fiction I am aware of has ever attempted to approach, but I didn’t find it to be beyond my intellectual capacity. I think the film does a sufficient job of explaining the science so that the plot can be understood. However, I was a bit perplexed when I saw that many of the critics who did not enjoy the movie leveled criticisms of it based on an incorrect reading of events. For example, these clowns accuse Interstellar of falling into the “bootstrap paradox” trap (i.e., the plot creates an infinite cause-and-effect loop), when it actually doesn’t.
If you have seen the film, you will of course remember that Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) leaves Earth and, some two hours later, finds himself in a tesseract (higher-dimensional space where time is represented spatially) that allows him to communicate with his daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) at various points in her life (and his own). Now, on the surface this does seem quite paradoxical: he sends himself back in time to arrange for the events to occur that brought him to the point where he is now. But he does not create this loop; these events have always happened this way, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains:
In a higher dimension, you can step back and look at your entire timeline and access it no differently from how you just walk around in a room. So the question, ‘Can you go back in time to change something?’ That’s not even the right question.
Once you see your entire timeline, you are always being born. You are always dying. You are always in school. You are always asleep. You are always brushing your teeth. These things are always happening and you just access them at will.
So in the tesseract, he’s not changing the past. That always happened. We saw it happen. Jessica Chastain as a child saw the books come out. It’s a mystery why. We find out why: because her father does go into space, does go into the black hole, does access the tesseract, to try to tell him to not go.
But here’s the weird part: he did go. He had to go. Otherwise, he couldn’t be telling her that he shouldn’t go. So think about this: If she did interpret his signals correctly and managed to prevent him from going, then he never would have given her the signals in the first place to tell him to not go. So that entire series of events had to unfold exactly as portrayed.
And so you’re wrong to think that you’re going to go back and change something in a timeline that is already there. So yeah, it can make your brain hurt because we are prisoners in our own four dimensions and in higher dimensions really cool stuff can happen, as portrayed in the film.
So there you have it: the time travel in Interstellar does not fall prey to the bootstrap paradox. In order for time travel to actually occur in our universe, beings with access to five-dimensional spacetime (i.e., from a universe with five-dimensional spacetime) need to set in motion the events that occur within our universe’s four-dimensional spacetime. However, for the object/human to actually travel backward or forward in time, access to five-dimensional spacetime would be needed — hence the tesseract. How do they place the tesseract there? Keep in mind, the higher-dimensional beings of the film do not exist (or at least originate from) within our universe. Instead, they are in a different universe — one that has an extra dimension in its spacetime fabric. Because of this, they have power over spacetime that we do not possess — what Cooper experiences in the tesseract is a simplified version of what is normal for them.
Let me explain why a multiverse not only isn’t a stretch philosophically (i.e., the universe has never made one of anything, so why would there only be one of itself), but it’s likely quite plausible scientifically. Everyone is familiar with the Big Bang — the birth of our universe. Long story short: all of the universe’s matter and energy was confined within a tiny dot, and then it exploded. That tiny dot is commonly understood to have been a gravitational singularity — the very bottom of a massive gravitational well (shaped like a cone with a point/singularity at the end). Black holes likewise have a gravitational singularity, which is integral to the plot of the film, of course. Maybe you see where I am going with this: black holes, it would seem, potentially give birth to other universes, sucking in matter and energy and funneling it into a singularity — until it explodes.
Can we prove that scientifically? No, because (like in the film) we currently cannot collect that kind of data and evidence — it lies beyond a black hole’s event horizon (the point at which gravity becomes so strong that nothing — not even light — can escape). But try this on for size: our universe may just be on the other side of a giant black hole. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t we want to know what is on the other side of that black hole? The five-dimensional beings in Interstellar apparently decided they wanted to know the answer to their own version of that question, which led them to our universe. The source of their desire to save us isn’t made clear, but hey, if a black hole in our universe created their universe, maybe they felt that by association they owed us one or something. Either way, since it’s kind of impossible to show a five-dimensional being on film, we can’t really expect the movie to explain that or show that.
As for how they got to our universe, there are some clues as to how that happened. Consider the presence of the wormhole — a tear in the fabric of spacetime that allows for two separate points in space to be folded on top of each other so that a great distance can be travelled in a much briefer period of time. If they have the power to do that, it would follow that they have the power to create a wormhole between our universe and theirs. If our universe is considered to be part of an even bigger “everything,” then it would certainly seem possible to travel between universes — dimensional differences be damned. As an aside, here’s something that I find interesting: frequently, those who believe in God insist that life’s events have been predetermined (by God, of course). This would therefore make God a five-dimensional being, shaping our lives and timelines — or, more precisely, having already shaped them — from outside our universe.
The difference between this idea of God and the five-dimensional beings in Interstellar is God’s supposed power to create our entire universe in the first place. Maybe someday we will see a science fiction story about a multiverse with God’s role in creating our universe explored from within that kind of framework. Of course, while this would be a more concrete conception of the God conceived by Western human civilization, it is still subject to infinite regress — who then created God and the multiverse? Such is the nature of contemplating the cosmos: if the universe were simpler, our brains probably would be simpler too, and as a result we still wouldn’t be able to understand what the hell we’re doing here. (The human condition is a real bitch, isn’t it?)
I have now used around two thousand words to unapologetically dive straight into the science of Interstellar with mostly only incidental references to the film’s characters and basically no references to the movie’s actual premise. I suppose that was unavoidable — only those who have already seen Interstellar would even bother to read something like this. And besides, I’m not sure a proper deep dive into this film is even possible without leading with the science — particularly since the reaction to Interstellar was so polarized and the conclusion was so widely misunderstood. However, let’s now go back to the beginning of the film and walk through some of the events now that there is more clarity (hopefully) about how and why these events occur.
The film opens in the not-too-distant future. The world is ravaged by global crop blight; the planet’s population has diminished as a result. Cooper, his 15-year-old son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) live on a farm somewhere in Middle America. In this world of decay, they grow corn — at least until blight eventually comes for it as well. Cooper was once a NASA pilot, but with the country’s resources long since having dwindled, he’s just a farmer now. (Well, and a widower. His wife had a cyst in her brain and died, when in decades past it would have been detected by an MRI.) The blight has caused a second Dust Bowl, with dust storms forming from the topsoil of failed crops.
If the above seems like a movie that’s a world away from where it ends up, that’s because Interstellar began as two entirely different projects — one a script by Christopher Nolan, the other a script by his younger brother Jonathan. The film’s first act resembles the original film as conceived by Jonathan before Christopher took the directing reins from Steven Spielberg. (Spielberg was attached to the film while DreamWorks was still a part of Paramount; once DreamWorks moved to Disney, he had to leave the project.) Christopher used Jonathan’s existing Earth-based script as something of a foundation, and then merged it with another space-based script he had been working on alone. On paper, this sounds like a bad idea, but spending so much time on Earth gives the story a sense of weight and, well, gravity. (The first time I saw the film in the theater, I can remember thinking about half an hour in, “Man, we must still have a long way to go since we’re not even in space yet.”)
And that’s one of my favorite things about Interstellar: it’s a huge story with a long, fulfilling arc that’s grand in scale but at the same time is more intimately felt than any movie this size theoretically should be. It’s about saving the human race, but it’s also about a man saving a broken relationship with his daughter. I’m not sure I can think of another film that keeps both the big and the small in sharp focus like Interstellar does. “Man leaves family behind to save the world” is not a new premise, of course — and for that matter, neither is the premise “man saves broken relationship with his daughter.” But implied in that first premise is the limitation that the hero has no communication with the family he has left behind — he simply forges forward and his family has no real role to play in the adventure ahead. Interstellar turns this premise on its head, since not only is Murph key to saving the human race from extinction, but Cooper must find a way to reconnect with her to complete the mission.
The presence of the tesseract in the third act is, uh, not something you see in most movies, but what it enables from a storytelling standpoint is something that is even more unique. We see Murph, standing in her childhood bedroom for the first time in years, peering at the books on the wall. On the other side, in a black hole in another galaxy, Cooper frantically attempts to get her to solve the puzzle from behind the books. Simply from a plot structure standpoint, I’m not sure I have ever seen this before: the protagonist travels an unimaginable distance, yet the focus never shifts from how events that are happening light years away ultimately shape existence at home. Furthermore, the relationship between both Murph and Cooper — the two characters separated by an incredible distance — is always in the foreground. We have seen characters needing to heal their relationship in order to achieve an objective before, but not quite like this.
Interstellar is clearly a big, action-packed spectacle, but at its core is something considerably more human than any of Christopher Nolan’s other films. Saving the world is not a new theme in his movies (he did direct three Batman installments), but gone is the coldness and angst of his approach to Gotham and the veneer of fantasy inherent to the Caped Crusader. The concept of stretching time isn’t an entirely new theme for him either (who can forget the mind-bending effect of dreams within dreams in Inception), but the embedding of relativistic time dilation into the fibers of storytelling is something that was unimaginable before Interstellar. Also, while the film is clearly presented as an old fashioned race against time, Interstellar is utterly unique in how it forces its characters to treat time as a resource. Can Cooper make it back to Earth in time? And what does “in time” even mean? In time to see his daughter alive? In time to see any human being at all alive?
It’s a completely unique situation because not only does time run more slowly for the protagonist, but this is a bad thing and is a key source of conflict within the film. Let’s compare this to the situation in Inception, where there is a similar race against time (i.e., the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles creates a finite window of time to carry out the mission). The protagonist memorably manufactures more time out of thin air by creating dreams within dreams to enable completion of the mission — more time is a good thing in Inception. In Interstellar, it’s obviously the opposite situation. I’m not sure I have ever seen anything like it: it’s such an unnatural and counterintuitive effect that it’s nothing short of extraordinary to see this suddenly come into sharp focus when Cooper loses 23 years of Earth time after the disastrous excursion to Miller’s planet. It’s quite natural to fear the idea of, say, serving 23 years in prison and missing out on watching your kids grow up; it’s something else entirely to miss out on 23 years of your kids’ lives over the course of just a few hours.
The human condition is as old as humanity itself, or at least as old as human consciousness itself, if those two things are actually different. Essentially, the human condition is the uniquely human recognition that at some point, we will die. It might happen decades from now, years from now, months from now, hours from now, minutes from now, or seconds from now, but eventually it will happen for all of us. It happens to everything that ever lives, of course, but humans are the only species on Earth that is aware it is going to happen. When you get right down to it, the human condition is really about time — and how much of it you have left. (As Dr. Brand says to Murph, “I am not afraid of death. I am an old physicist. I’m afraid of time.”) Interstellar is hardly the first film to bring the human condition into focus in a macro sense by portraying the species itself on the brink of extinction, but it certainly is the first film to so dramatically explore the impact of time itself on what it means to be human.
I am reminded of a famous quote by Aristotle, supposedly provided more than 2,300 years ago: “Time crumbles things; everything grows old under the power of Time and is forgotten through the lapse of Time.” To witness Cooper miss out on so much life is a jarring experience, to say the least. Of course, he actually hasn’t missed out on any of his own life at all, which is what makes the situation so fascinating and utterly compelling. Only a few hours have elapsed for him, yet the years he wanted to spend with his kids have evaporated completely — it’s an unimaginably devastating development that wreaks havoc on what the human psyche is capable of dealing with. (It also puts into sharper focus what really matters in life: the relationships with those closest to you.) It’s a possibility that is beyond the scope of what humans have to confront down on the Earth’s surface.
To top it off, he and his daughter are now the same age — in terms of storytelling, this is quite the audible to call. When I watched the film for the first time, I of course knew that Jessica Chastain would show up eventually, but I was still floored that she would be introduced to the film as the adult version of Murph since I just didn’t think that was a possibility. Murph and Cooper being the same age is something foreshadowed earlier when Cooper says goodbye to his daughter, so this is an idea that doesn’t come completely out of the blue, but it still is something that is hard to conceive before it happens since, again, the human mind isn’t accustomed to thinking this way. The effect this has on the storytelling is the complete removal of predictability. Once this happens, it’s next to impossible to figure out how the threads of the story will eventually weave together.
The expedition then moves to Dr. Mann’s ice world planet. Dr. Mann, by the way, is played by none other than Matt Damon, whose appearance is intentionally a complete surprise. (He appeared in zero promotional materials in advance of the film’s release.) Dr. Mann’s introduction to the story is well timed: he surfaces right after Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) dies back on Earth. Up until this point, Dr. Brand had been the source of the film’s scientific reality. On his death bed, however, he comes clean to Murph about how he had sent Cooper, his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley) on the Endurance mission — the planet’s final shot at saving the human race — knowing full well they would never be coming back. He convinces Cooper that by the time a replacement planet is located, he will have solved the problem of gravity. (Humanity’s resources on Earth are too limited to overcome the Earth’s gravity in a way that can get the entire human population off the planet.)
Dr. Mann, once awoken from hypersleep, steps in and explains that Dr. Brand actually solved the equation he and the adult Murph are still shown attempting to solve back on Earth before Mann and others had even left on the Lazarus missions years earlier. The problem is simply a lack of data: relative physics says one thing, and quantum mechanics says another. As executive producer (and Cal Tech astrophysics professor) Kip Thorne explains in the Blu-ray bonus disc feature “The Science of Interstellar,” a gravitational singularity is where spacetime becomes infinitely warped and is where the laws of physics fail. Since we do not have a way of observing a gravitational singularity, we can only theorize about what one looks like. When it comes to physics, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all theory: Newtonian physics was great for explaining laws of motion on Earth, but it wasn’t (literally) universally applicable since gravity isn’t the same everywhere. Relative physics fills in many of these gaps, but there are still more gaps when describing things very small or very large.
For example, relative physics says nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Actually, we know this isn’t true — during the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light. Again, the universe began as a gravitational singularity: it was unfathomably small, subject to the rules of quantum mechanics. This unfortunately is actually the nature of our understanding of physics today. It lacks one true unifying theory that explains everything, so when the characters of the film describe the need to actually see into a black hole, this is accurate: until we directly observe a gravitational singularity, relative physics and quantum mechanics will continue to conflict. To get back to the story: when Cooper accepts the mission to find another planet for the human race, there is a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A is to find a planet, and then bring the entire human race there once Dr. Brand solves his equation. Plan B is to find a planet and set up a colony using a “population bomb” consisting of fertilized embryos.
As Dr. Mann explains, Plan A was never actually a possibility, but Dr. Brand knew no one would accept the mission unless they thought it was. It’s a startling twist, to say the least, and it’s quickly followed by another one: Mann’s planet isn’t actually habitable. Mann led a group of twelve scientists into the wormhole to explore the potential planets on the other side in what were dubbed the “Lazarus Missions.” Each scientist explored a different potential new Earth, and pinged a signal back as to whether it was habitable or not. Of the twelve, three signaled their worlds were habitable: Miller, Mann, and Edmunds. Miller’s planet is visited first, but even though the surface is covered with water (which is essential to life), its proximity to Gargantua (and, more specifically, its gravity) causes gigantic tidal waves to form. During a singularly thrilling sequence, we see the destructive force of these waves (Doyle dies) and just how impossible any future that includes humans moving there is. (Amelia deduces that Miller sent her signal upon landing but died before she had a chance to alter it.)
Dr. Mann, however, not only knew his planet was uninhabitable, but he went as far as to fake tremendous amounts of data about the planet for when he was eventually woken up (i.e., raised from the dead like Lazarus). He lures Cooper away from the station, leaves him for dead, and takes the Ranger ship in the ensuing chaos. Amelia takes the Lander ship to go rescue Cooper, and Romilly dies in an explosion inside the station — Mann had set his decommissioned robot to self-destruct if someone tried to access its data about the planet. From there, it’s a race to the Endurance — the circular spacecraft orbiting the planet the team has been using throughout the film — with Mann in the Ranger, and Cooper and Amelia in the Lander following closely behind. If Mann manages to get there first and dock, Cooper and Amelia will be marooned with nowhere to go.
What follows is possibly my favorite cinematic sequence in recent years: Mann docks the Ranger, but pressurization issues cause the Endurance to be ripped apart by an explosion and for Mann to be sucked out to space. The Endurance falls toward the planet’s surface, spinning as a result of the explosion. Cooper hastily flies the Lander underneath the Endurance, lines up the Lander underneath the docking station, and then spins the Lander at the same RPM as the Endurance. From there, the robot TARS (Bill Irwin) takes over with actually docking the Lander, since there’s no way a human could actually do it. (The resulting g-force from the spinning causes Amelia to eventually black out and for Cooper’s shouts of “Come on, TARS!” to be quite strained.) It’s a jaw-dropping sequence that must be seen in order to be believed.
Is the sequence possible? No, not really. As I understand it, with parts of the Endurance now missing due to the explosion, it would spin irregularly (i.e., not in a perfect circle) and it would therefore be impossible for the Lander’s spin to match up underneath it. Now, in space there is no air, of course, so maybe it would still spin in a perfectly circular fashion, but CASE (the other robot) notes that the Endurance hits the planet’s stratosphere, so that point is irrelevant — air resistance does become a factor. As CASE points out when he realizes what Cooper is about to attempt, “It’s not possible!” Cooper replies in his typical gung ho fashion, “No, it’s necessary.” This is a smart way to address the situation: the film draws attention to the improbability of success and makes docking successfully more a matter of will.
Of course, if you have seen the film, you also know that this sequence must be heard in order to be believed. Hans Zimmer‘s thunderous score during the sequence is so loud and forceful it thoroughly shook the entire theater I was in when I saw the IMAX version during the film’s opening weekend. The music has a way of shaking the air around you in a way that is unusual for a film score. Zimmer’s use of a gigantic pipe organ — the kind that can only be found in European churches — is pretty rare, at least how it is employed both here and during the tidal wave sequence, as well. Obviously, sound is all about vibration, scientifically speaking, and Interstellar‘s score makes this quite apparent. If you have been in many theaters or at many concerts, you may have noticed that when you experience a lot of lower frequency sound (i.e., bass), you actually feel it more than hear it. This is particularly the case when viewing Interstellar, and it adds to the visceral impact of the film.
On the bonus Blu-ray disc, we’re allowed an opportunity to observe how Nolan and Zimmer traveled all the way to London to capture some of the score on a massive pipe organ in Temple Church, which was constructed in the 12th century and served as the Knights Templar’s English headquarters. (The organ came much later, obviously.) We see organist Roger Sayer at work, pulling out all the stops (literally) and causing gargantuan pipes that reach the ceiling to unleash impossibly forceful gulps of air. It’s the kind of sound you can’t create with modern technology, and its application within the film pays dividends. Another scene where this effect is not as immediately apparent but is just as potent is Cooper’s final conversation with Murph in her bedroom before he leaves for the great beyond. The music slowly builds over the course of nearly seven minutes — it’s the track “Stay” on the soundtrack — beginning with a soft, far-off call and increasing in volume, tension, and vibration as their relationship severs. As Cooper drives away, the music bursts into full volume, blasting apart the tenderness of their now-broken relationship.
Zimmer has been one of the most prolific composers over the past few decades, and while his body of work is impressive (he routinely churns out four or five scores a year), in many ways it reveals his biggest flaw: typically, most of his scores are pretty half-assed. For every Interstellar, Gladiator, The Lion King, and The Thin Red Line, there is a Tears of the Sun, Spanglish, Broken Arrow, and Pearl Harbor many times over. These are movies I sometimes forget even exist, let alone have memorable scores. Curiously, his output has more or less remained consistent — he still grinds out just as much hack work as he ever has. Basically, unless a director actually challenges him, he takes the lazy road. Prior to Interstellar, his scores for Nolan’s films — the three Batman movies plus Inception — were undermined by his lazy tendencies. In The Dark Knight, for example, his admittedly avant-garde-ish electronic contributions were completely at odds with the ludicrous post-grunge electric guitar power chords. (Perhaps that was the point, but that doesn’t mean it was actually good.)
Nolan actually pushes Zimmer here, and though the unforgettable, booming brahhhhm sounds from Inception surface again here in the tidal wave sequence, it’s more restrained, not to mention disguised in church-organ form. It’s a cousin to the previous brahhhhm sound, to be sure, but it doesn’t form the core of the score by any means. In the digital booklet to the deluxe iTunes version of the Interstellar soundtrack, Nolan provides insight into how he involved Zimmer much earlier in the creative process than he had previously:
Each successive film I’ve done with Hans, I’ve tried to involve him at an earlier and earlier stage. Adding music to a film doesn’t work for me — it’s the reason I can’t temp a movie (edit using some other movie’s music to be replaced later). To me the music has to be a fundamental ingredient, not a condiment to be sprinkled on the finished meal. To this end, I called Hans before I’d even started work on Interstellar and proposed a radical new approach to our collaboration. I asked him to give me one day of his time. I’d give him an envelope with one page — a page explaining the fable at the heart of my next project. The page would contain no information as to genre or specifics of plot, merely lay out the heart of the movie-to-be. Hans would open the envelope, read it, start writing and at the end of the day he’d play me whatever he’d accomplished. That would be the basis of our score.
Zimmer agreed to Nolan’s proposal, and the track he produced that first day of writing was named “Day One.” (It can still be found on the soundtrack by that title.) I mentioned at the top that Interstellar‘s advanced scientific concepts are woven more directly and completely into the story than what is normal for science fiction films, and the same can be said for the music. The church organ provides a somewhat unorthodox counterpoint to the film’s outer space setting: there’s no breathable air in space, of course, but we continuously hear the organ’s pipes inhale and exhale. It’s a gentle, if subconscious, reminder of the life and humanity at stake. I have done several of these “favorite movie” write-ups now, and I must say this is by far the most space I have dedicated to the music of the film I’m writing about. I suppose it was unavoidable: Interstellar‘s score is probably the most iconic soundtrack of the decade. (The Social Network‘s score was a breath of fresh air though.)
Until Interstellar, it seemed like Christopher Nolan was afraid or, to perhaps put it more kindly, unwilling to tackle subject matter where something human is genuinely at stake. Even though I love all of his movies, it always seemed like he was hiding behind tricks and gimmicks that overshadowed or distorted any sense of realism. Even his most straightforward movie, Insomnia, relies on placing a filter on the main character’s perspective: he can’t sleep. In Memento, the protagonist can’t make new memories. In The Prestige, the story relies on the subjective nature of the two diaries in which the tale is related to us (and, you know, involves the use of a cloning contraption). In Inception, the movie mostly takes place in dream environments where the subconscious is king. Following is essentially a rough draft of Inception — both films have a prominent character named Cobb who is a thief — and it takes place in a kind of underworld that’s on the margins of everyday reality.
The Batman movies, of course, involve a protagonist that puts on a cape. In each of the non-Batman films mentioned above, reality isn’t objective to some degree — the film is the intersection between the characters’ world and our own, and Nolan’s primary cinematic technique is distortion via subjectivity. Ironically, the Batman films are decidedly not real, yet they portray reality more objectively than Nolan’s other films. What makes them not real, cinematically speaking, is the employment of fantasy, not subjectivity — environments aren’t shaped or distorted by the minds of the characters. Instead, Nolan turns the concept inside out, exploring how a psychologically compromised character like Bruce Wayne copes with objective reality in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, another psychologically compromised character (the Joker) refuses to comply with objective reality and is intent on disrupting it. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane exposes that the order established in the wake of the Dent Act is based on a lie — Batman and Commissioner Gordon created a reality that wasn’t objective, and now must work to earn the trust of Gotham back (by saving it, naturally).
Given the Academy’s predilection for films that appeal to what more or less can be termed “general tastes,” it’s not a surprise to me that Nolan didn’t receive his first Best Director nomination until he made Dunkirk. (Sorry, Dark Knight and Inception fans, but cinematically speaking, Nolan’s direction was kind of flat in both of those movies, especially Inception. I’ll write about Inception soon enough and explain why.) While certainly Dunkirk isn’t any more orthodox than Nolan’s usual fare, it’s about an Academy-friendly subject and its greatness is easily appreciated on the surface. Interstellar is an altogether different beast. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea put it, “Einsteinian, Kubrickian, Malickian, Steinbeckian — Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s epically ambitious space opera, is all that. And more.” Indeed, I am reminded of Churchill’s famous quote about the Soviet Union: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The same could be said of Interstellar. There are essentially three levels to the film: the visual, the scientific, and the human.
On an audio-visual level, the movie was universally praised, picking up Oscar nominations for Production Design, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects; its sole win was for the latter. (I can’t believe it wasn’t nominated for Cinematography, incidentally. As for Film Editing, there are spots where continuity between shots isn’t the best, so I can see why it wasn’t nominated for that.) If you’re wondering how the visuals could possibly look so good, take a closer look at some of the screenshots and you’ll see that almost all of the shots in space are foregrounded with a practical model of a ship; only the wide shots are completely CGI. Nolan insisted on using large-scale miniature models and placing them in a blue-screen room. Once the model was lit to his satisfaction, footage was then shot, capturing ship movements and so forth; all of this was done in-camera. Only the blue-screen backgrounds (i.e., space, the wormhole, the black hole, etc.) were replaced with CGI later. As a result, the shots look much more real than most space-based films where everything you’re looking at — including the ships and the lighting of the ships (which is what really sells the authenticity of it) — is entirely created with CGI.
As for the film’s scientific level, it’s not everybody’s thing. Personally, I find the science itself to be very stimulating and the creative application of it to tell the film’s story to be even more stimulating still. Many I have talked to about Interstellar enjoyed the film without really grasping the science (or even really feeling the need to try do so); the visual and human levels of the film are enough for them. Some I have talked to (and many critics whose reviews I have read online) did not grasp the science and did not enjoy the film. What I find interesting about this portion of the audience is that typically their criticisms of the film include incorrect interpretations. For example, many interpret the film’s conclusion as “love transcending everything” or “love being a physical dimension” or something to that effect. Well, I can actually dispel that one.
Earlier in the film, Amelia discusses being in love with Edmunds, the Lazarus mission scientist whose planet is visited at the very end (after he’s dead). She points out, “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.” It’s an admittedly nice thought — in other words, you can be in love with someone who’s millions of miles away — but scientifically speaking, love, thoughts, emotions, etc. don’t actually take up any physical space. Not to be a downer, but you can be in love with someone that far away because that love never actually goes anywhere — it never leaves your mind (or at least your brain, if we’re sticking to the physical). In the tesseract, Cooper draws the audience’s attention back to Amelia’s earlier statement: “Love, TARS, love. It’s just like [Amelia] said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!” Out of context, this quote makes it sound like the solution is for love to transcend space and time, and that it is indeed something physical. However, let’s rewind to earlier in the scene:
COOPER: Don’t you get it yet, TARS? I brought myself here! We’re here to communicate with the three-dimensional world! We’re the bridge! I thought they chose me. But they didn’t choose me, they chose her!
TARS: For what, Cooper?
COOPER: To save the world! All of this, is one little girl’s bedroom, every moment! It’s infinitely complex! They have access, to infinite time and space, but they’re not bound by anything! They can’t find a specific place in time, they can’t communicate. That’s why I’m here. I’m gonna find a way to tell Murph, just like I found this moment.
TARS: How, Cooper?
COOPER: Love, TARS, love. It’s just like [Amelia] said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!
Before I comment on any of the above, let’s also replay a scene from much earlier in the film:
DR. BRAND: We need a pilot, and this is the mission you were trained for.
COOPER: Without even knowing it? An hour ago you didn’t even know I was alive. You were going anyway.
DR. BRAND: We had no choice. But something sent you here. They chose you.
COOPER: Well, who’s they?
As Cooper realizes much later in the tesseract, “they” didn’t choose him at all, they chose his daughter. Murph is the one they chose to save the human race, but as five-dimensional beings, they don’t have a “now” when it comes to our version of time, since their fourth dimension is represented spatially, not temporally. In other words, they can’t find a place in time to communicate the necessary quantum data to Murph because, as irony would have it, they’re too advanced; they need a human to do it. (It’s like us trying to communicate something to an ant colony. Just can’t be done, I guess.) So when Cooper says, “My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable,” he’s not saying that love is quantifiable or physical or dimensional or anything of the sort; he’s saying that he knows how to navigate the years of time that elapse in her bedroom in the tesseract and find the (quantifiable) point in time when he can communicate the necessary data to her.
Back on Earth, Murph doesn’t recognize that the “ghost” behind the bookshelf is her dad because she realizes she loves him; she realizes she loves her dad once she deciphers that he is her ghost. Do they end up at the point where they both love each other? Sure, but I think the film’s detractors mistakenly consider it to have a touchy-feely “love conquers all” conclusion when really it has nothing to do with love having some kind of magical power to save the world. Rather, it’s about two characters trying to solve a puzzle, and healing the divide between them in doing so; it’s the solving of the puzzle that allows them to emotionally reconnect, not the other way around. This, finally, is the human level at the core of the film. Despite not having kids of my own, I realized when I watched the film for the first time that I was especially sensitive to watching an adult break a child’s heart by leaving.
In the past, I was an English tutor for Hispanic kids in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, and when the hours allotted for the kid ran out, I had to walk away, never to return. It was hard every single time, and I eventually had to stop being a tutor because I found the process of establishing a positive relationship with a kid (sometimes the only one they had) only to leave them to be too emotionally distressing. It’s fair to say that watching Interstellar triggers a kind of intensely personal guilt that’s hard to describe. As for Christopher Nolan, he has four kids with producer-wife Emma Thomas. In Jonathan Nolan’s original script, the child was a boy, but when Christopher became attached to the project, he changed the boy to a girl since his eldest child is his daughter Flora, who was around Murph’s age at the time. It’s not hard to imagine where the inspiration for some scenes came from: I’m sure Nolan has had to leave his daughter behind many times to travel the globe shooting movies or to go on press tours or something to that effect.
Once Cooper manages to send the data to Murph, the tesseract collapses, and Cooper and TARS exit the “bulk” (higher-dimensional space) to our solar system (touching Amelia’s hand from earlier along the way when they passed through the bulk via the wormhole), where they are retrieved by humans manning Cooper Station, an outpost near Saturn positioned to facilitate the movement of the human race from Earth to Edmunds’ planet. Cooper, now 124 years old in Earth time, meets his daughter (Ellen Burstyn), who is near death. It’s quite a surreal moment, to say the least. Murph says, “Nobody believed me, but I knew you’d come back.” Cooper replies, “How?” Murph closes her eyes and responds, “Because my dad promised me.” It’s a very touching, if brief, reunion. His mission now complete, Cooper isn’t sure what to do next now that, as his daughter puts it, she has her own kids there for her now. Murph nudges him to find Amelia, who’s waiting on Edmunds’ planet for the rest of the human race to show up.
In the film’s closing sequence, we see Cooper leave yet again for the great unknown, and in the final shot, we see Amelia stand over Edmunds’ grave, take off her mask to breathe the planet’s air, and walk toward the base to go down for the long nap. There’s a particularly poignant moment toward the end that I skipped: on Cooper Station, Cooper is shown to his old farmhouse, which has been transported all the way from Earth and preserved as a kind of museum. As he sits on the porch, surveying the surreal surroundings, TARS saunters by and asks, “Is this really what it was like?” Cooper, sipping on a beer like he did much earlier in the film, humorously replies, “I was never this clean, Slick.” (The farmhouse was preserved, but the dust was not.) Cooper continues: “I don’t care much for this ‘pretending we’re back where we started.’ I want to know where we are — where we’re going.” To me, this has always embodied the spirit of Interstellar, and honestly I’m not sure another film has ever captured the sense of adventure inherent to space travel quite as well. (Fittingly, Nolan apparently screened The Right Stuff for the crew of Interstellar just before filming began.)
Generally speaking, there are two sides to the science fiction coin: fantasy and pure science. At one end of the spectrum is a film like Star Wars, where the science is just incidental — the movie uses advanced technology for fantastical purposes. The science certainly informs the story, but really only in terms of how the world is constructed; the plot is more of a traditional fantasy adventure (with some elements taken from the westerns of John Ford and the samurai movies of Akira Kurosawa, of course). At the complete other end of the spectrum is Interstellar, which pushes pure science into the foreground; even when fantasy creeps into the mix at the end, it’s not the same. When the tesseract shows up, this is a rare instance within the film of a technological leap, and it seems jarring because everything leading up to that point in the story has been more or less pretty scientifically valid. In terms of sensibility, it almost seems like the film takes a complete left turn. The first time I saw Interstellar, I remember thinking, “What? Why are we doing this?”
However, my jaw dropped as I realized what Nolan was actually pulling off: having a story resolve a real-life issue faced by physicists (gathering data from a gravitational singularity in order to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics) by using time travel the only way it can actually be done in real life and managing to have a father reconnect with his daughter in a touching way to save the world at the same time? To say I was stunned is putting it mildly — this was an already insanely ambitious film, but its resolution lifted the film to much more ambitious heights than I ever thought possible. I have been exposed to a lot of movies and a lot of science fiction, but I had no idea something like this could even be conceived, much less skillfully executed. Considering the tesseract was such new and unexpected territory, I just wasn’t expecting for anything scientific to ultimately be behind that as well — to be honest, at first I had no idea what I was looking at and feared it would just be a cheat, even though I trusted Nolan not to resort to that.
From a narrative perspective, I can’t think of another science fiction movie — or any movie, really — that has a higher degree of difficulty in pulling it all together. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Nolan’s favorite film, and an obvious influence on Interstellar) is, like Interstellar, a challenging movie, but it was a simpler film to pull off in a narrative sense; it dissolves wonderfully into something purely cinematic by the end that may be abstract and difficult to actually understand, but it isn’t hard to follow. It becomes a matter of ambiguity and interpretation, not about what’s concretely understandable. (Nolan himself admitted in an interview that he’s not sure even he completely understands 2001, and this is coming from someone who just recently oversaw the new 50th anniversary restoration and 4K Blu-ray release of the film.)
Interstellar, though, never stops being a typical narrative feature film with a concretely understandable plot — it’s just a matter of keeping up with it. That’s actually something I really like about Interstellar: it doesn’t try to be 2001 and is a Nolan movie through and through. (I would even go as far as to say Interstellar will eventually be considered the Nolan film, in the same way 2001 is considered the Kubrick film now.) In other words, Interstellar manages to be an enigmatic film of its own; as with 2001, there will never be another movie like it. Frankly, from a financial perspective, Nolan is the only director who can convince a studio to allow him to make a blockbuster-budget science fiction epic that is this heady and challenging. Other directors just don’t have the trust of the studios or the ambition (let alone ingenuity and talent) to make something like Interstellar in the first place.
I knew the moment I saw Interstellar that it was my favorite Christopher Nolan film, and I don’t see that changing in the future. It’s certainly his most personal film, and in many ways it’s the most personal of the films I consider to be my very favorites, as well. I’m not sure I have come across another film with a stronger call to adventure, or at least one that resonates with me as deeply. It’s a story told on the grandest possible scale, and perhaps what I relate to most about the film is the restless energy of the protagonist: how he’s driven to keep on going, out into the unknown yet again, even after his original mission is complete. I have always found that aspect of Cooper to be a fine distillation of the human spirit for adventure: the idea that even (or especially) if you know your reach will exceed your grasp, you still owe it to yourself to venture into the unknown anyway… as many times as you possibly can.