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Interstellar: Nolan, Time and the Transcendence of Love

By Bhargav Prasad · November 6, 2014

A common critique I have often heard about Nolan’s film is that he makes the audience feel smarter than they actually are. This has a lot to do with his narratively unbound Memento and the blockbuster defining Inception. Memento is definitely an impressive film for any filmmaker and given that it’s only his second feature, it is quite a feat. What Memento does is give you a character who is as clueless as the audience is and who figures out things as the narrative progresses, or regresses in this case. This way, you (the audience) are never left behind. With Inception, he makes the protagonist smart, but never a smart-ass. But you aren’t left behind here either cause he provides exposition. And these expositions are never explicit, never prologues or drawn out voiceovers, but rather clever metaphors and conversations between characters that are made to look like every other scene.

Read More: The Nonlinear Magic of Christopher Nolan Films

But in the case of Interstellar, co-written with his brother Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan shies away from these expositions made to look like flirting (I am looking at you JGL!). He chooses to let the audience figure things out for themselves with no hints or clues, but of course scenes that educate that are necessary for the plot to progress. His last blockbuster (excluding the TDK films), Inception followed a complex narrative, but with comparatively simple made up science. The science was always comprehensible and since it was made-up, logistics were never a problem.

Whereas Interstellar follows a rather simple plot with science (physics to be precise) that took some of the greatest minds centuries to figure out. Given the nature of its plot devices, it would really help if you knew at least some textbook physics. By textbook I am of course referring to quantum mechanics, relativity, time and space as dimensions and a few hat-tips to some of Sci-Fi greats.

Interstellar follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a space pilot/engineer turned farmer with two kids on an inhospitable corn farm and this takes place in the near future where most crops have withered and dust has taken over the planet’s atmosphere. Until Cooper stumbles upon a covertly kept NASA mission that is planning to send a select few on a mission to save the beings of the planet from extinction.

Not much is to be said about the ensemble here. The leads, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are good, they do their jobs, they emote, they perform and they deliver lines. But that’s all they do which is not a bad thing necessarily. A lot has to be said about Murph’s character though (named after Murphy’s law). Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain who play Young Murph and Grown-up Murph respectively are terrific. And the importance of their characters make you take notice of them. In a movie with five Oscar winners, it is quite an achievement to stand out.

It does not require a film academician to figure out that many of Nolan’s protagonists are driven by their love for their significant others. I am not quite sure how it would’ve panned out in this film given how romance is never a plot device. However, Nolan chooses the other side of love, parental love. A father’s love for his daughter, a promise made by him and the sheer paternal instinct to keep that promise is what motivates the protagonists.

Yes, I did say motivate and I did mean it. Not just in terms of character growth, but in every sense of the word. With more science packed into it than any episode of Cosmos, Interstellar relies a lot on its emotional quotient. Like most of his counterparts, Cooper too depends on his love for his daughter to keep him alive and in turn save the world. It does take 90 minutes to get there though. Most of the film’s first act is devoted to developing this father-daughter relationship. Nolan sees the bigger picture when it comes to love. Love can transcend generations, space, time and every other dimension there is and will be. And to achieve that, those 90 minutes of the 169 minute running time is used intelligently and quite liberally. And all this takes place in linear fashion which isn’t really Nolan’s go-to zone. And this is pretty obvious in the opening scenes but once you get to know the characters, it is not hard to understand the relationship and care for the characters and all the survival instinct and Darwinism that these characters religiously follow.

A few sources say that Muprh’s character was a boy in the first draft of the script. I am not quite sure if that is the reason Casey Affleck’s character exists cause his purpose seems redundant after a point of time. An under-developed character, his character might be an allegory that is subject to interpretation, but you never really begin to understand his relationship with the other characters.

But once Cooper and his team land on the first planet, we are back to what Nolan does best, exploring. Written with his brother Jonathan Nolan, Interstellar doesn’t get to the scintillating exploration and adventure as fast as his other films do, but once it gets there, you just can’t take your eyes of the screen. With a running time of 169 minutes, it does feel long at quite a few places, but it never feels unnecessary. With the help of real-life physicist, Kip Thorne (who gets a hat tip too), Nolan and his team have created some seemingly impossible visuals. And that isn’t surprising given the director’s love for realism and he does tread carefully here.

But what does this film actually stand for? At first glance it seems like a chunk of meaningless science with visuals that had great potential. But that is until Nolan ties everything together in the end like he always does. And this time it is not the science nor is it entirely character motivation, but rather a statement about how humans’ survival instinct is what keeps them going and love is our best chance of survival. For a filmmaker who hardly steps into the other side of reality, a message this practical isn’t surprising.

Interstellar is definitely Nolan’s most ambitious film to date – that doesn’t mean his best. The flaws with Interstellar are never really objective, like most of his other films, but rather subjective. He thrives on the border where logic and emotion meet and this is what never worked for me. It is undoubtedly a tear jerker but the emotional scenes are never satisfactory and this may have a lot to do with the director’s inexperience with the field. But its running time does make up for it like how Gravity did with its careful choice of words.

This is definitely the year’s biggest and most satisfying spectacle of the year. With jaw-dropping visuals complemented by Zimmer’s fantastic score (lots of 2001 homages), Interstellar is Nolan’s furthest reaching film to date, this time I am referring to its themes. It just ends up trying to say a little too much in the end.

Trailer Credit

Photo: Warner Bros.