not in our stars, but in ourselves
I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern – to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
Reader, you know that I am occasionally a bossy and imperious little film fan. See this, avoid that, this was incredible, that was deplorable. I’m sure I insist so often on my own idiosyncratic tastes that you (whoever you are) tend to tune me out. Please listen to me now. See Interstellar. See Interstellar right now. Stop reading this, find out when the next showing will be at your favorite movie theatre, and see Interstellar. Do not wait for it to come out on video-on-demand or streaming or BluRay or whatever. See it now, on a big screen. Go on, get out of here.
I’ll give you a little while.
Okay, are you back? Excellent. Let’s talk about Interstellar now: a magnificent cinematic oratorio, a soaring hymn to love, a brilliant exploration of space and time.
I confess that I was skeptical at first. While I will always hold The Dark Knight in the highest regard, and while I enjoy other Christopher Nolan films very much, I often thought that he seemed to see himself as some sort of boy wonder, or savior of cinema, or some such thing. Christopher Nolan films were about Christopher Nolan stories with Christopher Nolan themes and Christopher Nolan characters and Christopher Nolan struggles. Frequent features include: damaged, angsty male protagonist; angst rooted somehow in the loss of a beautiful, enigmatic woman; impressive action sequences; unimpressive handling of whatever female characters survived; quasi-philosophical overtones. I assumed Interstellar would be more of the same.
No. Not at all. I’m sure you’ve read other reviews complaining that Interstellar is frustrating, or silly, but I am telling you that those critics are frankly wrong. Here, Nolan has learned – finally – how to create human characters, instead of archetypes or tropes. In a film that, among other things, celebrates humanity’s innovation, imagination, capacity for love, having human characters is fairly important. Nolan got that right, very much so.
On the topic of those characters, a brief summary (replete with spoilers, so look out if you ignored my command and didn’t see the movie before you read this): Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and engineer. He lives on a run-down farm in some near-future world, besieged by enormous dust storms and blighted crops. The only crop that still grows is corn – but the general consensus is that it’s only a matter of time before corn succumbs to blight as well, and humanity starves. Somewhere along the way, the world has become deeply anti-technology, and anti-space travel in particular. People are encouraged to be “caretakers” instead of the explorers they used to be. Nearly everyone is a farmer, including Cooper, because of the need to produce as much food as possible while food will still grow. Cooper lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Murph is convinced that there is a ghost in their house, trying to tell her a message by dropping specific books, leaving specific patterns of dust. Father and daughter crack the binary code, leading them to a top secret NASA station. There, Cooper is enlisted in an ambitious project to save humankind: travel through a wormhole near Saturn to a distant galaxy with potentially life-sustaining planets. He agrees, and leaves the home he knows and loves, to take what will most likely be a one-way trip. He and his fellow astronauts – Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), as well as two wisecracking robots, CASE and TARS – find a planet covered in water and crushed by both gravity and biblical tidal waves; a planet of ice and ammonia air; and a black hole called Gargantua. Space travel alone has taken years, but the proximity to Gargantua means that time has slowed to a crawl. An hour on their space ship is seven years back on Earth. The journey to the water planet, which Cooper, Brand, and Doyle take, takes twenty-three years, even back on the space ship orbiting just above: Romilly is an in the early stages of senior citizenship when they return. The astronauts know that Earth is unlikely to last much longer, and time has never been more of the essence. Cooper’s family has died and grown up: Tom (now Casey Affleck) lives as a farmer with his wife and son, both dying from dust inhalation; Murph (now Jessica Chastain) works at NASA with Brand’s father and Cooper’s former mentor (Michael Caine). The dust storms get worse, the corn begins to die, and humans wander in hopes of finding somewhere better on Earth. The astronauts try desperately to find an inhabitable planet – all while understanding that the longer they take, the less likely they’ll be able to return to Earth, and the even less likely there will be an inhabitable Earth to return to.
The comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, are obvious and entirely intentional. The Discovery One of 2001 is circular…
…like the Endurance of Interstellar.
is fondly recreated in CASE and TARS, the mobile and sassy robot helpers in Interstellar.
Dave’s trippy journey through a brightly colored space vortex…
is the obvious visual antecedent of Cooper’s trip into Gargantua (no visual comparison, I’m afraid; since the movie only just came out, there’s a paucity of available images on Google). Both films have grand scope, astonishing effects, and consider the question of humanity’s relation to the cosmos. If I may be so bold, I would say that Interstellar is the Olympic athlete version of 2001: stronger, leaner, faster, more powerful. Not better, per se; I would never commit so unpardonable a sin as say any sci-fi film is better than the sainted 2001 (even if I think it). Interstellar‘s heavenly body is simply capable of doing more things. It’s as much a question of advanced film technology and understanding of astrophysics as anything else (the “anything else” being, I suppose, authorial intent) – so please, film scholars and assorted geeks, do not storm my house with pitchforks.
But there’s more than that, so much more. Hans Zimmer, Nolan’s frequent collaborator, has eschewed the pulsing heartbeat-under-the-floorboards approach of the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, and written walls of sound, with the orchestra at full volume, and seemingly a church full of organs playing at full blast. The effect, paired with the extraordinary visuals of space, is deeply spiritual – even for an avowed atheist like myself. As the images of new galaxies and planets expanded on screen, the music hit me like sunlight streaming in through ceiling-high stained glass windows. It’s overwhelming, but in a beautiful way. I often listen to soundtracks and scores while I putter around, starring in my own movie; but as much as I love this score, I don’t want to associate it with anything except Interstellar. The music and the film together form an oratorio, and it’s a nearly sacred experience.
Interstellar delves headlong into humans’ capacity for love – specifically, Cooper’s and Murph’s. Plenty of animals have the capacity for deep, lasting love; it’s a handy evolutionary tool, after all. Paired with humans’ expanded (as compared to a bird’s or a mouse’s or something – not to speak ill of birds or mice) consciousness, curiosity, and reason, love is a powerful force indeed. It can transcend time and space. It drives extraordinary feats of determination, hardship, pain, endurance. As I watched, as this gorgeous science-fiction oratorio unfolded, I thought to myself, “This feels like a Nabokov story.” Let me throw some more quotes at you, to augment the epigraph and to try to help you understand what I mean. All from Speak, Memory:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). […] Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.
I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature. Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought – with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went – to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. […] Thus, when the newly disclosed, fresh and trim formula of my own age, four, was confronted with the parental formulas, thirty-three and twenty-seven, something happened to me. I was given a tremendously invigorating shock. As if subjected to a second baptism, on more divine lines than the Greek Catholic ducking undergone fifty months earlier […] I felt myself plunged abruptly into a radiant and mobile medium that was none other than the pure element of time. One shared it – just as excited bathers share shining seawater – with creatures that were not oneself but that were joined to one by time’s common flow, an environment quite different from the spatial world, which not only man but apes and butterflies can perceive.
And, most importantly, this:
The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free. I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel’s triadic series (so popular in old Russia) expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time. Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series. If we consider the simplest spiral, three stages may be distinguished in it, corresponding to those of the triad: We can call “thetic” the small curve or arc that initiates the convolution centrally; “antithetic” the larger arc that faces the first in the process of continuing it; and “synthetic” the still ampler arc that continues the second while following the first along the outer side.
They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years – to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know.
And especially this:
Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love – from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter – to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time. It is a pernicious habit, but I can do nothing about it. It can be compared to the uncontrollable flick of an insomniac’s tongue checking a jagged tooth in the night of his mouth and bruising itself in doing so but still persevering. I have known people who, upon accidentally touching something – a doorpost, a wall – had to go through a certain very rapid and systematic sequence of manual contacts with various surfaces in the room before returning to a balanced existence. It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.
I think that much of the criticism of Interstellar has come from those who, to put it bluntly, ignore the void on either side of existence, disregard the amazing gift of consciousness and its infinite reach, think of love as an ordinary (but exclusively human) emotion in the order of anger or annoyance or ennui. Interstellar is about exactly those themes: the pressing need to experience as much beauty, wonder, and joy as possible during our brief lifespans; the wondrous fact of our consciousness, cleverness, ingenuity; the ever-expanding love we feel exploding silently inside for our parents, our siblings, our children – and yes, of course, for our lovers. It’s beautiful, and it’s what Nabokov wrote about in nearly every novel, story, poem, essay, interview – everything. I have no idea if Nolan is a Nabokovian himself, but he created a work of art with the very same colors and textures that Nabokov wove into all his own art. And they share the same moral (though Nabokov would surely balk at anyone suggesting he ever intended to include a moral anywhere): human consciousness, including love and imagination and logic, is the most powerful force in this universe. It can transcend countries, continents, decades, galaxies. It is our greatest treasure, and all the more precious because of the impending black void on the other side of our existence. We’d better do the best with it that we can.
P.S. In case you wondered, Neil de Grasse Tyson says the science is legit.