[SPOILERS ahead for INTERSTELLAR]
With the upcoming release of Nolan’s latest feature film, Dunkirk, I though it only necessary to talk about my favourite film of his, Interstellar. Nolan is considered one of today’s most consistent directors and hasn’t made a bad film to date. With films like Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010), Nolan has built up a substantial roster of films that have been revered by both fans and critics. Interstellar, however, is Nolan’s only multi-million dollar feature not to receive universal acclaim. Don’t get me wrong, Interstellar crushed the box office, grossing $675 million worldwide and currently stands at 8.6 on IMDb. But, it is considered by some, to be the weakest entry in to his filmography and has received its fair share of dismissal. For me, it is Nolan’s best work and I wanted to give some insight into the film’s early production and a brief explanation of why it resonated with me so much…
What some people may not know, is that although technically ‘sci-fi’, the majority of events that take place in Interstellar, can be backed by modern theoretical science. The film was in fact conceived of almost a decade before its release by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who had previously worked on the 1997 film, Contact – which doesn’t deal with dissimilar themes). Thorne’s basic premise was “the most exotic events in the universe suddenly becoming accessible to humans”. This general theme ran through up until the films eventual release nearly 10 years later, and resulted in Kip Thorne even publishing a book called ‘The Science of Interstellar’ after the film’s success. Thorne constructed an 8 page mini-script for the film in an attempt to move forward with some sort of production. Steven Spielberg actually picked up the project in 2006, but after switching his production company to Dreamworks in 2009, the film was in search for another director. Before leaving however, Spielberg had hired Jonathan Nolan to write a full script in 2007. Nolan worked with Thorne for 4 years to develop it, and even studied relativity to ensure that the film had scientific theory to back it up. Nolan drew inspiration from Wall-E (2008) and Avatar (2009) to understand the idea of an apocalyptic earth and to properly convey the desperation that mankind would suffer on a planet with depleting resources. The eventual setting of the film was inspired by the documentary Dust Bowl, set back in the 1930s, and the film ended up using some of the real interviews from that film in its opening and closing sequences.
In the meantime, Jonathan had suggested Christopher Nolan to direct the film to Paramount who agreed. Chris began working on a script based off John’s ideas and the first draft eventually emerged. There was a plethora of ideas provided by Thorne and Jonathan in their personal draft, but Chris opted to pick and choose the more conveyable ones for his version, so not to lose the audience due to the complexity of the science. Nolan (now describing Chris) also added the main character of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who was intended as an ‘everyman’, and to serve as the viewers gateway into this intergalactic journey. At its core, Nolan wanted the film to be a story about the relationship and connection between a father and his daughter. So, when pitching the film to composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and soon Dunkirk), he gave him only a one page dialogue, which Nolan believed summed up the emotional soul of the film. This was intended to prohibit the film from a stereotypical space sci-fi score and to further this, Zimmer was not even told the genre of the film before generating the main theme. The idea proved successful as Zimmer earned an Oscar nomination for his work.
All of this lead to the film having a very human feel. The astonishing visuals and action never seemed to overwhelming as they were accompanied by the real people we were on this journey with. Nolan opted for over an hour of character set-up for the relationship between Cooper and Murph before the film begun its transition into space. It deals with the idea of human extinction and the necessary cost that comes with furthering human existence even if that means one’s own demise (as seen by the philosophy of Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand). This is of course countered by Cooper’s determination to get back home to his daughter and his denial that his connection with her will be lost. I believe Interstellar could have been a much easier and accessible film, had it not try to deal with such human characters and ideals during its runtime, and instead just focus on the universal visuals. However, Nolan’s love of film and dedication to character, led him down this more challenging path for the audience. This however, naturally led to criticism.
A regular defence of Interstellar is that those who did not like the film, simply didn’t get it. Whilst I don’t believe this argument holds water, I also don’t feel that it is far off. I think that that those who didn’t enjoy it, simply didn’t buy into it. The word ‘ridiculous’ is thrown around by critics, not in the films corner so to speak when regarding the film’s third act. Despite not agreeing with this, I completely sympathise with the view; had you not connected with the main characters throughout the film, and not invested any emotion into their relationship, then this ending just seems confusing and unnecessarily over the top. But for someone who was invested whilst sitting in the cinema back in 2014, I was left gobsmacked and in complete awe. For me it was a mind-blowing revelation that Cooper, was all along Murph’s ‘ghost’ and that their relationship – the emotional core of the film – was what inevitably saved them both. Murph had that resolution that her father didn’t leave her and Cooper finally redeemed his abandonment of his daughter, all those decades ago. It was an important rarity for a film with such a high budget, and dealing with such ambitious themes to have such importance on its characters and for them both to have an arc by the film’s end.
I may say Interstellar is a perfect film, but that is only my own subjective perfectionism. I am privy to agreeing with the regular ‘eye roll’ critiques of the film (ie. Anne Hathaway’s love line and Matt Damon’s character inconspicuously being called ‘Mann’). However, these things do not at all take away from my enjoyment of the film. I understand Hathaway’s line was cheesy and ultimately silly, but this was during a very important part of these characters’ respective journeys [Cooper and Brand]. Nolan saw it as important to remind the audience of what the primitive motivation for these people was, so that their actions were explicable. Yes, it resulted in a poorly written, soppy line, but it was a necessary one and it didn’t weaken my enjoyment. To explain, I’ll use Star Wars: A New Hope as a reference point. This is regarded by more than a few to be their favourite film, and most likely would be described as the perfect movie. But however great the film is, there is no denying that the first Obi Wan Kenobi/Darth Vader is a slow, awfully choreographed, poking match between two old men. Does this hinder their enjoyment though? No. Interstellar obviously doesn’t have the the decades of adoration or the cultural impact that the first Star Wars film had, but, the point remains the same. When it regards something we love, it is not absurd to overlook minor criticisms.
Essentially, I am not telling those who dislike it that they are wrong but that they should have a level of respect for this film. Interstellar is a product of ambition, dedication to storytelling and character and most importantly a love of cinema. In a world where 5 Transformers movies exist, films of Interstellar’s likeness are few and far between. Christopher Nolan is one of the few working directors who put story on a higher pedestal than box office intent and I see it as reductive to label this film as ‘stupid’ just because at face value it may seem far fetched or arduous. I implore those who are not fans of Interstellar to revisit it with a different mindset, and if not for that, then for the insight it provides into masterful filmmaking.