Quantum physics. Relativity. Event horizons. The laws of gravity. Singularities. Wormholes. The possibility of alternate dimensions. These are not the building blocks of your typical $160 million Hollywood blockbuster, which tend to treat science as a convenient way to explain pesky plot holes and incongruities.
But director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy) is different. In Interstellar, which opens Wednesday in select 70mm IMAX screens and everywhere else Friday, the filmmaker does not shy away from diving into grad-school-level speculation. Unlike last year’s Gravity, which was scrupulously researched and conceivably could have happened (doubtful, but it could have), Interstellar builds its story in proven scientific fact and then builds on it by speculating what could be possible.
Set in the near future, when Earth is on the verge of extinction, four astronauts (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) embark on a NASA mission — probably a one-way ride — to search the far reaches of the galaxy for another planet capable of sustaining human life.
The plot of Interstellar has been kept top-secret (and for good reason), so that’s all the plot you’ll get here. But that simple premise doesn’t begin to describe the scope and ambition and emotion of Nolan’s film, a heady blockbuster intended to make you say “Whoa!” as often as “Huh?”
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Originally written by his brother Jonathan with the intention of having Steven Spielberg direct it, Nolan immediately jumped on the project after Spielberg bailed and rewrote the script to make it his own. Collaborating with the famed theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who received an executive producer credit on the film), Nolan reshaped the first draft of the script to something more manageable for mainstream audiences to grasp and added a strong human element: The relationship between McConaughey and his daughter (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain), who has never forgiven him for abandoning her in the hope of saving mankind.
Still, the scientific jargon in Interstellar is so dense and flies so fast — Star Wars, this is not — that you wonder how Nolan knew whether he was pushing things too far for the average person to understand.
“I’ve always placed a lot of trust in the audience,” Nolan says by telephone from Los Angeles. “I’ve always felt making movies is about guiding people emotionally and narratively, getting them to see what the overall story is and making them feel what the characters are feeling. If you can achieve that clarity, the audience sticks with you through the more-challenging ideas.
“My advice for people going to see Interstellar is to just enjoy the ride, and you’ll get all you need to get out of it. For people who are interested, there’s a lot more there, but it was critical to make a film that didn’t require that kind of scientific understanding.”
With the exception of small, low-budget films such as Moon or Primer, Interstellar may be the first film since 2001: A Space Odyssey to qualify as “hard” science fiction, a movie that uses the genre intellectually as well as for sheer showmanship (Nolan saw 2001 for the first time when he was 8 years old and decided right there he wanted to be a filmmaker).
The movie is filled with visual tributes and call-outs to Kubrick’s masterpiece, some obvious, others much more subtle (see if you can spot the edit that honors the seminal cut in 2001 that went from a human bone to a spaceship drifting through space).
“That’s one of my favorite cuts in the film,” Nolan says happily. “It’s a big leap, and I love cuts that make big leaps. If an edit in a film can take you across the universe, that’s a real cool thing to do.
“Obviously, it’s very daunting to make a movie that is going to be compared to 2001,” he says. “But it’s also very inspiring. Interstellar owes a great debt to Kubrick’s film and acknowledges it throughout, because there’s no point in pretending we live in a world where 2001 doesn’t exist. You have to accept the burden of that, but you also get the benefit of inspiration. You have to embrace it.
“Any genre you work with tends to have a seminal piece of work in that genre. Every science-fiction film is going to have either 2001 or Star Wars hanging over it. So you either dive in and do your best, or you give up and try a different genre. I dove in and did my best.”
At a time when CGI has made it easier than ever for filmmakers to put whatever image they can think of onto film, why are there so few serious sci-fi films made? Ridley Scott tried with Prometheus and came up with an incomprehensible mess. Meanwhile, comic-book space operas such as Guardians of the Galaxy are packing theaters, and lurking on the horizon is a new Star Wars. One could argue that the most mature sci-fi movies in the past four decades were Pixar’s WALL-E and Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact — and one of them was a glorious cartoon.
Tom DeMichael, author of Modern Sci-Fi Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Time Travel, Alien, Robot and Out-of-This World Movies Since 1970, believes Hollywood’s preference for Star Trek and John Carter is simply a reflection of our time.
“Partly, it’s due to the audience’s need to escape,” DeMichael says via email. “Look in the paper, watch the media, and people find enough seriousness right there. So they need a two-hour carnival ride, loaded with thrills, spills and chills — with very little room left for a serious story. Films like those made by Kubrick and Nolan are rare, as they are rare filmmakers.
“Think back to the sci-fi films that flooded the 1950s. Directors like Jack Arnold, Fred Sears, Nathan Juran, even Bert I. Gordon, made entertaining movies with only a scrap of a story and even less special effects. Their visions could not in any way compare to those of Kubrick and Nolan. The journeyman writers and directors in Hollywood today are plentiful and definitely serve a purpose; artists like Kubrick and Nolan are not so plentiful.
“Interstellar may be an homage to 2001, but part of the former film’s immense impact was based on that period of time,” DeMichael says. “Take a deep space concept like 2001 (remembering we hadn’t yet even landed on the moon), marry it with Doug Trumbull’s groundbreaking, never-before-seen visual effects and add a dollop of the mind-blowing psychedelics that were popular at the time. Of course, a film like that is going to make an impact.
“Today, audiences are much more aware and educated to the filmmaking process, upping the ante for filmmakers to — somehow — create something that’s never before been seen. That puts a lot of pressure on creators like Nolan and, as a result, you have a film like Interstellar.”
Emma Thomas, one of the producers of Interstellar (and also Nolan’s wife — they have four kids) says that despite the density of the script, getting studios to hop on board was surprisingly easy (the movie was a co-production between Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.).
“We were very lucky because we had great partners who loved the script,” she says. “But in large part, we were also in a position where Chris’ last few movies were very successful [his pictures have grossed $3.6 billion around the world], and when you have that track record, people are much more willing to take the risk of making an original movie that isn’t at all the standard fare you see at the multiplex.
“Inception was much harder for them to wrap their minds around because I think that was a much more complex script than this one. But once you get past the science angle, Interstellar is a very simple storyline and easy to understand. Also, the final meaning can be interpreted on many different levels, and the studio loved that.”
“There’s a high degree of trust between myself and the studios right now, because I’ve been fortunate with the audience response to my films,” Nolan says. “But I would never go ahead with a project without the studio feeling confident and invested in the material. I didn’t want them to take a leap of faith, so to speak. They needed to get it emotionally, which they did. They were the first to say ‘There are science elements in here that are going to confuse people, but they’ll stick with it.’ That made me confident to make a film that has some rather complicated ideas behind it.”
You’ll have to see the movie to find out what those ideas are. Part of the way the Nolans manage to keep the plot details of their films secret is that they do test screenings only with friends and family members — people they trust won’t run off and write reviews on the Internet based on an unfinished cut. Even more than The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar has four or five extended setpieces — one in particular comes close to unbearable suspense — that show tremendous growth in Nolan’s abilities as an action director, something he had been criticized for in the past.
“I learned a lot making the Dark Knight movies,” he says. “In order to create that kind of sustained suspense — what I call the snowballing effect of the narrative, in which you build and build then go into this action-suspense mode and see how long you can sustain that without the audience giving up — is something I’ve been trying to avail myself of and expand with each film. There are a lot of aspirations to Hitchcock in that. I think it’s a fascinating element for movies to play with.”
Like 2001, Interstellar also shows you things you’ve never seen before, including some dazzling abstract imagery that makes you curious how the filmmaker came up with it.
“I’m a big fan of developing a screenplay that poses visual problems you can’t answer as a writer,” he says. “I take my director’s hat off and put on my writer’s hat and come up with things I have no idea how I’m going to direct. Then you get your team together, your designer, your special effects supervisor, and you start experimenting. As long as the narrative’s demands are clear, as long as you understand why you have to enter an extraordinary visual moment at that point in the story even if you don’t know how, it’s a great, fun challenge.”
Despite the monumental sweep and daring of the movie, some early reviews have criticized Interstellar for being corny or sentimental because the strained relationship between father and daughter is at the heart of the film, at odds with the technical and scientific wonders the rest of the movie has to offer.
“For me, the test of whether or not a relationship like that is working is sincerity,” he says. “Something can be familiar and well-established, but you can still use it as a tool if it’s something you really believe in and draw from in real life. If it’s sincere, it’s not corny. Norman Rockwell is not corny, but someone imitating Rockwell is. The Spielberg films, especially from the late ’70s and early ’80s, really did that. To me, that central relationship is a very meaningful thing to me. I’m a father. That to me makes it real. If it’s real, it’s not corny.”
Besides, Kubrick’s 2001 was often panned when it first opened, and look at it now. Ultimately, although Interstellar revolves around doomsday and futuristic sci-fi tends to be pessimistic, there’s a vein of hope coursing through the film (Nolan is much more optimistic than Kubrick ever was).
It’s neatly summed up in a quote cribbed from a poem by Dylan Thomas that becomes the film’s mantra: “Do not go gentle into that good night. ... Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”