On Interstellar, love, time and the limitless prison of our Cosmos.
An exploration and explanation of the ideas in Chris Nolan’s new movie, a defense of its sincerity, and the misunderstood implications of how a movie lets you see that we’re all traveling through time.
You can’t take it literally, but you’ve got to give it some time. Interstellar has proven to be a divisive movie in critical discourse, and while I cannot argue against the reactions of those who were turned off by by its emotive yearnings, I do think that much has been overlooked about what the movie is, a common ailment for criticism in these times, which often prefers to focus on what something should’ve been.
A movie as dense as Interstellar requires room for thought outside the confines of the screen, which is what the best cinema does: a series of still photographs flashed in procession, the ultimate gift of a movie is its invocation for the viewer to be creative, to give life to frozen pictures reassembled within their own mind. Nolan’s embrace and total devotion to analog in camera methods is one and the same, the result being movies that require the viewer’s mind to complete their consensual illusion.
And there hasn’t been much writing about Interstellar in such an expansive, imaginative way; I’ve yet to see a single review that invokes Borges, J.G. Ballard, or Yayoi Kusama. I’ve read little examination of its playing with the imagery & icons of the reconstruction of American frontier and explorer myth. And I’ve read nothing on the film’s representation of atemporality, perhaps the defining modality of the 21st century, brilliantly explained by Bruce Sterling here.
Most of all I’m surprised to see little appreciation for the meta implications embedded within of filmmaking and the act of viewing a film (and I really get to use the word film, as it was a production shot & lovingly projected on film). Or its obvious debt to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, surely territory that film critics would be staking out.
Instead I’ve seen some dubious, irrelevant hand wringing over scientific accuracy hilariously deconstructed by Outlaw Vern, millennial nostalgia for a boilerplate generic space slasher movie, a full length critique predicated on the writer misunderstanding the plot, and someone extraordinarily smart recklessly calling for the entire genre of science fiction to be bound by limitations that don’t allow for the subjective human experience. There’s been a terrific and very funny Freudian take on the movie and the sexual politics of docking sequences in scifi. But the main critique is a dominant, self reflexive embarrassment for the film’s overt sincerity. Have we become more terrified of intimacy than interstellar travel?
Yes, Interstellar ultimately is about love; but I’d argue that it’s not about a force that conquers all, or anything so glib. Sentimental, perhaps. For the constant of love in Interstellar is how we are all conquered by time. We are trapped by the scale of the universe, but in recognizance of these truths comes a kind of tragic reckoning, if you’re willing to follow the thought. I myself didn’t entirely catch it in the act of watching the movie. It was only thinking about it, later. Or maybe feeling is the right way of putting it, because again, it’s not that literal, it’s a movie; it’s emotional.
To discuss that, I will have to discuss the movie’s ending at length, so be warned, after this countdown proceeds, it’s a mostly an examination of the film’s ending.
3… 2… 1…
It is a movie in which the robots have all the irony, and the humans are overtly sincere. For who better to get a cosmic joke than subservient artificial intelligences that aren’t facing extinction, while their creators and masters are?
There’s a lot of inversion like this in Interstellar, ideas floating weightlessly in spaces constantly spinning so that there’s no up or down: the appropriation of actual footage from Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl documentary as futuristic testimony, the usage of the sound of Earth’s biophony (crickets, a rainstorm) over the void & emptiness just off the shores of Saturn. There’s the mirrored sky of its icy second planet, the appearance of McConaughey’s most famous impressionist as his foil. There is also a refrain of characters switching familial roles that are vacated, and eventually the action of the expedition on distant planets is reflected by, and concurrent, with events on Earth.
Let’s make a giant leap. I believe the most profound inversion is the very identity of “they”: the offscreen, mysterious, never seen transdimensional observers that influence events in the story. Alluded to as beings with access to an atemporal, fifth dimensionally liberated view of time, creators of a wormhole, with mastery over space, time and gravity, by the film’s end we learn that “they” is “us”: evolutionarily and technologically advanced humans far into the future.
I theorize that Interstellar actually makes you one of those beings. It is us, literally. The deus ex machina in the story is you, the observer watching the movie, and science tells us that to watch something is to change it. Let me explain…
Here’s a wonderfully brilliant primer by Neil Degrasse Tyson speaking of the movie and how you and I inhabit a universe of four dimensions, but we are imprisoned by one of them.
Consider please for a second the dimension of time while viewing a film projection. A film is a two dimensional image that offers a three dimensional perspective (I’m not talking about the optical illusion of our recent attempts to justify stereoscopic 3-D, but about depth of field, selective focus, perspective). While being projected on an analog, physical format like film projection, it can only ever run forward, along one axis of time (for you don’t have a remote control in a theater, the reels have to physically unspool). But within those confines, a film can begin to distort and disregard time altogether. It is entirely possible in cinema to leave the theater for a moment to use the bathroom, and upon your return, 23 years have gone by.
This is precisely what Interstellar does to you as the viewer. There are some slight wobbles of relativistic distortion at the very start; a timeless memory under the burden of dust is the first thing we see, followed by the shock of a dream that is memory, and upon Cooper’s awakening from his traumatic, prophetic flashback, the movie becomes decidedly linear for its first act. Scenes are self contained, there is very little cross cutting, Nolan abandons the limits of montage he pushed to near absurdity in The Dark Knight Rises (talk about a film with a liberated view of time). For the first time Nolan uses cuts to black to denote a block of time passing. There’s a wonderful patience to the first act, a grounding of possibilities, diminished dreams, a simple way of perceiving time. And it’s all headed towards extinction.
But once the characters leave Earth and first come into contact with Einstein’s relativistic notion of space-time, once they proceed through the wormhole, once the gravity of the black hole robs them of decades in what is to you mere minutes, the film itself starts to transform. Time within and without the film starts to distort, the editing and parallel storylines begin to converge and flow into each other, and edits now jump through time and space in the blink of an eye, or the projector’s shutter.
A movie is, itself, an act of relativistic time compression. All movies are a capture of moments of time reconstructed into a semblance of persistence. As Interstellar’s principal character comes to understand time, the movie’s editing fragments further and further, buttressing the relativistic dialogue. There’s this assumption that Nolan’s reliance on expository dialogue is where he prizes coherence, but it’s really because of his formalist interest in showing it, and mostly by the very nature of editing, as opposed to just by virtue of images. The editing and narrative structure of Interstellar tells you everything you need to know about General Relativity. It’s there in that sublime edit of the biophonic sounds of Earth over the void of space; a perspective only offered when you connect an image and a disparate sound into something grander.
The universe’s rules are given dramatic life after the tragic first expedition to the water planet. Upon return the astronauts learn that 23 years have passed in just over an hour. When Cooper watches a series of messages taking him through two decades of his children’s lives, it is the maximal example of the universal act of anyone watching recorded footage of a loved one. Because all recorded media is a capture of a moment of the past, and to view it is to observe that the true constant in the universe is not the speed of light but our passage through time. Time may distort, your reference perception of it may shift, but we only ever move forward through it. Interstellar compresses the brutal truth of this absolute into a purely expressionistic tragedy, the movie itself distorting time in order to let us feel the full weight of its tragedy, the way our lives slip through our hands, our loved ones age, our children proceed into the future, into a few minutes.
It’s a perfectly understandable anxiety for a film director to have — it’s a job that’s mostly about fighting a clock, making every fraction of a second count with extreme investment. The pervasive neurosis in the film reminds me of what it’s like to go for take six when the sun is setting. But there’s also the sadness of leaving lives behind for the endeavor of making a film, the loss of years and friendship that cannot be sustained when an act requires obsessive pursuit. Everyone I know who makes films or travels a lot (or as I and some friends do, rides bicycles alone across some distance) comes out the other side mildly depressed, at the least, because for a very focused pocket of time you and other people gave your most to something. And when it’s over, you return to lives having been lived in an instant that you’ve missed. Friends breakup, children get taller in the way new buildings do. Sometimes, even, people die. You’re left with the guilt of the absent explorer.
There’s a terrific passage in rocket scientist Robert Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars in which he argues against the dangers of sending to astronauts by recalling the circumstances of an ancestor of his who served in the trenches of WWI. What we often forget on globalized, networked Earth is that exploration is longing, it is horribly, selfishly fun. And all returns home are never about place, but the passage of time.
We are then, at midpoint of the film, offered a subjective, metaphorical personal belief offered by the scientist character Brand, not a validation of it, mind you, that all their hope against time is bound up in love. I find it somewhat worrying that this has been regarded as problematic. To get very real about it, the very fabric of space and time we inhabit is a limitless prison, its constraints dooming us all, and the vastness of that prison is only challenged absurdly by human ambition, will, and, yes, compassion. The scale of the cosmos is not cruel or petty or desolate; it is none of things, it is vacuum, an abyss without morality or judgment, where the only eventuality is separation and entropy. It is indifferent, and you only have to get lucky enough to leave light pollution behind and see the Milky Way with your own eyes to feel preposterously small.
(And I wonder now if 2001: A Space Odyssey is not a movie that takes the point of view of God or an alien intelligence, but the point of view of that vacuum?)
I don’t offer this as belief; it is scientifically measurable, not an invention of screenwriting, that all matter in the universe is destined to grow distant and cold. There are many strangely poetic statements in relativistic theory: “At any given moment in a frame of reference you are moving away from someone toward someone else.” Nolan’s cowriter, his brother, Jonathan, notes how many relativistic thought experiments are strange familial tragedies. How many movies actually want to comprehend that? And what do we have against it?
Just the meager sum of our lives. I hope for everyone there’s love involved. But lives, unlike the Cosmos, I suppose, can be cruel.
Now let’s leap again to the end of the movie, down that black hole, that singularity, to the other side of the ultimate representation we have in all of nature of the unknown: a literal black hole that swallows information and gravity. Falling in, we go to that library, an image so stunning I silently gasped. Is it any wonder all the possibilities collapse in an infinite library (or labyrinth), a bookcase rendered as one of Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored, lonely infinity rooms? The movie has fully become a tesseract now, all time unmoored, in an incredible visual, possibly the most Borges-ian imagery ever put in a movie.
As in La Jetée (as J.G. Ballard put it, “the only convincing time travel in the whole of science fiction”) we discover our hero is recursively obsessed with a few singular images and moments and anchored to a particular time by intense longing he feels for another human being. Little has been made about a quiet detail: Cooper alone is the one astronaut who has familial attachments. This potential liability, for what was previously intended as a mission of self sacrifice, I theorize as the defining reason why he is the hero of the film.
(And I should mention, Nolan’s working title for Interstellar was “Letter to Flora”, Flora being his youngest daughter).
Quite like a filmmaker, seeking to impose a personal reality upon the same image repeated, replayed infinitely, it’s a testament to watching, something Chris Marker understood before all of us. To visit an image from your past is to travel in time. This is not merely the realm of transdimensional beings in the future. It is us, now, in the theater, watching a movie. Because technology has liberated us from time as much as space, ever since the first audio recording or photograph. Our enormous collective augmented memory, recorded to media (like the word medium: one who contacts the dead) is the beginning of us conceiving that we can overthrow time, someday. We call this atemporality.
But as a result, becoming atemporal means time has no meaning for you, and thus it is with the offstage future of humanity. They cannot seize upon a memory, they cannot return to a defined moment in time. Time to them is happening all at once, infinitely, where birth and death and everything in between happens simultaneously, like an editor surrounded by footage that hasn’t been watched yet.
It’s only through Cooper’s attachment to memories of his daughter and his separation from her, defined by love, longing, loss, regret and guilt, that a point in time can be defined, that its pull, its gravity, is an anchor, and this is what happens in the tesseract.
It’s not that love conquers anything; it is that our lives are a strange journey through time, through the infinite prison, and in doing so we have love as a result, a revolt against the “colossal hoax of calendars and clocks” as e.e. cummings wrote. We visit the dead, those we’ve lost; we remember them. The love here is about a grief that the film is full of, a mournfulness for the persistence and inviolable prison of time we journey through every day, every second, every moment, always losing it.
Within the tesseract, the mythic hero makes contact with his daughter as a ghost, a memory: via language, books, a watch. Why a library, why a wristwatch, why books within a black hole? The answer to that question has no logic, there is no science for it “bad” or otherwise; it is very simply that the filmmaker has intentionally chosen those things for a reason, and to deny that is fairly ignorant about how movies work.
What are the things that we can pass down before the dust takes us all? Nothing digital, but physical objects at least cannot be erased. The writing you make in the margins of a book will travel through time in a way an ebook never can (I thank William Gibson for this personal and heartfelt illumination).
Cooper tells his daughter early in the film: “We become our children’s memories.” He actually has to literally do that. What we are observing is the process of how our lives run down and we are consecrated to memory, visualized as an infinite library. It’s fucking incredible.
Some have criticized this notion of becoming your children’s memory as self absorbed. I don’t really follow. I hate to break it to you, but we are all destined to become someone’s memory. Interstellar knows that, but is not a movie concerned with death, as much as the effects of time on human lives. Caine’s character flatly states it: “I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of time.” I’ll give you that he does quote Dylan Thomas a little too much, but then again how can one be annoyed with a reference to poets in a very expensive movie, another endangered species?
Murphy, the daughter, finally decodes and reconciles quantum mechanics with general relativity, having been handed essential data from the other side of a singularity. She does so with the aid of a stopped, glitching watch, a sigil of atemporality, a signifier that time has lost all meaning, a device often passed down as an heirloom. The event horizon and the human desire to explore leads us to insights we pass down in time. This happens all the time; when we inherit books, ideas, and the artifacts of what our families and friends were. In the end this grandiose movie about traveling through space comes down on the side of family, knowledge, love, and books.
So there we are, in the theater, watching the movie, offered an extradimensional perspective by the language of filmmaking. What’s remarkable about us is that we can conceive of transcending limitations, and this is maybe what all true science fiction is (for movies now are awash in power fantasies with the production of science fiction but so few ideas): an attempt to open doors to all the quantum possibilities of what might be.
None of them will ever come true, but our relationship with the science fictional future is always predicated, even most cynically, upon hope that there is a future. In both Interstellar and William Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral, a disaster is averted with information passed down from the future of humanity. I take this to mean that we have the ability to imagine a future in which humans understand better. Which means it’s a viable possibility. Gibson has said, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”. For a moment, watching a movie offers us a glimpse into the yearning, the longing, the hope we had for the future and our place in it. We can look forward in time.
As the film nears conclusion we are given one of its slyest images. Apocalypse is contained as a rural American farmhouse, within a museum, now a relic, a rarely visited tourist spot. The suffering of those who will endure the Anthropocene just might someday fade into recorded testimony. Interstellar asks us for a final inversion (in a space station where the earth encircles the sky above us) of our present, so that exploration is something we do and in our character; and our post apocalyptic visions, so dominant in our culture currently, become relics in museums, gathering dust. Time is a prison. But the film passionately argues, let’s explore it to our limits.
The only conspiracy or rebellion we can offer against the relentlessness of time, against the universe’s progression toward entropy, is love; the act of committing to memory that which will be lost. Love is not a higher power in this film, but it is transcendental. In this model of the Cosmos, in this sentimental orrery, love cannot exist without time, the two are inverse, complimentary, entangled like quantum particles. Time’s very meaning is derived from the impermanence of life.
I want to explain that when I say I love the movie Interstellar I am perfectly aware of its flaws. Movies are imperfect at best, all directors are falliable, and it’s a hideous standard of art, nearly fascist, that would claim anyone has reached perfection. There are clunky lines, and excess, a few dramatic moments that lack grace, and some vital bits of very complicated information that are difficult to grasp (the need for humanity to overcome gravity to start a new space age is a residual concept with much more importance in Jonah Nolan’s original draft, launched by producer Lynda Obst and physicist Kip Throne originally as something Spielberg was exploring all that remains is most definitely the brothers’ imaginations).
When I say I love Interstellar what I mean is that I love how it was shot, that it only has 695 cgi shots in it compared to the 2500 plus that has become commonplace, that its dreamlike impossible images are the result of humans under the force of gravity attempting to dispel it with human labor. I love the IMAX photography, as if my dreams of science documentaries had been hijacked. I love the spacesuits, and the spaceships, I love the score (in which I hear Delius, Faure, and Kraftwerk) and the costumes. I love that the movie was made by hand, mostly.
I’ve always been slightly baffled by the notion of Nolan as a precise, mathematical or logically inclined perfectionist. For the most part my reaction to his recent work has been a smile; I find his movies fun. It’s possible that The Dark Knight Rises is in fact Nolan trying to make a movie with the sense of anarchic fun that Guardians of the Galaxy has, but his sense of humor is just very weird.
Part of that is the joy of their cinematic audaciousness, their belief in the analog so absolute that they achieve what most movies are just too lazy to do now: commitment to the enterprise with absolute devotion, an attempt to be larger than digital television.
That’s very different from perfection; which is a tyranny. There are many mistakes and continuity errors in Nolan’s films (an unavoidable product of how he assembles coverage for montage), scenes where you sense that some more time might’ve improved it, had he had it. I’ve seen him speak, on studio politics, in front of some studio executives, and he’s incredibly sharp about the realities of working on such a large scale and one way he trades off his commitment to the IMAX format and never shooting with a second unit is to always deliver a film on time and under budget. There’s no way to be perfect in such a sphere.
I do find his movies often funny, and sentimental — but it’s a very dry British wit and sentiment, which if you have any experience with, may approach you stony faced but underneath lies all the quivering sensitivity in the world.
I once spent time on a location of his. I watched him work through his day, never behind a monitor, instead carrying a portable one in his pocket that he’d refer to, always hovering just behind cameras, walking into the action and observing near the center of its reality. This was a day with 2000 extras in costume having shut down four blocks of Wall Street. I never saw him refer to storyboards, he often used single camera setups, not even doing a second take if the gate was clear. He moves relentlessly fast, and organically, and there’s nothing about his environment that comes anywhere close to perfection (especially not when we’ve got Fincher around, who has taken George Lucas’ prequel driven ideology of cutting and pasting actors’ mouths on different takes and digitally erasing camera shake). Nolan has somehow managed to marry a ridiculously outsize canvas with a near documentary shooting aesthetic, an intimate one. Tom Shone’s profile in the Guardian observes all of this with more nuance, and is probably the best writing we have about him as a person.
One memory I have in particular is in between takes, alone, he went to examine the burnt out remains of some pyrotechnics that had been rigged to give the illusion of an exploding Bat-tank. As he reached out to pick it up, at the very last second his crew seemed to finally recognize him and intervened on his focused curiosity, in the process keeping him from burning his hands. “The trick is in not minding it hurts,” is probably a cinematic moment he appreciates.
He directed like some kind of apparition or time traveler; benevolently, devotedly, always near on his feet, never at a monitor in a chair, never wavering. For Nolan, I get the sense a movie is invested with such care that its reality is so vivid it might actually burn you, and that vitality, that devotion is the grandest possibility of cinema. Interstellar, projected in 70mm IMAX, might be one of the last. I hope you see this, before time runs out. And yes, I know, you’ve already seen the film.