Director: Christopher Nolan.
With Tenet being released this week I thought it best to revisit and finally review two of Nolan’s greatest contributions to the science fiction genre thus far. Inception and Interstellar. Sad to say, I’m presuming it’s going to be a challenge watching Tenet without comparing it to these two instant classics; but I will try my very best to watch it as a singularity and here’s hoping it’s yet again, something unique; it certainly looks it.
Now some people may have even avoided the mind boggling Inception or his Dark Knight trilogy for it not being their thing. But Interstellar feels like his most unavoidable film; it’s a true sci-fi epic that manages to be a blend of a deep, emotional space odyssey and a far out, yet believable piece of science fiction; and there’s good reason as to why.
Jonathan Nolan, Christopher’s brother was initially hired by Steven Spielberg to write the story and when Spielberg set off to pursue other projects, Jonathan recommended his brother to take the helm instead. But it wasn’t all just Jonathan’s story and Christopher’s amazing vision. There’s a lot owing to Dr. Kip Thorne who provides the very basis of the scientific foundation of the story, actually setting boundaries of what is real and what can be realistic possible.
Dr. Kip Thorne is a multiple award winning, Nobel prize winning, theoretical physicist who is well regarded throughout the world with his works on gravitational physics and astrophysics; pretty much the same realms Einstein meddled with when he came up with the theory of relativity. He once won a bet against Dr. Stephen Hawking (the first one about black holes) who consequently had to subscribe to Penthouse Magazine for a year, much to the disapproval of Thorne’s wife.
Thorne became an executive producer on the film and was chief technical advisor to not only Nolan himself; having much debate about what might be possible and what could not, but he contributed much of his knowledge to the visual effect team as well, which resulted in 800 terabytes of data and Dr. Kip Thorne actually writing two scientific papers on visual discoveries not otherwise realised if not for the film. It was ahead of its time, with the 2019 pictures of a real black hole being scarily close to the film’s vision of one. Oh, and the mathematical formulas you see on the chalkboards; that is actual science written by Thorne himself.
The film interestingly opens in a very close future accompanied with snippets of interviews to help set the story. All, apart from Ellen Burstyn’s contribution are real life interviews that are from Ken Burns’ 2012 Documentary, The Dust Bowl, of survivors of the 1930’s disaster that swept North America; perfectly setting the scene of the world being on the brink of global famine and introducing the impact and importance of our actions today. The earth is beyond repair, certainly for human existence and the only feasible solution of survival is to leave our planet.
Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, or Cooper and is amazing as the torn father who makes the ultimate sacrifice of his parenthood for the greater good and in a round about way, saving their lives. It’s quite possibly, the most difficult sacrifice any parent can do, to leave those you most care about in order to save their future. McConaughey’s performances entwined with the story clearly displays that this isn’t an excuse to skip parenthood. Cooper is the key protagonist but you’re never thinking he’s the selfless hero out to save the entire future of humankind. It goes further than that with McConaughey injecting a personal, almost selfish humility that keeps Cooper ironically grounded. He’s a father, a man who is ultimately trying to get back home to his family, but he knows if has to save that home or ignite some hope by a weird twist of fate.
There’s the turmoil and resentment, regret and forgiveness. It’s not only exploring the depths of space and time, but with McConaughey’s performance, we delve into the emotional psyche of human emotional and dare I say, love. It’s hard to deny that the key focus is all on Cooper’s personal mission, that is clear but the supporting cast is tremendous and really holds the rest of the story up. The emotional struggle is real as space time literally unfolds, even though the crew is are millions of miles away from earth, the thought of home does more than linger in the background and is still, very much the driving force of their mission's purpose. Hathaway, Gyasi and Bentley all give strong performances as fellow crew members, allowing each character to bounce off each other. Some might be surprised to see a young Timothée Chalamet who is perfect as a younger Casey Affleck. You can clearly see Chalamet has based his performance on Affleck as oppose to Affleck being an older Chalamet. Chastain is equally good at playing the abandoned, older Murph. But it’s Bill Irwin’s robot TARS that actually shoulders up to McConaughey performance and even has his name rightly among the top billing.
These robots, or machines as Nolan prefers to refer to them as, are, whilst looking nothing more than a metallic slab, they’re actually more like Swiss Army knives and given their backstory as military grade hardware, they’re impressively multifunctional and the initial boring imagery quickly dissipates and evokes intrigue and awe. With the combination of humour setting at 100% and the jovial banter between Coop and TARS, they provide much of the comic relief in the film. This, as result gives their characters some emotional investment. Much like the films of old, like Star Wars, Silent Running and Disney’s Black Hole, you find yourself actually being concerned for the hulking lumps of dirty steel and they give you a sense of comfort when they’re around. And like all the previous films just mentioned, these droids were mostly puppets with actor Bill Irvin and stuntman Mark Fichera actually mobilising and interacting with the other actors and environments around them. TARS is superbly voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart voicing the quieter CASE.
Theses machines were not the only element of visual effects to be physically produced as opposed to computer generated. Much like with Inception, Nolan adopts the more traditional way of filmmaking using CGI when only absolutely necessary. Hathaway comments that sitting in real surroundings, interacting with physical beings like TARS allowed them to focus more on their own character with the help of the visuals around them as oppose to the green screens and possibly feeling stupid. Full scale sets and models of the spacecraft were constructed, again on hydraulic-powered rigs that would tilt and manoeuvre the sets anyway they required. The full scale shuttles actually had working, mechanical parts like landing gear and they employed astronaut, Marsha Ivins as technical advisor, putting the cast through their paces in preparation for space travel. Even Elon Musk shared some input from his SpaceX program.
Yes, there is of course some CGI, like when scale miniatures weren’t being used, but the CGI is mostly restricted to precisely what it’s primarily should be used for; that being the glue that binds the real and make believe, creating that perfect balance and harmonious immersive environment, by melding traditional filmmaking elements with CGI. It might be hard to imagine that Iceland provides two vastly different, alien landscapes for distant planets, that these places actually exist on this very rock with only a matter of a few miles between them and not on some computer screen.
It’s comes as no surprise that this film won so many awards for it’s visual effects and not all of this was from intergalactic wormhole jumping. Cooper’s home on Earth is very much a focal point throughout the entire film, with the family’s farmhouse as a character onto itself. It’s very symbolic of what home is to most people, a place of comfort and safety, one would return to after work to rest, eat and raise a family with good and sad memories being nurtured there. The crew, like with everything else, built the actual farmhouse as a set and not just a shell for exterior shots; sat within a cornfield. They actually grew 500acres of farmable corn, that was eventually sold off and made a profit.
Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning score is another star here. This was Zimmer’s fifth collaboration with Nolan, but Nolan wanted something new, fresh, challenging Zimmer to compose a unique score by only giving him one page of script omitting the rest of the story and even what genre or type of film this was. And thus, the score came into being as if from the cosmos itself. Whilst vastly different from Inception, doing away with the heavy, bellowing sound; what has stayed and is becoming a recurring theme with these two, is the sense of time; time being an important factor of both stories. The music’s tempo is actually symbolic and relating to both the story’s and real time, with each tick representing a number of days, months or even years back on Earth.
And much like Nolan keeping it real, with traditional method and mediums over digital, Zimmer favours real, human music over computer generated sounds, using live orchestras, choirs and on this occasion a church organ that really adds a real sense of primal urgency. Roger Sayer plays the organ from The City of London’s Temple Church and he certainly pulls out all the stops, giving the score life. Much like ourselves, the organ needs air to breathe. It’s very different to single out any one track as Interstellar’s theme, but there is a recurring melody that haunts throughout with key tracks like the heart-wrenching and emotional “Stay”, the powerful, looming “Mountains” and nerve racking “No Time For Caution”.
Putting the music aside, the sound engineering and editing is astounding with key moments of prefect, shocking silence and the reintroduction of surrounding sound is like expelling a breath after holding it in. Sometimes the absence of sound accompanied with the score is strangely deafening. This is definitely a perfect film to test out both your TV and sound system.
Again much like Inception, It’s the perfect amalgamation of science fiction, thriller and emotional, thought-provoking drama. It’s courageously ambitious and dares to go way beyond anything that has been done before with a danger of slipping into a black hole itself with gargantuan effect. But it doesn’t. Typical of Nolan’s films, it’s heavier than most, but nicely layered with a number of relatable themes, without each overriding one another. There’s the family relationships and the future of humankind, climate change, the looming food crisis and most importantly the mind- bending, paradoxical astrophysics.
Overall - though not necessarily original like Inception is, it ventures further than most films would care to dare; this is equally mind blowing and is an absolute spectacle for not only sound and vision, but for mind and soul too.
Running Time: 10
The Cast: 9
Job Description: 10
Extra Bonus Points: 10 for being a formidable anxiety-inducing masterpiece! An truly amazing visual and audio sci-fi epic. It’s these films that cinemas are made for.
“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”