Thursday, January 7, 2016
Notes On Interstellar by Christopher Nolan, USA: 2014
For Enriko Kemlein
If I remember my relationship with the films by Christopher Nolan in the last years, I have to say I am still surprised by Interstellar. I am not yet sure if it is a cinematic masterpiece like Kubrick´s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I am pretty sure that Interstellar did more for the Science Fiction Film in the last 18 years than any other films of this genre. I never really understood why the Science Fiction as a film genre never approached the versatility like for example the Western or the detective thriller while this genre was already in the 1950s full established in literature. And even though this groundbreaking masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey remained for almost 50 years the finest achievement in science Fiction film ever, a lot of other aspects of this genre remained nearly unused. I do not want to reduce Science Fiction on this single film (there are other respectable approached during the history of cinema), but it is definitely one of the few films who used the range between Science Fiction as a popular genre and as a philosophical reflection. Though a masterpiece in its own right, Tarkovski´s Solaris was focusing on a philosophical reflection, any flirt with Science Fiction and its more popular, even pulp elements were shut out.
My favorite Science Fiction writer is Clifford D. Simak, an almost forgotten writer and for me one of the very few who used the whole range of Science Fiction, a writer for whom Science Fiction was not a pretense for his ideas about the world, but he had a deep passion for this genre which was categorized as a film genre mostly as a B – pictures or often brainless Blockbuster events..
Whenever someone will adapt a novel by Simak for cinema, I often think they have to have a vision of both, the future Simak described but as well the past (mostly the 1950 and 1960s) in which Simak wrote these novels must be researched very well. This special “sense of wonder” which we can find in the Science Fiction novels of this time must be preserved.
Coming back to Christopher Nolan, from a film historical point of view view a very young director, made with Interstellar not his first Science Fiction film. He revitalized with his Batman -trilogy a classic of pulp fiction and at least The Dark Knight could be seen as one of the most sophisticated super hero films ever made. But Nolan is also an intellectual and in his effort to bring the pulp myth Batman into the present, especially the traumatized America after September 11, the films and even The Dark Knight (by far the finest of his three Batman-films) lack often the fun and yes let´s say the beauty of the pulp genres. Nolan outed himself obviously as a lover of popular genres but his intellect works often as a kind of censor as if he he felt ashamed for his fascination pulp fiction he had in his youth.
For avoiding a misunderstanding: I have a lot of respect in Christopher Nolan. He is not only the most intelligent blockbuster director of our time, his wiring try to bring intelligence and sophistication into films made for a very huge audience might have failed in most cases, but the try in itself demands a certain kind of admiration. His Science Fiction thriller Inception is an ambitioned approach but left me ice cold. But the only film by Nolan I really disliked was the last Batman-film The Dark Knight Rises. I saw it as overloaded with a lot of intellectual references that the mythic fascination of Batman could hardly breath.
Nothing prepared me for the beauty of Interstellar, which was released in late autumn 2014.
The film takes place in the near future. Life on earth seems to be near its end caused by ecological disasters. Failed crops, dust storms and a decrease of oxygen in the earth atmosphere. Cooper is a former NASA-pilot who has to run a farm for surviving. His wife is already dead and he lives with his father in law and his two children.His daughter Murphy seems to have inherited the passion for technique and space exploring. The first shot shows a dusty model of a space shuttle on a book shelf.
While Cooper´s father in law and his son are nearly "Simikian" characters who are rooted in this dying landscape, Cooper and his daughter seem to be outsiders. Cooper is dreaming of his failed career as a pilot after all NASA projects were officially cancelled and Murphy has trouble in school accepting the new censored school books in which every Apollo-project is considered as fake for the benefit of propaganda. Just in the first 20 minutes, Nolan does not only appear as the great technician (probably the finest since Kubrick) but as well as a mythic story teller. Cooper is at the same time the lonely hero in some westerns by John Ford, as well the master of technical devices like Nolan´s Batman or the magicians in Privilege but very often and at the same time very close to the lost, homeless and very vulnerable characters in the films by Terrence Malick.
From the beginning there is a very sensitive balance between human drama and later in the film the “sense of wonder” of Science Fiction. Nothing is an excuse for the other but both elements live a life of its own. For now Cooper appears as the most rational character, while his daughter Murphy still explains gravitational phenomenons with “ghosts” A bit later Cooper encounters that NSA still exists, but as a governmental secret organisation. The situation of this dying earth is much worse than Cooper already thought. The end is near and the generation of Coopers children will be the last who can live on earth. Cooper meets an old scientist he knows from NASA. There are only two options, the one is to explore new planets where mankind can settle, the other is to conserve human fertilized eggs in case the discovery of habitable planet comes too late. The technique of the space ships NASA can offer have hardly developed much further. As scientists detected near the Saturn an artificial worm hole which is a short cut to a far distant galaxy, the limited speed of space ships are no problem anymore. Cooper will be employed as a pilot. But the prize he has to pay is to abandon his family and the certainty that (caused by relativity) his children will be at best nearly in his age when he returns. Coopers decision for the space expedition (they shall look for astronauts of an earlier expedition who already detected habitable planets). The exploring mission includes also a rescue mission. His will to “safe the world” includes the possibility that the children he left behind will die before he returns. Murphy who feels left behind and who insists that her “ghosts “ have warned him against the expedition, Her father´s decision separates both of them mentally before the expedition begins. The farewell is probably one of the most heartbreaking scenes I ever saw in a film by Nolan. The film will become more spectacular but we will remember this moment - unusual for a film by Nolan – of a very intimate family story. It is bit like Hans Zimmer´s wonderful score which paraphrases a simple melody sometimes more intimate, sometimes more alienated. It is probably his finest film music since the one Malick´s The Thin Red line.
Just in the first 30 minutes, I can mention a lot of reasons why Interstellar appears to me as Nolan´s most lovable film. It is well known that he tried as much as possible to avoid computer-animated special effects. The space ships are handmade l models like Kubrick used once in his 2001. That the film was at least screened in some theaters in 70 mm is another tribute to the analog cinema. And another aspect is evident: Interstellar is far away from the perfect styled action thrillers like the three Batman films or Inception. Ironically, even the technology of the space ships demands often much more manual handling than the technical devices available for Batman. Even though there are moments when Matthew Conaughey´s Cooper seems to be the cool action hero and even though there are also moments when Interstellar celebrates the big screen spectacle – there is a very strange balance between human drama, and Science Fiction spectacle, The film lacks fortunately the cleverness of Nolan´s former action movies. Even though Nolan was advised by scientists for this film, it is the first film by Nolan I have seen where you don´t have the feeling Nolan knows more than the actual film experience can finally offer.. The scientific research, this hard science fiction element does not interfere with a certain kind of beauty, this “sense of wonder”.
It seems that Nolan does not only exposes his characters to the hostile earth of the near future, the interstellar space, hardly habitable planets or a Black hole, he seems to expose himself to the power of cinematic images and movements. The emotions the film evokes have a certain power because they seem less calculated but aroused from the situations the plot offers by itself. The "space time machine" cinema which Nolan controlled and conducted so perfect in his previous films seems here in this film to scare himself. There is this wonderful moment when Cooper comes back from a failed rescue mission on a planet. This planet is so close to a Black Hole that according to Einstein´s theory of relativity one hour on this planet means 7 years of earth time. When he and his colleagues return to the ship, more than 20 years have passed by. When he watches the video messages from his children who are now about his age offers another heartbreaking moment. His children have aged and from the life they lead Cooper gets only fragments. In this moment, Matthew McConaughey is close to us, a spectator who watches a big span of a human life in a few moments. One can see it as a brilliant analogy to the cinema and to the power images have on us. But first of all it rather felt by heart than by intellect. And Nolan this director with an excellent education in the history of cinema seems here experimenting with the power of cinema on himself as well. Just alone this moment is for me evidence of a certain honesty, the majority of Science Fiction films after 2001: A Space Odyssey do not have and that includes so-called classic like Star Wars, Alien and not to mention high budget crap like Prometheus or Independence Day.
When Nolan´s Odyssey finally reaches it´s climax, Nolan uses seemingly conventional cross cutting. But even if we think the two actions happen at the same time, we have forgotten, that the time slows down for the astronauts and the second location, the earth where Coopers adult daughter tries to find a solution for saving mankind is despite the cross cutting already past for the astronauts. This seemingly very conventional dramatic form appears now as a simple but very brilliant cinematic equivalent to the theory of relativity.
The conclusion of the film is a bit like a a sad odyssey. Nolan´s Odysseus/Cooper, was already a widower before he began his journey. Having survived the journey through the event horizon of a Black Hole, he reaches again the wormhole and his journey ends in the future. In between his daughter finally has saved mankind which lives now on several space stations. Odyssey´s return to home and to the people he loves leads to another wonderful moment: Murphy is now a very old woman who is going to die. It will be his last encounter between father and daughter. And here again - some critics consider as a certain clumsiness in Nolan´s narrative style, it appears to me as sometimes even very daring playfulness. The spectacular space opera finally returns to the home drama with which the film began. The civilisation has survived but there is no place anymore for Cooper, an anachronism like John Ford´s Ethan in one of the great American film odysseys called The Searchers.”A parent should not see his children die”, his daughter says. She suggests him to look for his colleague Amelia Brand who is stranded on planet in another galaxy, the female Odyssey who never will get home. The final images show Amelia on this planet, the man she loved once is buried and she is alone.
It is interesting that there were some critics who at least acknowledged Nolan´s ambition but most of them concluded that he has not reached the depth of the “holy grails of science fiction films" 2001 and Solaris. Actually I think Nolan achieved something far more important: he created with his wonderful space opera a bridge between cinema as an art and cinema as a part of popular culture – even more Interstellar shows us how absurd this borders really are. At least since Robert Zemeckis´ Contact and Andres Niccol´s Gattaca, Interstellar is the most impressing science fiction film, by far Christopher Nolan´s most beautiful film. We have almost forgotten what a science fiction film can be and we have almost forgotten the glory of the 70 mm-Format and the beautiful result of analog special effects. I am pretty sure we will have to wait for a long time to find a block buster and high budget film which is made with so much passion and love like Interstellar.