Anything That Can Happen, Will Happen

Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar (2014) | Art by John Lee
illustration by John Lee
I will never be as angry at anything as the man sitting beside me was during my first screening of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As astronauts Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway) traversed the galaxy, slipped into wormholes, contemplated the nature of time and relativity, and teased the existence of fifth dimensional beings for whom time was a physical construct, he sat and fumed, muttering occasionally “Oh my God, that makes no sense.”

By now, a mere month since the film’s wide release, the debate over the merits of Interstellar is at a fever pitch, with prominent tastemakerscriticsscientists and moviegoers weighing in on various details of the film. Interstellar, it seems, must be opined upon; you can’t NOT talk about it. Questions, analogies, explanations and expositions are analyzed in excruciating detail—it seems fashionable to mention the number of times McConaughey cries, or how Hans Zimmer’s score blew out a few theatre’s sound systems; the whole business of commenting on this film is rife with an ironic detachment. Make sense of it. Question it. Pigeonhole it. Talk about it. Find details about it. Disregard it. Get whiplash from the wildly polarizing articles about it. I went into the film for the first time with a mind to understand and I came out feeling overwhelmed by the explanations. Should I be able to understand everything about Interstellar? If I listen enough and think enough and mull enough, will I get it? What happens if I don’t ever reach a conclusion?

WHO CARES. Who cares? Who cares who cares who cares WHO CARES? I don’t care. Do you care? WHO CARES.

Why should we care? What makes us flock to Nolan’s films with our phones out, Twitter’s engine warm and idling, ready to send our judgement out into the void? What have we done to so miss the point of going to the movies? The point of a film is not to feel superior to it, to declare it “overrated,” to elevate our opinions above a piece of work, because what is often lost in that process is the quiet, personal experience that can be generated by a genuine interaction with a piece of art. What is lost is the opportunity to be swept up in an idea for even a moment and breathlessly whisper “what if…?”

Interstellar has drawn comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey because of course it has, but the main difference between the two seems to be that Nolan feels burdened by the consumptive need to explain himself, whereas Kubrick never did, the stubborn old enigma. It’s hard to say definitively where this need comes from—the man or the culture in which he’s creating. Both films polarized reactions at the time of their releases, derided either for going too far in the wrong direction or somehow not delivering a satisfying enough conclusion, while also being celebrated for their artistry, technical achievement and scope of ambition. Nolan’s films regularly tackle the unknowable – dreams, memory, insanity, magic, obsession – but with a bent to wrangle the subject matter into a framework: in Inception, dreams—for all their capriciousness—have a defined set of rules; in The Prestige, magic is rooted in experimental science; in Memento, memory obeys certain parameters. Look below the surface of the awe and you’ll find a thousand little worker elves making sure the trains run on time. Whereas Kubrick lets an implacable black monolith yawn with things unsaid, Nolan has his chatty characters describe the impossibly complex with asides about quantum physics and absurdly simplistic diagrams.

And this is where reactions to the film begin to churn like ants from a hill. While there’s nothing wrong with either approach, Nolan’s seems to attract detractors; the film gives the impression of a nervous student giving a presentation—he talks too much, explains himself in circles, and even if what he’s saying is revelatory, the whole experience is coloured by the nerves of the presenter. It’s baffling, because in interviews and press junkets, Nolan is unflappable. His suits are immaculate, his scarves fashionable, his blond hair piled and swept just so, his English lilt a calm and beautiful thing. As he sits in these interviews, he is asked time and again about the technical aspects of his film. While his answers are concise and polite, succinctly explaining what a gimble is and the simple reasons he chose not to use green screen during the filming, his characters take preemptive—often extensive—pains to ensure that the audience is still on board with all of the film’s big ideas. Before you ask, the singularity inside a black hole is like the pearl inside an oyster. Get it? Time expands and contracts at particular rates as you move faster and slower and get closer and further away from great sources of gravity, get it? Do you understand?

But again, who cares? Wonder is rarely composed. It’s ok for me not to be fully on board with the science—few are. And while I may not give a hot goddamn about the technicalities of time travel, I realize that those technicalities are important to some, even vital for others. The point is that I don’t have to care about your opinion of the film or its mechanics, and you don’t have to care about mine. What I take into a theatre with me is this, a borrowed and adapted phrase from James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”:

To see the world, things dangerous to come to. To see behind walls, draw closer. To find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of film.

Can Interstellar do these things? In spades, my friend. If you let it.

Perhaps it’s because he’s riding the wave of True Detective and his recent Oscar win for The Dallas Buyer’s Club that McConaughey’s is the lead story in Interstellar, but I found it difficult to connect with his roguish Cooper. He’s always right, and even if he’s wrong, that wrong is just a waystation to an even higher truth. What’s to love about a flawless sphere? There’s nothing to grab on to. Anne Hathaway’s Brand is who I identify with; she is (literally) on an emotional journey into the unknown. While Cooper’s journey is inextricably tied in with the goal of securing the future of his children, Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet/Casey Affleck), Brand’s mission is wispier, harder to grasp, more abstract because we never meet the love that she chases—Edmunds, a fellow astronaut who forged the path that Cooper and Brand now follow. We never meet Edmunds, never. Not once do we see them together, and so we have to take it on faith that Brand’s love for him is worth risking quite literally everything for. She could be wrong, but she is willing to hazard all for the slim chance that she might be right. “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space,” Brand says, a notion that raises all manner of fascinating questions. If love can reach its hand across the multitudes of space to grasp the human heart, then what about anger? Rage? Sorrow? Hurt? Joy? Relief? What is the practical function of a feeling? Can a gargantuan mass of unknowable emotion, ringed with blinding, brilliant flames be the key to our salvation? If there is an intersection between art and science, it most certainly must lie in wonder and awe.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is quoted frequently over the course of the film, as characters are told not to “go gentle into that dark night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Taken as a metaphor for the human spirit in the face of desolation, the poem is a fine fit for the film, however with the script’s inclusion of black holes taken into account, the poem must be reevaluated. As a literal object, a black hole is the death of light – or more accurately, the doom of light; it is the one thing in the universe (that we know of) from which light cannot escape—the embodiment of Thomas’ dark night. This particular black hole may also be the doom of Cooper and Brand unless they invoke the surprisingly emotional Third Law of Newtonian Physics: In order to go forward, you must leave something behind. And so Cooper lightens the load, allowing Brand to escape by willfully hurling himself into that dark night, past the fiery cortex of bending light and into the blind unknown. As he enters a world in which time, space and memory form a physical construct, Cooper finds himself in a realm of pure emotion, and from emotion comes salvation. Dr. Brand was right. She follows Edmunds’ beacon and finds a habitable world, somewhere the human race can continue. Murph, so burdened by years of anger at her father, is led to a world-saving discovery couched in his love. The choices we make right now create waves of consequences that echo through the lives of others for generations to come. Now that’s relativity.

I also recently saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, an incredibly interesting film, though rife with it’s own set of problems regarding masculinity and entitlement. Taped to the main character’s dressing room mirror, a talisman against relying on the critics, is a brief maxim: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” I cannot encourage you enough to go and see Interstellar—or any film for that matter—and make up your mind for yourself. Do not feel burdened by the need to understand every part of it—I certainly don’t—or to have an opinion that can be whittled down to 140 characters. There are no prerequisites for going to the movies, and no one has the ability to tell you what you’re going to feel when you see a film. Just go gently into that dark theatre. Let the lights die and allow yourself to be reborn in the firsthand experience. See the world, things dangerous to come to. See behind walls, draw closer. Find each other, and feel. That, above all else, is the purpose of film.