Interstellar: an introspection on fatherhood

Christopher Nolan’s love for the mosaic and manifold takes a step back in his new film, an empathetic study of human emotions and relationships.

Interstellar is a film of epic proportions: at two hours and 50 minutes, it is director Christopher Nolan’s longest effort yet, and features a pantheon cast of Oscar winners and nominees, including last year’s Best Actor, Matthew McConaughey. Co-written alongside brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan Nolan, the film—on the surface—is the latest addition to the human-extinction space-adventure genre which has been proliferating ad nauseum.

It tells the story of Cooper (McConaughey), a retired NASA astro-engineer who is recruited with various dispensable characters to enter a wormhole that had mysteriously appeared near Saturn. The objective: to find a habitable planet and salvage the continued existence of the human race, at present struggling to survive in a world suffocating in indeterminate meterological dust. They follow the footsteps of other pioneering astronauts who had each travelled alone through the wormhole, leaving rudimentary messages marking the locations of possible habitats. Space film tropes are inevitable, including the obligatory we’re-running-out-of-fuel ploy to swing the plot onto a more convenient course, and a mysterious, revered “They”—attributed to the appearance of the wormhole—invoking the extraterrestrial (or even divine).

img_interstellar-6Although its take on quantum relativity and space-time loops is clever, Interstellar is not entirely revolutionary in its sci-fi concepts. What sets it apart, however, is when we realise that the film is far more than (or far less) about human extinction: it is essentially an essay on fatherhood, centred on Cooper driven to recoup hope for a better life for his children who are faced with a bleak future on earth. His daughter, Murphy, a young girl at the time he leaves on his jetplane, had protested his going out of orbit: they parted on less than ideal terms, which becomes a source of on-going, soul-searching conflict for Cooper, forming the emotional backbone of the film.

This line of story is a deliberate ploy to stimulate the lacrimal glands (and it milks them generously) but even so, the meat of it is delivered believably and gracefully—unexpectedly, even—steering clear of melodrama. The Nolans’ screenwriting succeeds in a sensitive portrayal of the animal instinct and unquestioning sacrifice of parenthood, where the right or wrong is never clear cut, and regret for what could not have been—the words not said, the things not done—can be utter torment. Further suspense is injected via the time-bending (in)conveniences of astrophysical relativity, where a year in space may mean decades lapsing on earth, leading us to wonder if Cooper will ever meet his daughter again to make amends—that is, if he ever returns to earth.

Given all the emotional build up, the denouement to all of this—a deathbed scene—is elegant and understated, a beautiful flourish, pregnant with enough muted drama, but contracted to just the right length and dialogue exchange so as to not be an overtly complicated resolution trying to justify its own emotionality. Poetic, concise, and far from unwieldy—it is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes in the film.

img_interstellar-7The fact that Interstellar is far more biographical than it is pure sci-fi, action, thriller, or even philosophical meandering is quite refreshing for the genre (although I defy many other reviewers who have called it “space opera”). Nolan has no intention of making us ponder our mortality, as is wont in apocalyptic films—there is no sustained attempt to entice the audience into the wonderful world of confused celluloid existentialism, and there is even not a single (memorable) centrepiece clichéd one-liner about the travesty of human extinction or its remarkable, admirable* will to survive. What we get instead—to substitute for the truth-seeking exercise obligatory to films of this genre—is a gripping episode featuring Matt Damon (convincingly portraying a total scumbag) in dark, Darwinian allegory about the human drive to survive at any cost, further alluded to throughout the film with cryptic excerpts from Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, Do not go gentle into that good night. The climactic sequence for this part of the film leaves a trail of philosophical breadcrumbs to satisfy many a Nolan fan-boy, without detracting from Cooper’s core human story.

Although more focused on drama, Nolan has not entirely abandoned his love for sophisticated cogitations and the cerebral. The logic on which Interstellar’s storyline is hinged, as with Inception, is verbose and complicated, with enough contrived Matryoshka-esque layering (this time being physical dimensions, rather than depth of dream or amnesia) to confabulate a transient truth for the audience to explain any moment of perplexity. (I say this without discounting the fact that a lot of effort has been made to ensure that the film’s scientific architecture is sound, no least due to input from executive producer and film-inspiration, astrophysicist Kip Thorne.) However, unlike Inception (or even Memento), here the puzzle remains in the background as a tool for the story to progress, rather than a focus for the story itself—as though more accidental than coincidental, buried and pelagic, rather than obtusely, didactically academic. The pseudo-scientific lexicon is squat, and few big words are used to inflate the audience’s sense of Nolan’s attempts at real-life approximations.

img_interstellar-3Despite such restraint, suspension of disbelief comes almost automatic in Interstellar: a credit to the brothers’ screenwriting. Unlike Inception (infamously), Interstellar does not try to cavort its presumed sophistication. In fact, the hallmark of good hard science fiction may well be that the audience is not immediately called to question the product’s internal logic. Although arguably brittle with a little post-film sequitur, Interstellar’s explanations for itself are easy to swallow, precisely because Nolan has drawn the line on bringing sci-fi to the forefront of what is an essentially dramatic feature. We are instead allowed to take the time—especially in the film’s many moments of solemn, dysthymic quiet—to be drawn into its rumination on fatherhood: of its trepidations and difficult choices, of responsibility and regrets, of lost opportunities and the yearning for redemption.

Interstellar is arguably an undisguised Nolan-McConaughey awards vehicle, but it doesn’t remind us of this with a constant spray of ka-ching scenes: the latter’s performance is sober and self-possessed, almost unblemished, and the Nolans’ screenwriting modest, but undiminished. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a film that felt so well-proportioned from start to finish: captivating, original, even. This show of discipline is evident elsewhere, too: the cinematography is intimate, rather than expansive (we are saved from one too many clichéd shots to emphasise our diminutive place in the universe), but not miserly, with stretches of gorgeous canvas, as were the glacial vistas of Damon’s planet. Hans Zimmer’s score is electronic, almost Poe-esque in the images it conjures, with memorable motifs: its powerful presence rises from above an inconspicuous background of sound at precisely the right moments (I especially like the Murphy sequences), although perhaps employing too many a blast of bass wind reminiscent of other recent works. The special effects are a palette of realism: unpretentious and undistracting.

img_interstellar-5All that said, Interstellar is not without its flaws: superfluous story arcs are abound, showcasing conflicts that eventually go unexplained. One glaring example is Cooper’s son Tom (Casey Affleck), who is unapologetically a character of convenience: he is a dull, one-dimensional epitome for underdevelopment, and his sole function in the greater scheme of things is to play the family-head-substitute-at-home after Cooper left, and to be used as contrast to the far more developed Murphy (Jessica Chastain). At one point, he is almost ruthlessly (ab)used to brew a small, apparently suspenseful but utterly non-sensical conflict with Murphy (on an even more absurd and medically unsound premise of apparently acute lung disease) just so that Nolan can oscillate scenes of drama on earth with that of Damon’s asshole villainy in space. Don’t get me wrong: the juxtaposition is effective and clever in the heat of the moment, especially with Zimmer’s foreboding symphony raising cuticles in the background, but once the climax ends, you can’t help but wonder how such utter bullshit of a sub-plot ever made it past the rim of the toilet bowl. I take issue with this sequence because, although it is beautifully directed and edited, it loses depth and meaning when placed in the context of the rest of the story: that beauty was contingent on a contrived, shallow, and un(der)-developed arc-of-convenience.

Another instance is when we are served an unconvincing attempt at a friendly-fire, mission-hijacking sub-plot, when second-in-command Dr. Brand (played by Anne Hathaway, regrettably forgettably) attempts to steer the crew away to one of the planets so she can go to where Edmund, her paramour, had left to on one of the previous scout missions. One can appreciate the important role of this twist: Brand’s soppy monologue cemented some very necessary ideas for the development of McConaughey’s fatherhood story later—that “love” is a quantifiable measure (conveyed as far less tacky-sounding than it does on paper). But despite the Nolans’ attempt to compensate for this none-too-subtle subterfuge with a form of tributary resolution at the end of the film, the whole angle still felt like deceitful way to bridge a gap in the plot, placing Hathaway in the uncomfortable position of either obliging to a moment yet unprecedented in the film of abrupt, melodramatic sentimentality, or hindering its emotive evolution for Cooper. (But she pulled it off well—the scene didn’t feel like too much of a cringeworthy block of fromage it so dangerously could’ve been).

img_interstellar-4Screenplay aside, the design department is also feels far too ascetic. The film’s robots are clunky and cheap-looking, like carton boxes with metallic paint—designed as an apparent homage to Kubrick’s golem in 2001: Space Odyssey, although the value of this inference is lost, leaving the parallel feeling rather superficial. The design of the spacecrafts is also more practical than inspired, decidedly un-Kubrick. A further (more minor) observation is the anachronism of the costume design: earthlings seemed content on wearing the same drab over the course of almost a century, which I felt was a lost opportunity to employ the gamut of directorial implements to help augment the passage of time, which just so happens to be a central theme to the film. Perhaps this aversion to plaudits for art direction is a necessary gesture to downplay the technological and scientific fixtures of the film—which admittedly is often very distracting in sci-fi—so Cooper’s story takes centre-stage.

All in all, there is so much going for Interstellar that it is easy to forgive what it lacks or felt overwrought: you accept that the film tries to tell a human story in the setting of one about humanity. So what should we call Interstellar? Undeniably Nolan’s most compassionate film yet, where the director’s notorious neurosis for mazes, paradoxes, and scientific conundrums take a backseat to a powerful depicition of the tour de force of a father’s love, and its torment.

Dir. Christopher Nolan,
USA, 2014; 170 minutes
Featuring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, John Lithgow, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Ellen Burstyn.

*to aliens.