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Grappling with Legacies, Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’

Soham Gadre


It was in 1997, on the set of the film Contact that film producer Lynda Ost and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne conceived the idea of doing a film about humans finding a home on another planet. Traversing through the darkest depths of universe in search for survival. It could be seen as a tribute they would pay to Carl Sagan, famous cosmologist and the presenter/writer of Cosmos (1980), who set them up on a blind date years earlier. There are many interesting connections and back-stories that led to the film Interstellar, and all of them contributed to the general fascination over this project. Of course, whenever such a naturally impressive, grand idea is conceived, it attracts filmmakers from all over to the project. Steven Spielberg was the first to express interest, and knowing his deep connection with Stanley Kubrick and his work, Spielberg envisioned Ost and Thorne’s treatment as 21st Century’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a cosmic co-incidence, only a few years later, Spielberg would in fact handle the reins on a project that Kubrick originally envisioned and then insisted, in the face of failing health, that Spielberg fulfill: It was to be known as A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). The development and production of Interstellar would take years, maybe even a decade, and Spielberg knew this.

Once Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan came on board in 2007 to finish a final script based on Ost and Thorne’s treatment, the film finally seemed to be reaching fruition. By this time however, Spielberg had moved Dreamworks out of Paramount and into Disney, which meant that Interstellar, a Paramount property, was now without a helmer. Naturally, Jonathon recommended that his brother Christopher take over the film, and by 2010, the latter had Inception out – which was a good item on his CV to demonstrate an ability to handle high-intensity genre-jumping material. He was the perfect candidate.

From 1997 to 2014, the story, its various individual connections and sub-plots that make up the “early life of Interstellar” are almost more interesting than the film itself. When A.I. Artificial Intelligence first released, it met with a very peculiar and unusual critical lack of consensus. It seemed like a strange film (strangeness, in a nice way) and people didn’t know what to make out of it. Several critics mentioned how it was such a layered, fascinating project because its creators, (writer Kubrick and director Spielberg) were complete polar opposites – in their general sensibilities, their approach to science fiction and also in their own, exclusive existences as big-name cinema directors. In an encore of this confusion, when I first walked out of the theater after having seen Interstellar, I had a hard time pinning the movie in any particular direction. It tugged in the direction of Kubrick’s 2001-level bleakness in 2001 but also Spielberg’s sentimentality in A.I. without ever really settling on one. Most significantly though, it also incorporated elements of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) in which too, humans deceived and lied to each other over matters of protection and survival.

Interstellar, 1

Aside from the obvious similarities with Shyamalan’s films in terms of the settings: corn plantation, a small community of suspicious, shifty neighbours – Nolan also frames a number of his shots to underline the contrast between the uber-lit, white, magnesium rod exteriors and the dingy, crowded, brown, wooden interiors of the house in which the main characters live. This distinction between the foreground and the background seems to suggest a heady, false comfort in Nolan, but becomes entrapment in Shyamalan. Besides, the significant narrative turnarounds in The Village: the revelation of an elaborate sham, and a mysterious stalker bogeyman – also find corresponding echoes in Nolan’s film.

Interstellar, 2

The film’s visuals look incredible in IMAX, and this is one of Zimmer’s best scores – but this apart,  I am still surprised by how Nolan could make a film with such an intriguing development phase and an interesting premise so traditional. Are we really meant to sit here and pretend that Nolan brothers’ idea of ‘love’ transcending the dimensions doesn’t completely dissipate any mystique or terror about black holes?  We see Coop dive head first into one to perform his own archaeological expedition and excavate a twist: love is the answer to human survival. Even Spielberg’s A.I., which invested itself in the possibility of a mother loving an artificial child, decided to forgo any grand statements or answers to the cosmos, instead ending with the human mother holding her non-human son – a moment exclusive and singular to them. It wasn’t about the human race and its relation with the robots, or the universe; it was instead, about this single relationship, with no pretense of universality. But Nolan is not content with Coop and his daughter sharing love across space-time, he has to expand this to include an entire species and an entire galaxy to make a profound statement about the future of the human race, which really ends up being a bunch of baloney. Every brilliant moment of excitement and high-volume thrill that Nolan injected in Inception, every top spinning twist which left us confounded and in ambiguity over our own perceptions of narrative storytelling, was sacrificed here for prophesying and statement-making.

Preserving an equilibrium between the gloom and dark intensity of Kubrick’s narratives (the revelation scenes in Interstellar, or in The Village, or the scene where Graham tells Merrill that God doesn’t exist and we are all alone in Signs) and the sentimentality of Spielberg (the video exchanges of Coop and his family, the romantic scene on the porch in The Village, and the “swing away”  at the end in Signs) must be a very daunting task. It will require a filmmaker to engineer a heady, almost impossible compromise between sentiment and structure – and while Nolan’s been trying for a while (almost literally in his latest, where the father looks at his daughter lovingly through a structure) – it is as if he is instead relegating himself to routine and trivial. This may be fine for a filmmaker of lesser repute, but when each successive film promises as much as it does in the case of Nolan, it becomes problematic.