Rediscovered archive article, originally posted in November 2014…
It’s been just over a week since I saw Interstellar, one of the year’s biggest and probably most important theatrical releases. Biggest because it’s from the director of Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy. Most important because that same filmmaker is one of those rare beasts who has managed rot maintain commercial success as well as critical praise.
Yet despite these kind words, I have to admit I’m not someone who blindly worships at the Nolan altar. I’ve found each of his films enjoyable enough, but with the exception of Memento (2000) I’ve never really felt they lived up to the praise levelled at them. That said, I’m not one of the many who were sharpening their knives ahead of Interstellar, in the hope Nolan would have his first real slip-up. The truth is, between fatherhood, a career and writing/marketing a book I don’t have much free time on my hands… so the idea of freeing up a few hours to watch something I hope wont be fun seems idiotic. On the rare occasion I go to the cinema, it’s to have a good time.
And with Interstellar, I’m happy to say I did. But it was as the week went on that the film settled a little more in my head. Despite the dissenting voices of the usual online bitches, I found the story to be as strong as I needed it to be and thought cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema did a fine job with the difficult task of following longtime collaborator Wally Pfister. But it was neither the intricacies of Interstellar’s astrophysics nor the spectacle of its cinematic cosmos that allowed it to grow on me as more time passed. In fact, it was the emotional weight of its characters journeys that I think are what makes it linger in my memory. Something which seems contrary to the claims that it came from a director with a ‘cold’ film making vision.
It’s my opinion that this all comes down to perception. Or more specifically, a lack of it. Like many people, I discovered The Smiths in my late teens having been aware of them for many years before and found my prejudices towards them challenged. I had always seen them as a particularly dour group of individuals who wrote songs about child murderers, comatose lovers and the emotional pain of being an outsider. For the most part, I was right, but it wash’t until I allowed my self to look beneath that surface aesthetic that I discovered the true genius of Morrissey’s lyrics. Sure, the stories they told were often dark in tone, but there was a rich vein of humour running through each that made them truly special. I’ve spent too many hours defending the band to those who would dismiss them as “depressing”, but are unwilling to look beyond the brooding exterior to see the melodic pop and witty words at the heart of their work.
In Interstellar, Nolan tells us the story of Cooper, a man who has devoted much of his life to mankind’s appetite for discovery but now watches helplessly as it is devoured by nature’s irrepressible need for a blank canvas. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” he laments, “now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Our hero’s dilemma comes when – presented with an opportunity to reclaim humanity’s pioneering spirit and lay to rest its fear of extinction – he must leave behind his loved ones. His decision irreparably damages the relationship he has with his daughter Murph, but what makes it all the more tragic is that it’s a decision he takes without being fully able to communicate why he must. Likewise, Murph has her own reasons for pleading with her father to stay that go way beyond her need for a parent in her life. Something is telling her why it is right for them to remain together, but her inability to explain it away as anything more than the voice of a ‘ghost’ lends little weight to her argument. The pair are ripped apart. And the resultant feelings of betrayal and regret weigh heavy on their story through the rest of the film.
Christopher Nolan is a man who comes across as a thoughtful writer and director. His films are usually written with precision and wrapped in marketing campaigns that use sombre tones to stress their seriousness to audiences. Even if he’s talking about a man running around dressed as a bat after criminals dressed as scarecrows, clowns and cats, those gloomy posters and moody foyer standees tell us to expect is something darker, more important and maybe even more thought provoking than the usual superhero fare. Bet whether its the high contrast oranges of Batman Begins, the sharp icy blues of Inception or the dusty grey of Interstellar, to focus on this surface aesthetic really is to miss the point. In short, the package may look cold and clinical, but you don’t have to look very hard to see the content is most certainly not.
Like The Smiths, Nolan voyages into dark matter in his films in a bid to see what lurk inside. For Morrissey, there is unexpected humour to be found in songs about repressed homosexuality (“I got confused, I killed a nun” – Is It Really So Strange?) or even child abuse (“Same old jokes since 1962” – The Headmaster Ritual). For Nolan, those subtle – but most definitely present – elements are a whole range of human emotions. A mind consumed by grief which hungers for justice, the guilt which exists when a loved one is lost because to personal obsession or a father sacrificing his daughter’s love for the greater good. I can’t see how either of these artists can be labelled emotionless, in fact I’d argue theirs is a much deeper exploration of what it is to be human than most.