Article A on Interstellar had a close look at the film and its network of motifs, parallels and structural echoes. Article B explored its richness of thematic strands. We are unable to let go of Christopher Nolan‘s science fiction epic, however. This film does not only transcend time and space, but also the framework for Montages’ initial analysis plan.
This third article is about the experience of watching Interstellar, followed by an analytically oriented part about music, editing and consistency. But first we are going to see if there could be more plans in the film that its famous Plan A and B.
This article contains spoilers for the entire plot of Interstellar.
The articles will read better if you have seen the film, but we shall allow ourselves a short summary of its premise and cast of characters: In the not-too-distant future, plant diseases and lack of oxygen will soon make Earth uninhabitable. In utmost secrecy, NASA has given Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) the task of leading an expedition through a wormhole to another galaxy to find a new home for humanity. Other participants are the scientists Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as the robots TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart). Eventually they join Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), one of 12 astronauts sent out on reconnaissance some years ago. On Earth the project is led by Amelia’s father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Cooper has left his children behind (they appear in the film at different levels of age since time, due to relativity, goes “faster” on Earth than for the astronauts): Tom (Timothée Chalamet, Casey Affleck) and Murphy, called Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn). Murph becomes Professor Brand’s right hand, but is deeply traumatised because her father left her. Years are passing with no news and her hope to see him again grows increasingly dim.
Interstellar is obsessed with messages. As soon as the astronauts disappear into the wormhole, however, all communication is one-way. Those left behind on Earth just have to hope that their video messages are going through. Tom loses faith and finally regards them as a series of pointless exercises, “drifting out there in the darkness”. After Cooper has plunged into the black hole, he reports on what he is experiencing via the radio. His achingly moving account feeds into the same pattern, however: no radio signal can escape Gargantua, magnifying our sense of his isolation, driving home the suicidal nature of the mission. The three messages Cooper transmits through the bookcase function on the same principle. They only go one way. Confirmation or feedback is impossible.
All Cooper could do was shaking his head when Tom said “I’m letting you go” in his final message. Upon arrival behind the bookcase Cooper is still helpless. What he observes in Murph’s room seems like one long video message. Regardless how much he screams at Murph and hammers on the shelves, he is powerless to influence her. But unlike Tom, Cooper does not lose faith. An important step is to give up his need for control, accept both his helplessness and the fact that the past cannot be changed. Then he also lets his egocentricity go. He overcomes the urge to look at himself as special and chosen: he understands that the five-dimensional beings have merely chosen him as a messenger and that it is his daughter who is supposed to save mankind.
On her own side, the adult Murph has discovered that the all-important equation inherited from Professor Brand has a large deficiency. The quantum data Cooper has encoded into the wristwatch is resolving the equation, making it complete. The solution is lying in wait for Murph to discover it several decades later. Nolan here encodes a gentle echo into his film. The robot TARS asks itself whether Murph will ever discover the quantum data, but Cooper is sure. TARS asks: “How do you know” and he answers: “Because I gave it to her.” At the hospital in the epilogue the old Murph says she was sure her father would once return. Cooper asks: “How” and she answers: “Because my Dad promised me.” The echo becomes even more beautiful since Cooper’s answer is given with closed eyes, and Murph’s answer makes him close his eyes again, in tender and deep satisfaction. In a reflection of the equation that was resolved – through precisely these two people – the two sides of the echo complete each other.
But more is going on here than a beautiful echo. Murph emphasises that the equation is “half the answer”. It has two main components: the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Per definition an equation consists of two sides that shall balance each other (as the name suggests). Murph and Cooper are both involved in the resolution of the equation and the “Because” echo. Its two sides – “Because I gave it to her” and “Because my Dad promised me” – are not only connected phonetically, but both statements are also founded on two elements: faith and love. And like the equation, the two sides of the echo balance and resolve each other.
Taking a closer look at Interstellar, we find there is a whole system of binary units balancing each other. The NASA co-ordinates are transmitted using the binary number system, the two other messages via Morse code, which – it is emphasised – consists of “dots and dashes”. The film contains two large interior spaces that belong together: the blackboard with the complex equation and the bookcase with its complex world of writings – and the bookcase “delivers” data that resolve the equation on the blackboard.
Additionally, the connection is discretely suggested as Murph moves towards the blackboard after having decoded the quantum data: the camera pans with her and shows there is a bookcase beside the blackboard. During the decoding itself, and when she earlier realised the equation’s fundamental problem with time, she is actually filmed against a bookcase in the background.
The binary motif is articulated with lyricism and elegance also visually, in two shots balancing the two galaxies with each other: by Saturn the far-away sun casts a carefully circular, many-coloured reflection, slowly sweeping over the entire frame. Just after the spaceship has popped out of the wormhole in the other galaxy, also there we see a highly stylised image of space where the sun of the new system is producing a similar reflection. The camera movement towards the right is also carefully replicated.
Furthermore, Interstellar is full of doubled lines both in characters and plot. Cooper is torn between being a pioneer and a farmer, characteristics that are eventually split between him and his son Tom. Murph and Amelia are twin souls and also torn between science and mysterious intuitions. Dr. Mann and Professor Brand are another twin couple – scientists, leadership figures, false saviours, representatives of monstrous lies, and they too are utterly split personalities. (See the early chapters of Article B for details.)
The film music’s two most important emotional themes consist of motifs of two tones: the quiet, yearning one that starts the film and is elaborated upon in the long farewell scene between Cooper and the young Murph, and the mournful, slowly pumping theme often connected to these same persons. As a sign of their importance both themes return in the epilogue, as its only music. During the Tesseract sequence two duplication strands are intertwined: while the past events unfold anew before Cooper’s eyes, the adult Murph repeats actions from childhood. More binary business: two wristwatches are pivotal, and the film takes place in two galaxies, with two parallel narrative tracks. Even mankind’s hope for survival is split between two projects, Plan A and Plan B.
Incidentally, the “Because” echo is similar to another “binary” echo, namely the film’s two conceptual breakthroughs set off by other people’s remarks. Again Murph and Cooper are involved. Here they get revolutionary ideas: that the equation has a fundamental problem with the representation of time, and that it is impossible to change the past. The echo has two components: time and the equation – because Cooper’s insight leads to the resolution of the equation. Besides, here the insight about time leads to an action connected to time, since Cooper is encoding the data into a watch.
Our binary interpretive model still cannot embrace the entirety of Interstellar. We have a Plan A and B, but also something transcendental. The two planets of Miller and Dr. Mann, and then a third. Man and Woman, who will be reunited on the third planet.
Amelia Brand’s initials are uniting both plans. Cooper, whose first time is never given, then joins the mission as an addition, an x-factor that confounds all plans. The sum of these two names becomes ABC – a new beginning. The epilogue after all suggests a new start for mankind on EDmunds’s planet, a garden of EDen with the two of them as Adam and Amelia. Their hard-earned experiences and transcendent insights may yield the basis for a new existence, freed from the narrowmindedness and cold calculations of Plan A and B – so that mankind’s weaknesses will not turn the new world too into a desolation.
It is Amelia who introduces the thought of love as a physical, “quantifiable” power, and Cooper who translates the idea into action inside the Tesseract. They touch each other in the wormhole, give each other the idea in some sort of mutual fertilisation, and as the only practitioners of this new law of gravity of love, they complete each other and belong together. Over all this the five-dimensional beings are floating, whom we feel represent an all-encompassing love.
Over these articles, we have identified two “endless loops” – Cooper sending himself messages to ensure he will go into space, and Cooper touching Amelia in the wormhole infecting her with love to ensure he will find his way in the Tesseract. But there are three loops: to preserve their own future the five-dimensional beings, who installed the wormhole, need Cooper to travel back in time to relay the data to Murph. (They also possibly need Cooper and Amelia to start the next step for humanity, ultimately leading to themselves, on Edmunds’s planet.)
They have led Cooper into the Tesseract and his ecstatic breakthrough is grounded in a realisation of the concrete power of love. Because the beings have provided solid proof – it is precisely his love for Murph that has enabled him to locate the correct point in the past and the specific room within the infinity of the Tesseract.
Again the central echo is important: “Because I gave it to her,” about the watch and “Because my Dad promised me,” about returning. Both statements spring from the scene of the traumatic farewell. Both Cooper and Murph have now, however, attained an unshakeable faith. Because Cooper gave her the promise and the watch out of love, and the experience in the Tesseract has convinced him that love is a power one can trust. This is the reason that he, unlike Tom, did not lose faith.
My analysis of Interstellar was meant to consist of two articles, whose names formed a letterplay on the film’s two plans. I wish to postulate, however, that the equation
ab + c = love
is true. The equation is a metaphor, a new transcendent direction – Plan C for Cooper, who discovered the power of love inside the Tesseract. The five-dimensional beings’ plan for us. A plan that provides the “basis” for a third article.
In accordance with the film’s binary nature, this article will be split in two parts, which are quite different: about the film’s experiential aspects and a more analytically oriented part. However, the filmmakers’ great love for their art form will constantly be a common thread.
Interstellar as opera
Edvarda Lana on Facebook [A Norwegian pseudonymous FB personality] is not a pronounced enthusiast of broadly conceived science fiction stories. But like innumerable accounts from others with a similar attitude, she was “enthralled, moved and shaken” by Interstellar. Since she is also reviewing opera on her page I thought there could be a connection, and she answered my inquiry about how Interstellar could be seen as operatic with:
The role of the music. The score is bearing forth the extended waves of ascension and climax, slow and mighty breakers, ebb and flow, or sudden shifts. The role of the stage. The spectacular settings and changes of scenery, where the visual becomes narrative in its own right. Not as a pictorialisation of the text but as a supplement. The plot, which boils down to the very closest relationships, with the king (the scientist) and the princess, the hero and the daughter. The deceased ex-wives that lurk in the background. Brother and sister. Death and love, loss and reunion. And the symbolic use of individual fates, which are assigned importance on behalf of mankind. A period piece and a melodrama, carried forth by images and music.
That is a nifty way of looking at it! Professor Brand is the king, Amelia the somewhat unattainable princess, and Cooper the down-to-earth boy of humble origins who must win her. Like in the film, in opera the great moments are stretched out in time and the object of intense fetishising, like the long, ritualistic ignition and detaching scene in Interstellar. This is the point in the film where we feel the highest level of transcendence and exaltation – an experience perfectly expressed through this double image:
In opera no one complains about “insistent” music. The idea that a film score shall only have a subconscious effect is, by the way, hopelessly outdated and simplistic. One can often hear complaints along the lines that the score is “telling us how to feel”, and there are certainly a lot of cheap musicianship in films of lesser value. But in modern American mainstream cinema of a certain quality level, the score is an integral part of the total experience. Good examples are various works by Darren Aronofsky, like The Fountain (2006), or Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010). As the music is eventually increasing in our conscious perception on repeated viewings, precisely this “concert experience” plays a considerable part in producing a durable film that can stand many revisits. The music is generally simpler than in classical music or opera, but it is meant to be experienced in a synergy with images and editing. These cinematic elements become part of the orchestration, so to speak, so that the music nevertheless feels complex, at the same time that the narrative provides it with a layer of concrete meaning that gives it a unique energy.
Please allow a digression about a matter of eternal frustration: hardly any other art forms are regarded as more “high culture” than opera or classical music. Like films they are performed in great halls, and it is completely legitimate – in fact desirable – to totally surrender to the artist’s manipulation of us. But when a film has affected us deeply – in a similar manner, and Interstellar is as majestic and shamelessly melodramatic as any opera – a certain suspicious feeling often creeps up on us when the lights go up. Weren’t we manipulated just now? Weren’t we simply seduced by a glittering surface? Besides, film is after all an incredibly expensive, ultra-commercial medium, and everyone “knows” that the rotten-to-the-core Hollywood is not capable of real art. Shouldn’t we really, almost on principle, be a bit ashamed of what we just experienced? If only cinema would be regarded the same way as these other art forms, which are happily unafflicted by such guilty-pleasure thinking.
Interstellar as science fiction
Many have pointed to Arthur C. Clarke‘s science fiction novels as a source of inspiration for Interstellar. Among other works, “Rendezvous with Rama” from 1973 is mentioned, perhaps most of all because of the film’s cylinder-shaped space station. In any case, our thoughts would easily go to Clarke, since he was central to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which has many parallels to Interstellar. Clarke’s virtue as an author is cerebral visions on a macro level and a technically-oriented micro level that is nevertheless conveyed in an engaging and seductive way. The characters, however, are emphatically flat and only functional as operators in a plot. Interstellar has a very different approach to characterisation. The tone of Nolan’s film is also in essence different from Kubrick’s predecessor. Where 2001: A Space Odyssey appears cool, alienating and studiously sober, Interstellar is warm, involving and melodramatic. Both works radiate realism, however, but in totally different ways: Kubrick is hypnotically fixated on the details of future technology, Nolan through characters and connective material furthering cohesiveness.
Clarke’s famous statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is eminently suitable, however, for the five-dimensional beings and their Tesseract. It is this area that provides Nolan with the greatest potential for “sense of wonder”, perhaps the most central element of the appeal of science fiction literature: a vertiginous feeling of awe and humility as regards the myriad of possibilities hidden in science and the universe. But the Tesseract sequence, which is wonderful in every other way, is so jaw-dropping, event-filled and complex that it really does not give enough room for afterthought. In this respect literature as a form possibly has an advantage, since the reader can at any time put the book on pause to let things sink in. My sense-of-wonder radar was perhaps most strongly activated by the moment where Amelia and Cooper realise that the astronaut Miller, whom no one has seen for twelve years, at that planet’s time probably died just minutes ago. The relative calm of the scene provides time for the idea to resonate.
Interstellar also lingers, with hypnotic power, on the spellbindingly visualised wormhole, the comparatively microscopic size of the spaceship, and the crew’s helpless we-must-just-take-the-plunge-and-hope-for-the-best as they careen into it. The moment where they just “plop” out into the other galaxy, with deafening silence after all the noise of the passage, is unforgettable. Ditto for the situation where the ship “rolls” away from Earth, and the ethereal, minimalistic tableaux at Saturn. The images of the crew’s walk-abouts on Dr. Mann’s frozen planet are breathtaking – like in The Prestige (2006) Nolan here shows a superior sense of seductive helicopter shots – but the appeal of this type of shot is not unique for science fiction. (The fact that Edmunds’s planet seems to be Mars-like holds a certain thrill. A hint of a possible future there for the mankind of our reality?)
As genre, Interstellar must be said to be pure science fiction. It is nevertheless unusual for an SF film – at least one that deals with space travel and “grand” themes – to put so much emphasis on characterisation and emotional involvement. In addition, we have a powerful aspect of melodrama and the opera connection as explanations for the film’s crossover appeal outside the genre audience. The enthusiastic Edvarda Lana had some misgivings, however, for example about the flow of the film not being entirely smooth. She claims that “there is a clear division between emotional and informative scenes, similar to that between arias and recitatives in baroque opera.”
Film scenes where characters are uttering essential background information are often criticised for containing “not believable” or “stiff” dialogue. A good example in Interstellar is the info-heavy parent meeting where a conversation about Cooper goes: “You’re a well-educated man. And a trained pilot.”; “And an engineer”. For one thing, I think we underestimate how often in real life we are summarising the state of things during the process of presenting arguments in a discussion. Secondly, the film medium, except for voice-over, does not have literature’s ability to provide information in the text. My own attitude can be expressed through the dialogue after the reckless landing on Miller’s planet, where an ironic Amelia says, “Very graceful” and Cooper answers, “No. But very efficient”. Fact-providing “recitatives” ought to be regarded as a cinematic convention and, unless overdone, something that should not be the cause of irritation.
The two porch scenes with the father-in-law are definitely efficient, and it is almost comical how Cooper delivers one “well put” line after the other, either as catch phrases for the film or as a launching pad for later resonance. Humankind ought to be “explorers, pioneers, not caretakers”; their “place in the stars, place in the dirt“; farmers’ hopes for better times “next year”; he is preoccupied by being an astronaut “but that does not make it wrong”; this world has “been telling us to leave for a while now”; “mankind was born on Earth, it was never meant to die here”. Matthew McConaughey‘s heartfelt, bitter performance is distracting our attention from this artifice, however. (The baseball scene is the most awkward of all, perhaps, where virtually every line seems non-coherently shoehorned in to provide background information.)
The film has a lot more of another type of expository dialogue, where characters are presenting scientific issues and discuss them. Such passages might be the greatest obstacle for an audience without any prior relationship to science fiction. But they are an essential part of this generic terrain and feel very seductive – you have the impression of finding yourself at the outer limits of human experience, pioneers also in our thoughts. It is also stimulating to listen to intelligent professionals discuss matters we only partly understand ourselves. For example, “half” of Norway’s population are a captive audience to commentators during live transmissions of chess tournaments (due to our World Champion Magnus Carlsen).
Furthermore, half-understood scientific statements or explanations are like a kind of poetry to science fiction enthusiasts, maybe at its very best in Interstellar in the line “The bulk beings are closing the Tesseract”. When Amelia is touching the “phantom hand” in the wormhole, Romilly in the background says “Distorting space-time”. Of course he is explaining what the five-dimensional beings are doing, but the function of the statement can in my view be compared to a background vocalist during a concert. Romilly’s line is essentially superfluous, but evokes a seductive phrase from science fiction vocabulary, to fill out the picture and activate some SF poetry.
Finally, since Cooper will end up behind a bookcase, it is tempting to ponder the relationship between literature and film a bit more. The written word is much more suitable for conveying intellectual or scientific content – SF novels contain, for example, often “information dump” sections that may span several pages – but cinema make stories “real” in a much more visceral manner. The could possibly be seen in relation to our discussion of the imagined and the experienced in article B: One can picture the story in a novel and one gets carried away in the process, but the “real” experience of watching it as a film is more vivid. A related phenomenon, perhaps, is that one can think about Interstellar and “play” situations and music out in the mind, but the experience of watching the film in front of you is much more powerful than any thoughts you have about it.
Interstellar as style and execution
There are quite a few goodies in the film’s earliest stages, but Interstellar takes off for real with the pained farewell scene and the launch into space. The rest of the film is virtually a continuous masterwork: seamlessly and fluidly told, sprinkled with detail, and a finale of cascading closures and unifications. Everything is executed with a tremendous love for cinema.
Hoyte Van Hoytema‘s cinematography lends the shots inside Cooper’s “haunted house” weight and mystique through pitch-black shadows and high contrast, something that is carried over into the scenes inside the spacecrafts. Even though Interstellar clearly operates within the traditional film story’s ideal of narrative functionality and forward thrust, it has a pictorial elegance that so far has been absent in Christopher Nolan. His dialogue scenes have often come across as mechanical, where powerful torrents of information are expounded through series of close-ups of the characters. Many have been left cold by this indelicate “talking heads” technique – we are after all not speaking here of a director who employs the close-up as a conscious tool, like Bergman with his faces as emotional landscapes – but in light of Nolan’s many other qualities, the author of these lines has after all learned to live with it.
Certainly, Interstellar has a much more thoughtful, character-oriented foundation that lends itself to a more supple and flexible visualisation, but there is strikingly more camera writing and much less autopilot in the framings. Thus Nolan’s new maturity in theme and characterisation dovetails with a much greater visual sensitivity. How much Van Hoytema has meant for this gratifying development is difficult to say. But if we have a look at Nolan’s single fully character-oriented film, his remake Insomnia (2002), it is fixated on close-ups to a monomanical degree. Nevertheless, it is gripping but definitely not a sign of any talent as a metteur-en-scène.
Interstellar‘s visual sensitivity is felt in many situations. During the farewell scene the camera is lowered from Cooper to Murph, revealing that she is crying, the gentle movement producing an effect that editing cannot offer. When Cooper and Amelia stand in shock in a close-up after having received Murph’s video message that Plan A is a lie, the camera pans, heavy with meaning, to capture Dr. Mann in long shot, who can confirm the lie. Just before, Murph is recording the message, with the camera moving in an arc around her while denying us a look at her face – an inspired choice that allows us to apply our imagination as to the agitation roiling her. Near the end she embraces Tom, and the camera glides around them, to end up in a close-up of her brother’s sooty face. The situations around the “ghost messages”, the fallen books and the lines of dust are seductively conveyed in discreet camera movements (for example when the bookcase is first unveiled). Murph’s second video message is accompanied by a camera movement very heavy in meaning. Interstellar goes in for an unforgettable soft landing in the epilogue’s images of Amelia on Edmunds’s planet, which camera movements are poeticising in a simple but highly efficient manner.
The longish dialogue scene where the astronauts are discussing whether to go to Edmunds’s or Dr. Mann’s planet is exemplary. Where Nolan earlier would not have provided more than faces, the characters are here first shown in totals that place them in a relationship with the surroundings and according to internal alliances. Editing and framing are setting Amelia apart from the two others, among other things because she is going to lose the discussion. Soon the camera starts to sneak closer to Amelia for each cut, until we end up with close shots where she delivers her powerful speech on behalf of love.
The actors are outstanding. McConaughey gives Cooper an interesting mixture of down-to-earthness, stubborn self-assertion and rationality, and a raspy, raw voice that provide great emphasis in the dramatic situations. Hathaway is supreme, with as powerful emotional presence in drama as a deft command of humour. (An amusing device: the visor of her space helmet often gives her something akin to a soft focus, a common thing for female stars in the old Hollywood.) In a role that at first glance seemed like a weak point, Damon provides the film’s strongest acting effort as the exceptionally conflicted Dr. Mann – his long segment is wholly gripping however many times the film is watched. Mackenzie Foy is natural and engaging as the young Murph, and Chastain lifts her thinly written character just by being Chastain, as usual. Caine does not have so much to work with as Professor Brand, but it is amusing that in one of his lines during the lunch break with Murph he seems to imitate Sean Connery…?
Laughs in space
The humour of Interstellar never fails to hit the mark. Nolan gives a master class in slipping in comic relief with superb timing, without undermining neither the gravity of the story nor the believability of the characters. TARS is the exponent for lots of rough humour but also Cooper’s down-to-earth remarks are worth their weight in gold. His “Say it, don’t spray it” as Romilly blurts out that the wormhole is in sight, is a smiling contribution to the film’s realism and sober grounding. We are also treated to a whiff of (well hidden) black humour, when Dr. Mann, an endless source of solemn speeches, meets his fate in the middle of an especially effusion: “This is not about my life, or Cooper’s life. This is about all Mankind. There is a moment…” BOOM! On first viewing the film’s epilogue felt like an anticlimax, but on closer inspection its wry humour is excellently calibrated and durable, for example when TARS comes shuffling along, totally out of place, on the porch of the painstakingly recreated Cooper home.
When Cooper’s breakneck docking to the rotating ship is over with, he says, half-addressing the audience, “And for our next trick!” This also works as meta-humour, since Nolan loves the illusionism that filmmaking entails. He has explored this in many works, including The Prestige and Inception (2010). The sequence on which Cooper is commenting here is, fittingly, as illusory as it is possible to get, since the suspense is almost entirely conjured up by editing and score. As he embarks upon this act of daring CASE says “It’s not possible” and Cooper answers “No… it’s necessary” – more meta-humour, since it is “necessary” for the plot that he succeeds?
The script offers some exquisite internal humour as Professor Brand bids farewell to the astronauts by saying he looks forward to see the crew, “a little older, a little wiser, but happy to see you.” In the epilogue both Murph and Cooper will be very much older, very much wiser (Murph has revolutionised science with the quantum data, Cooper has discovered the power of love) and enormously happy to see each other.
Wild wave planet
The sequence on Miller’s planet means a dizzying shot of adrenaline for a so far quite tranquil film. It is a finely polished diamond of events that escalate with shocking velocity – a brilliant metaphor of a universe so alien that it is almost incomprehensible, with our human heroes mere playthings. Its stage is minimalistic – only a plain of shallow water, and then its utter contrast, towering waves at regular intervals. The action consists of a mosaic of details: astronauts panting in the extra gravity, their initial businesslike approach to the search, some puny bits of wreckage that give rise to a burgeoning anxiety that something is terribly wrong. Also the alternation between close shots and mighty panoramas is strangely ominous.
Hans Zimmer‘s score is here perhaps at its most hypnotic. The metronomic ticking that starts as the explorers are approaching the hatch is meant to mark that seven years are passing on Earth for each hour on the planet. The music is escalating in step with the events – seems almost to cause them – goes faster and faster, grows into swaying waves of sound. When TARS is ordered to save Amelia, a stringed instrument is introduced that marvellously underlines the visually transcendent moment as the robot unfolds and starts cartwheeling. The music’s four-note motif mirrors TARS’ four moving parts that form the wheel, and soon an organ joins the fray to mark every new iteration of the motif.
In a film that contains so many resplendently beautiful images of space, it might sound paradoxical to claim that its perhaps most striking image – which in addition only lasts a couple of seconds – occurs as the machine is transporting Amelia:
The contrasts are continuing. The desperate efforts on the vast plain to escape the giant wave – that leads to Doyle’s death – is followed by the crew now as playthings, thrown around inside the enclosed space, as the craft is taken by the wave. The whole thing concludes in a scene where all noise and music have evaporated, and frenetic action has turned into forced paralysis. Suddenly we have a chamber piece on our hands, in a raw dialogue scene between Cooper and Amelia: anger, recrimination, bitterness, but in its 100% honesty it becomes an important step in the development of their relationship. McConaughey is at his most intense and Hathaway is exceptionally believable – worked up, confused, but we also see her character’s resourcefulness, as she pulls herself mightily together to discuss time travel and the black hole.
On Miller’s planet Murphy’s law takes over Interstellar – a process concisely summed up by Dr. Mann: “Nothing worked out the way it was supposed to.” The events are crushing the explorers’ hopes of a problem-free mission and this planetfall is a miniature version of the film’s later descent into the hell on Dr. Mann’s planet. Nolan convincingly demonstrates how the built-in weaknesses of humankind are torpedoing even the most noble plans. Looking closer into the inferno on the water planet, we find that the crew’s mistakes are engaging with each other like cogwheels.
All three of them contribute to Doyle’s death. Amelia insists on investing time to fetch the box with Miller’s data. She defies Cooper’s orders, perhaps egged on by irritation about his rough landing. She is marching towards the box without turning around, so she is unaware of the full magnitude of danger of the coming wave. Cooper, who during the whole sequence is obsessed with hurrying, closes the hatch too early, without noticing that Doyle is not in yet, despite Amelia’s desperate shouts of warning. (The wave drowns out much of her voice, though.) Doyle is portrayed in the film as a somewhat slow and observing person. He hesitates for quite some time before sending CASE to save Amelia, and he seems to stop outside the hatch for invaluable moments, frozen in fascination at the sight of the wave. The fact that it is Doyle who dies, appears as complex and ironic: his decision saved Amelia, and he was the most eager one to go to Miller’s planet.
The best of Nolan’s earlier films – in my eyes The Prestige and Inception – feel like one single long, massive movement that picks you up at the beginning and drops you off at the last image. Interstellar is more “leisurely”, but the segment, lasting just over 45 minutes, that starts with the expedition of Dr. Mann and Cooper on the ice planet and ebbs out before the epilogue, follows this strategy. Purely in term of narrative technique, it feels like a marathon game of chess with World Champion Magnus Carlsen where his pieces are perfectly co-ordinated, without the least sign of false notes. Every image, every element of the chain is in itself “only” craftsmanship, but the execution is so extreme that the sum total is elevated into art.
The range is impressive. Crosscutting between four planes of action (often “invisibly” echoing each other). Dr. Mann’s inner conflict between extreme feelings of guilt and megalomania. Melancholy and a struggle to the death. Breathless rescue missions. A conflict rapidly escalating out of control. Dr. Mann’s iconic, yet teeth-gnashingly suspenseful docking scene. Explosion and disaster, then Cooper’s chaotic docking that transcends the limits of the possible. They are sucked in by the black hole’s gravitational pull. The majestic, ultra-emotional ignition and farewell scenes. Cooper who sacrifices himself, hurling down into “the heart of darkness” in the most total form of loneliness. The minimalist visualisation of Gargantua’s insides is followed by a maximalist Tesseract. Cooper’s confusion, then despair that he cannot reach Murph, then suddenly a conceptual breakthrough. Finally he is splendidly illuminated by insights into the connectivity of all things. The Tesseract is dismantled dreamily, followed by an equally magical and time-paradoxical encounter with Amelia in the wormhole.
Dr. Mann and Cooper’s dockings, the ignition of motors, the farewell with Amelia constitute a serial connection of scenes where very little physical action takes place. The goal of the scenes is clearly defined, but the characters are not engaged in physical activity. The situations are in their nature static, but nevertheless feel marked by great movement, through a continuous repetition of and variation on a few basic elements. Article A compared Dr. Mann’s docking and the ignition and farewell scenes with musical works, and this author claims that it is this ability to create “music” from filmic elements that is cinema’s innermost – at least the most unique – nature as art.
This is also the case with Cooper’s docking. The round docking mechanism that lights up and signals welcome with its three opening lids. The constant evocation of both the circle motif and the 3 motif. The co-operation between human and machine. (“Come on, TARS!”) The spellbinding sight of the tilting cockpit of Cooper’s vessel, enhanced by the outline of Amelia’s helmet being duplicated in a mysterious figure on the instrument panel. Amelia who cannot help closing her eyes, exactly like in the very first docking scene, and during the landing on Miller’s planet. The ranger ships with their curious mosaic of small windows giving the images patterned complexity. The vessels are doing a ballet, where each stage of their positioning and rotation in relation to each other is carefully delineated. Each repeated camera position, character, action is like an instrument in the vast symphony of suspense and connections. Over the whole thing Hans Zimmer‘s music lies, pumping and pumping, in perfect interaction.
The total experience is dizzying but at the same time executed with hypnotic, meticulous control. It is striking how we are influenced by many factors in harmony: pictorial art, montage, rhythm, sound, music, ballet, opera. Since cinema includes so many other art forms, perhaps we could speak of Interstellar as some kind of realisation of Richard Wagner‘s ideas of the gesamtkunstwerk?
Sound and music
The most remarkably effective use of sound in Interstellar lies at the extremities. First the cacophonies, in the alarms set off inside the ship as it is swallowed by the wormhole – in brutal contrast to the craft’s majestic approach – or during the plunge into the black hole. Ultimately, the most striking instance is perhaps the inferno of noise from innumerable alarms and sirens when Cooper and Amelia gain entry to the ship after the explosion caused by Dr. Mann. The effect is all the greater since the racket follows a spell of relative calm.
Interstellar takes up the gauntlet from 2001: A Space Odyssey through a less frequent but highly effective use of silence. The ear-splitting roar from the launch rocket is replaced by crystal-clear silence when the ship has been pushed out into space. Our feeling of unreality over Dr. Mann’s disastrous explosion is enormously multiplied when the noise is broken by total silence as we see his vessel disintegrate. When Cooper afterwards has managed to dock with the spinning ship, the thunderous crescendo of the score is followed by calm, so that his line “And for our next trick!” is given optimal impact.
As regards Hans Zimmer‘s abundant music we have to limit ourselves, or else we risk opening a Pandora’s Box – or a monolith that turns out to be overwhelmingly full of stars. The painful farewell between Cooper and the young Murph is a highlight. Here the music from the film’s opening returns, and grows “Stairway to Heaven“-like to a crescendo during the launch. At a point, where the camera is lowered revealing that Murph is crying, a tender, pained and drawn-out theme is released that spans both characters’ feelings: it is both a call luring Cooper to go on his space adventure and a lament from a girl losing her father. It consists of a two-note motif – because it is two characters in the scene – that is extended to three notes when Murph rejects Cooper’s attempts to calm her. We heard the two-note motif for the first time during the conversation between the same two persons after Cooper’s dream about the crash, and the new scene too revolves around his urge to be a pioneer and a pilot. The situation is inverted, however: after the dream it was he who was traumatised and she who towered over him and tried, in her fashion, to console him.
More highlights: The shimmeringly elegiac, poignant tones during the plunge into the black hole. The quiet, implacably pulsing, siren-like music during the three dockings, ominous and majestic at the same time. Incidentally, the music is a forewarning of Dr. Mann’s plan to dock with the mothership: the theme already starts on the ground, as TARS is storming out of the burning camp building, as if the music is ejected out of the flames together with the robot. An amusing breach of style occurs with the synth music accompanying Dr. Mann’s first dialogue scene – his old-fashioned way of speaking is matched by retro-tones one associates with early Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze.
As usual, the film music constitutes a world of its own, but in close interaction with the motifs of visuals and plot. Most viewers will remember the organ chord in crescendo at the start and end of the film: when Cooper looks out of the window after the dream, and as he opens the door to Murph’s hospital room in the epilogue. But it is also almost imperceptibly sneaked in as the film – paradoxically – is at its most tumultuous: when the spaceship is careening into the wormhole, and as Cooper’s vessel is pushing the mothership out of its crashing-landing descent towards Dr. Mann’s planet. The music also discretely binds scenes together: one and the same theme accompanies the film’s two early “gravitational anomalies” – the books that have fallen, the lines of dust on the floor – and the discussion of Romilly’s suggestion to send TARS into the black hole to collect gravity data. It also attends the astronauts’ weightless state as they enter the spaceship just after the launch.
The music also plays its part in the parallels between the galaxies. During Murph’s dramatic turning point on the road, a motoric, fast and heavy organ theme is played, which returns at the film’s most intense point, as Cooper commands “Initiate spin!” to start the docking of his craft to the rotating ship. The theme consists of a 12-note motif, something that fits into the “twelve pattern“, with for example the 12 units of the spaceship’s circle and the 12 astronauts of the Lazarus project. Furthermore, a continuous organ note is played when Cooper and Amelia return from Miller’s planet to the ship and the now aged Romilly. The note comes back a little later when Murph’s video message arrives. In both situations Cooper looks at a person who has become dramatically much older since the last time, something that is reflected in the duration of the organ note.
In between these situations, Cooper has gone through 23 years of messages from Tom. Unlike the other two, Tom’s ageing is gradually unfolding before his eyes. Here another important theme is played, a mournful two-note pump organ motif. In accordance with Cooper’s unresolved relationship with Tom, it does not achieve any resolution, but is cut abruptly off. Elsewhere in the film, the theme is reserved for Cooper and Murph, but in a harbinger of the ending it is always resolved, in an ecstatic flourish: during the liberating car chase for the drone through the cornfield, and during Cooper’s travel through the time strata in the Tesseract when he has understood how everything hangs together. Finally it returns in the epilogue’s last stage, where a subdued, half-melancholy version of the resolution is caressing the images of Amelia on Edmunds’s planet.
During the last two situations the resolution has an intermediary stage. Another, peaceful organ enters for a limited period, interacting with the two-note motif: as Cooper closes his eyes after the old Murph has said “Because my Dad promised me”, and when the adult Murph opens the 10-year-old Murph’s notebook, discovering the fact that as a child she had decoded Cooper’s message as “Stay”. Through the music, all three time planes are here united. (Is it a coincidence, then, that “Stay” is written three times on that page? See also the 3 motif.) The mood is almost blissful: Cooper seems to have achieved the utmost satisfaction, and the adult Murph’s discovery in the notebook convinces her that it was actually her father that was behind the messages from the bookcase.
In Interstellar there can be meaning in seemingly purely aesthetical shots, for example where the spaceship is shown as a luminous dot against Saturn’s vast background. The planet is split into a light and a dark part, however, and the ship moves from the light into the dark, in reflection of the crew’s journey through the narrative, from optimistic self-confidence to chaos and despair. Other details are aesthetic in themselves, for example how the astronauts’ grey-white suits match the surroundings on Dr. Mann’s ice planet.
As Murph comes to the breakfast table early in the film she puts a model of the Apollo modules on her plate, but it is soon replaced by a portion of corn. The pioneer-farmer contradiction in Interstellar comes clearly through via Cooper’s personal background, but as we see it is sneaked in on a micro level.
When Cooper receives his first video message after waking up from hibernation at Saturn, he is wrapped in a red blanket. Later in the film he goes through the 23 years of painful messages from Earth, and three red/orange bags on the wall are constantly visible, and especially prominent in the wider shots at the start of the scene. Reminding us about the blanket, they create an ironic contrast to the previous scene’s peace and harmony – although as Article A showed, the colour/blanket also hint at guilt towards Murph – and during the agonising second seance the burning colour is accompanying Cooper’s despair.
As one gains greater insight into the characters’ inner lives and development, apparently simple things can be animated with more layers of meaning. After Dr. Mann has woken from hibernation his first reaction is to cry like a child on Cooper’s shoulder. Nolan is here lingering on the reactions of everyone in the crew. Cooper seems embarrassed. Probably he ponders the children he “lost” after the unfortunate 23-year stay on Miller’s planet. The fact that it is an adult crying only increases the awkwardness, since Cooper’s children are now grown up.
The two reaction shots of Amelia and Romilly may seem unnecessary but provide resonance: Amelia probably thinks about her beloved Edmunds, whom she has been forced to give up saving to the benefit of the crying man. Romilly can hardly avoid mulling over his own decades of loneliness on the ship waiting for the others. Interstellar is so packed with plot and sensory input, and the crying scene so unexpected, that these undercurrents are easily overlooked at the first viewing.
An even more undertoned situation takes place as Cooper tells Amelia about the plan to use Gargantua’s gravitational power to reach Edmunds’s planet. This means a time slippage so large that Cooper cannot count on ever seeing his family again, but what remains implicit is that both of them in practice bid farewell to everyone they have ever known. They are left with only each other. Amelia touches his space helmet (see this screenshot) as a caress. Other than that, we can only imagine Amelia’s thoughts after Cooper has sacrificed himself so that she can reach Edmunds’s planet. After all, she does not know anything about whether or not Cooper and Murph have succeeded in saving the population of Earth. From Amelia’s perspective she is the last living human being, and the species will die out with her unless the new planet can provide a foundation for life for the fertilised eggs of Plan B.
Consistency, realism and grounding
Something constantly pointed out about Nolan’s works is the feeling of realism and grounding – we get the impression that the characters occupy a world where events are unfolding in an organic way.
On her way to Tom’s farm Murph is forced to stop because of a powerful dust storm. She spots two children on the back of a truck. But it does not happen because the script wills it into being, since the boy is brushing off dust with his hat, an act that in a natural way catches Murph’s attention. In another situation Cooper tries to pump TARS for information about Amelia’s possible romantic involvement with Edmunds. The robot does not just stand waiting in the room, conveniently to the script’s disposal, since just before we have seen it enter, as if it is doing its rounds on the ship. We get the feeling it has its own things to occupy itself with, and Nolan takes the extra trouble of showing its arrival. During the dialogue between Cooper and Amelia just before, we have seen cutaways of Romilly entering his hibernation tank and it being lowered into the floor. While the conversation continues, we hear background sounds from the same activities as Doyle starts his own nap – narratively superfluous but organic consistency.
Things do not just come out of the blue in Interstellar. The old Murph’s statement “No parent should have to watch their own child die” in the epilogue can be traced back to Tom’s dead son. Murph’s idea of setting fire to her brother’s cornfield as a diversion originates from her previous visit, where she was present as Tom burns off part of his crops. Those children on the back of the truck are important as preparation, because she will see them again later, in a much more important situation. We see the 10-year-old Murph put the wristwatch on a bookcase shelf, ready for later use by Cooper in the Tesseract.
Inside that space, he seems at a point to wake up – he spends a lot of time waiting for the precise moment in the past to turn up, so it furthers realism that he is seen to have nodded off. In this case there is a specific reason, an excellent example of Nolan’s narrative precision: Cooper sees himself trying to enter Murph’s barricaded room to talk to her but he gives up, and it is not until the next morning that the farewell scene occurs, where Cooper tries to prevent himself from leaving by yelling and punching a book out of a shelf.
In a huge shot we see lovely lens flares from the sun of the other galaxy, and in the next shot, during a discussion inside the ship, we see similar reflections in the portholes – coherence and visual flow. During the farewell between Cooper and Amelia they establish eye contact by both looking up. This seems consistent with the positioning of their respective modules, and the fact that Amelia, in an unusual touch, must tilt her head backwards to look at him makes the scene even more distinctive.
The spacecrafts are finely manoeuvred using compressed air, something that the filmmakers with great professional pride are constantly showing, even though narratively unimportant and barely perceptible, tiny details of the shots. Besides, all external shots of the spaceship’s various modules also serve as establishing shots, since the characters are actually inside the module in question – always.
Interstellar is very careful about the hardware. The mothership is equipped with four smaller vessels. Two of the Ranger type and one Lander are destroyed during the mission. Since the mothership cannot land, Amelia needs the last Lander for the descent to Edmunds’s planet – and there it stands nicely parked, and narratively tidy, in the film’s very last shot.
Article A demonstrated a number of mirrorings of the large in the small. Editing allows Nolan to create even more specific connections. Not least, he creates an impression of organic forward thrust between parallel lines of action without audiences noticing it consciously.
Let us start with some quite traditional yet highly efficient devices. On Dr. Mann’s planet Cooper has decided to return to Earth. Twice he ends a sentence with “home”, and each time there is a cut to the narrative plane on Earth: first, Murph and the doctor are driving towards her childhood home; later, they walk in through the very entrance door of “home”. Soon we see that Tom’s family have packed Murph’s things in cardboard boxes, and there is a direct cut to Amelia carrying containers, and of a similar size.
Now things are getting more complex: after Cooper has entered the black hole, there is again crosscutting to Earth. The adult Murph is in her childhood room, lost in memories of the ghost. Her ponderings are interrupted as the doctor shouts that Murph has to come out, since the violent Tom could return from putting out the cornfield fire at any time. There is a cut to Cooper in the cockpit, where he seems to have fainted due to the powerful gravitation. He wakes up from the computer chanting “Eject. Eject. Eject,” because the craft is about to disintegrate. Here the connection between the planes is fivefold: Both Murph and Cooper are “woken”, by a voice shouting, that it is important to get out of a confined space, and it is urgent, because there is an imminent danger.
Just before the epilogue, Nolan builds a very elegant and subtle chain of associations. When Cooper and Amelia exchange their “divine” handshake in the wormhole, both have a circle of light over an eye. When he is later floating unconscious in space by Saturn, he is saved by a vessel: far away we see two lights, which peculiarly enough are blinking. There is a cut to a close-up of Cooper who blinks his eyes as he is waking up in the hospital. Thus it is drawn a direct, but for the audience deeply subconscious line: from two eyes and two circles of light in the wormhole, via two blinking lights on the vessel, to two blinking eyes at the hospital. The pattern is sufficiently strong, with so many links, that one has to assume it is created intentionally.
Before Cooper enters hibernation after taking off from Earth, he records a message for his family. We hear his voice over a shot where the ship is floating in the distance, almost as if we see it from the point of view of Earth. There is a cut to Cooper’s car arriving in the distance, being returned by Professor Brand, from the point of view of his family standing on the porch. The distance to the objects, filmed from the “same” vantage point, Cooper’s voice-over spanning both shots, and the film’s motif of connection between cars and space vessels – the totality of this helps forge a very strong connection. It is increased further by the fact that the car will deliver precisely the message we hear being recorded on the soundtrack. To top it off, there is a reversal: we see the ship becoming smaller and the car getting larger. (For more visual refinement in this scene, see here.)
The car scene ends with Professor Brand and Cooper’s father-in-law looking up into the sky where Cooper disappeared in the ship:
The next time we are at the farm, as Tom is burning off diseased corn plants, this is inverted: to pick up where we left Earth, more than half an hour later in the film, the camera starts by looking up into the sky before it lowers its gaze towards the ground. The bonding of these scenes becomes even more beautiful since the image of the sky was united with the shot just before. Here we see the mothership rotating in the other galaxy, but it falls to rest exactly when a moored Ranger vessel is centred in the shot. This is precisely the type of vessel with which Cooper left Earth, and then it dissolves right into the sky above Tom’s farm:
The two situations are perfectly mirroring each other:
The camera rises to look up into the sky and then it is lowered to the ground again. In both situations we see two people, with their backs to the camera, and the Earth plane is directly connected to Cooper’s space mission.
Visualisation of thoughts
Editing also allows Nolan to visualise the characters’ trains of thought – or rather their subconscious decisions. After Tom has chased Murph off his farm she has in reality given up helping her brother’s sick family. In the meantime on the ice planet Dr. Mann says: “Don’t judge me, Cooper. You were never tested like I was. Few men have been.” There is a cut to Murph on the motorway, and the doctor says: “You tried your best.” She looks doubtful, as if deep down she realises that she too has failed a test. The parallel is clear: like Dr. Mann is in the process of leaving a dying Cooper, she does the same to Tom’s family. On the planet Dr. Mann then asks “Do you see your children?” and soon there is a cut to Murph who spots the same two children as earlier. They sit on the back of the truck, like before, belonging to a family escaping the worsening life in the countryside.
Here a great many factors figure in a complex interplay. The unknown children become representatives of the entire mankind. In a way they also become Murph’s own children – “Do you see your children?” – because she looks upon herself as a saviour whose purpose is to save the entire world. The childless Murph therefore tries to transcend Brand and Mann’s postulate about human beings’ tendency to only care for those closest to them. The boy and the girl also remind Murph about her own childhood – and about her blood relationship to and responsibility for Tom, from which she is about to run away. An additional factor is the dismal future of Tom’s family if she does not intervene. At the same time the “little” lie that Tom clings to, that his family are not sick at all, is thrown into relief with her own “big” lie to NASA that Plan A is still viable. On top of everything we hear Dr. Mann reciting the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” at the same time that Murph notices the children. In Interstellar this poem represents the struggle against death, for individuals as well as the entire population of Earth.
Now a cascade of echoes are set off across the galaxies. Crosscutting between Cooper who finds his radio so that he can call for help, Murph too reaches a turning point. While Coopers spots the radio, Murph notices the children. With a grimace she turns the car around. As her twin soul Amelia is on her way to save Cooper the individual, Murph is on her way to save the individuals of Tom’s family. As Amelia’s vessel takes off, there is a cut to Murph driving at great speed along the road. Soon, shots of Murph ploughing through the cornfield are crosscut with Amelia flying through “bumpy” terrain on the ice planet. When Romilly is approaching KIPP, an act that will set off an explosion and a fire, there is a cut to Murph pouring gasoline on the field (precisely to set off a fire).
Murph’s drive through the cornfield repeats Cooper’s manoeuvre when he chased the drone, and soon the two of them will end up on each their side of the bookcase. Had not Murph seen the children on the truck, she would not have turned around, and perhaps never been able to solve the equation. Dr. Mann’s “Do you see your children” has therefore saved humanity – metaphorically speaking, through the cut across the galaxies. The two “binary” children were what was required to solve Murph’s moral equation, and in yet another resolution it turns out in the epilogue that she has got a great many children of her own.
Not long after this, we shall see another metaphorical cut, on this occasion across time planes. When the situation for Cooper behind the bookcase is at its darkest, because he has been unable to stop himself from leaving Earth in the 10-year-old Murph’s time plane – precisely then the adult Murph realises that the message “Stay” in its time came from her own father. Her hate for him vanishes, and overcome by emotion she puts her hand on a shelf. There is a cut to several decades earlier, when Cooper touches the shelf on his own side. Precisely then TARS finally breaks through on the radio, and the two of them start a discussion, reasoning themselves into a conceptual breakthrough.
Emotions and intellect, father and daughter, adult and child, present and past, hate and love, barriers and communication, man and machine – all of these things are now caressing each other in Christopher Nolan‘s modern myth Interstellar.