Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathway, Jessica Chastain, David Gyasi, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 169 min.
Verdict: Personal territory I would want to keep coming back to. Also, might just be Mr. Nolan’s most accomplished film yet.
Genre: Sci-fi, Drama
(Spoilers abound! I assume you’ve watched the movie because I’m not devoting any obvious space to introduce the plot as such.)
Memory must be a medium for love. Faith surely is fuelled by memory. I mean, if our movies have managed to tell us one thing it is that objects do retain the past as a narrative, transforming the commonplace present into a meaningful past, snatching history from the jaws of archival hegemony, as if it were closed and sealed forever, and make it personal memory, living and breathing, isn’t it? The objects this time around are books, and the bookshelf housing them, and dust, and a written word, and a watch, and a bed and a model spaceship. Even a sweater on the seat of the truck. I love the watch. It is a mass-produced thing, like so many other things, and yet, all my life, I’ve had an instinctive attachment to watches in the way I’ve associated my faith with them. You see, a coin is different, because it only responds, or talks, when you flip it, making it an object whose response is caused by us hence making us aware of its inanimate and mathematical nature, i.e. chance. It is, in many ways, a representation of our rationality, and a reminder of it. A watch, or a clock, is different. It’s always running, always doing its thing, and when I use it to make decisions, based on whether the second-hand is between 1 and 30, which is a yes, or it is not, which is a no, I feel as if I am tapping into a stream. I feel like I’m talking, and for a large part of my conscious life, the watch in my home was how God communicated to me and I communicated with him. The watch made sense. It is what kept me moral, and at this point in my life, when I am questioning the rationality of all of it, there is a huge part of me that so desperately wants to return to the simplicity or those days where I could just ask my watch. You could say I’ve issues in the upper part of my hemisphere, but my binary conversations with my watch – and it is incredible how I could reduce a whole set of stuff just by thinking about it in my mind and then seeking confirmation from that watch – will always be muscle memory to me.
There’s a room here, a sort of personal temple, which probably makes it unlike the one in Stalker, that houses all these objects and thereby the memories, and towards which everything in Interstellar gravitates towards. This is a space movie which under the guise of travelling outwards eventually reaches inwards. It is the central figure here, this room, in the first act and the third act (I suspect, from a Bordwellian angle, this is a film with the three acts and an epilogue rather than four acts, but I will be happy to be proved wrong), absolutely absent in the second, and it becomes both the source and destination that Mr. Nolan shapes his narrative around. Cooper (Mr. McConaughey) keeps looking beyond the frame of that monitor searching for his little daughter Murph (Ms. Foy) and, or maybe in, that room, as if to create a new memory overwriting the older one where he left her to pursue the pioneer half of himself, and it seems to be stubbornly resisting that, growing more and more intense. Like the man in La Jetée, and like Graham Hess in Signs, Cooper, as Aaron Stewart-Ahn mentions here, becomes something of a prisoner of this memory space where only he and his daughter ever enter in the entire film. If the home, and the farm surrounding it, and the dust covering it come to represent the mortality of our existence that needs to be transcended (as when Alfred Borden knocks on the wall he is leaning on) via the pioneer within us, the room becomes the meaning we seek and the interpretation of our memories we construct – Interstellar gradually becomes the journey of a man marked for the rest of his life by a memory of the past.
At the same time, do not allow me to convey the impression that Cooper is some kind of variation on Scottie, obsessing over a memory image, because he’s not. He’s a prisoner of that conflicting emotion that drives all of Mr. Nolan’s guys, between the ambition and the domesticity, between the curiosity of the Langford double and the satisfaction of the kids and wife, for both are essential parts, and I probably should link to Mr. Jonathan Nolan’s interview where he articulates that predicament most simply and precisely.
There’re television monitors too, not skype (digital) but having the grainy monochromatic almost grungy quality of old video, and they are not live and do not allow two-way communication, thus becoming, like letters, information that has travelled and experienced the passage of time. They are memories, and for some strange reason, probably because Tom and Murph look up at it while speaking into it, they feel like prayers. Tom sharing his life into that little screen not knowing if somebody on the other is listening, and Murph pouring her heart out, and there is the unmistakable need of hope, of faith. Much has been said about Mr. McConaughey’s performance, none more encompassing than Danny Bowes defining him as the guitar string that resonates at the frequency of America, and all of that ought to be extended to Ms. Chastain. Mr. Malick made her the mother, and Mr. Nolan comes perilously close to making her the daughter, essentially bringing her to the center of it all. I remember the film, and I am reminded of her, just like the mere mention of The Mirror condenses the image of the mother sitting over the fence. It also ought to be said here that rare has been the occasion where such significant emotional sensual (in a purely platonic way) returns have been drawn from the head of a performer, and this here is one. If that wretched opening-closing shot in Gone Girl is abstracted misogyny, this here is all grace.
As always, I digress, and as always I use those words to pull myself back. To the room. Murph might be the room’s soul, for without her, the room almost doesn’t exist. She’s resisted and seemingly repressed the feelings (memories) the room evoked, and Mr. Nolan patiently builds the narrative, selecting his moments most carefully to switch between the space travel and earth, none more effective than the screen-switch from Cooper to Murph on the other side. Or a pan up to the clouds when Dr. Brand (Mr. Caine) visits Donald (Mr. Lithgow) at the farm , evoking the sense of loneliness and distance and disconnectedness. After the simple narrative pattern of this happened and then this happened of the first act (single line), and the this happened and meanwhile this happened of the second act (parallel lines), it is almost as if he seems to find within the moment Murph mentions the memories of her ghost and the image of Mr. Nolan’s daughter Flora (I suspected the little girl on the truck Murph sees is Mr. Nolan’s daughter, and the end credits told me I suspected right) the necessary trigger to weave all of it that memory space the film seems pre-destined to move towards. There is also the second video from Murph, questioning his intentions and thus questioning the faith and love, and that video causes the same kind of desperation that is most vulnerable because of the guilt inherent to pursuing one’s ambitions. He needs to get back to her, and to that room, and what follows is unlike anything Mr. Nolan has done till now, for what seem to be mostly disparate this-here-and-meanwhile-this-here events on paper seem to be galvanized narratively finding a new meaning for Murph’s memory. Or Cooper’s. I won’t go into the details of the context, yet there’s probably no harm to be had in disclosing that on the one side of that shelf exists Murph and her memory, and on the other side her father both in and seemingly causing that memory. Or maybe, even caused by the memory.
It is heady upon reflection, and visceral in its immediate impact, with Cooper struggling to survive and trying to dock the ranger, and Murph seeking meaning to her faith in that room, each event seemingly shaping the other. Love, Amelia (Ms. Hathway) says, transcends time, and I think the conduit is memory. You see, memory is not fact, memory is not archived, and memory always exists in the present, being shaped and reshaped all the time. Leonard Shelby wanted to overwrite his memory, but unfortunately he neither had cross-cutting nor did he have Mr. Zimmer’s score. Most importantly, he wasn’t in a science-fiction, and I’m not implying the whole Cooper is dead and these are his dying memories scenario, because Mr. Nolan really wants to transcend the solidity of the world, and yet he is constrained by what he can perceive (Is it rigid, and if it is, is there some kind of relation between that and the lines – the books on the shelf, the sand, the contours of the robots, or the spacecraft, of the representation of the fifth dimension). His characters feel the instinctive need to touch the surfaces around them a lot, Cooper here mostly. The surface of the surveillance drone. Or the air of Miller’s planet while landing. The video screen. The handshake. Even the craft touches the frozen cloud and its legs the surface of the frozen ground of Mann’s planet. There’s this elemental almost perceptible quality he brings to Interstellar, in the texture of the close-ups, in the contrast of the wrinkles of old Murph (Ms. Burstyn) and Cooper, in the crops, or the dust, or the steam coming out of the coffee, or the fireballs crackling along the ship. We need to touch it to know it, I suppose, and as my dear friend Srikanth tells me whenever I start raving about my kindle, hey, we can drop those books on the floor!
So yeah, Mr. Nolan isn’t implying that all of this is happening is some sort of head-space, because he is probably not even making that distinction. As long as we can touch, as long as we can perceive, as long as we’ve our memories, we’re in our realities. He tried to say the same thing with that damned ending in Inception but I believe he chose to focus on the wrong object, and he doesn’t make that mistake here by providing any sort of easy cynical ambiguities. I’m not really suggesting here that the spinning top is a cynical or gimmicky move as much as it is a filmmaker trying to end with his signature of what his beliefs are, but I would have wanted him to rather make a statement – maybe via a pan from the top towards Cobb. So yeah, Mr. Nolan needs reasons to believe, and believe he does want to. There’s nothing out there and nothing out here, except for us, and that his both humbling and moving. Two people fight in the middle of the icy planet in a bird’s eye-view shot that dwarves us to mere particles against the impersonal enormity of the planet, and yet through the score, and his framing, he finds humanity. Mann (Mr. Damon) is leaving Cooper to suffocate and die, and yet Mr. Nolan finds an over-the-shoulder shot of him looking back. There’s so much there in that shot, like the best of Melville, where we all understand each other’s perspective, for Mann is merely an extension of the pioneer part of Cooper, just as Tom at the farm is the domestic conformist part (or whatever there is of it) of him. Mr. Nolan rarely, if ever, judges. Mann cannot watch, yet he turns back twice, part of him deeply sorry, part of him wanting Cooper to survive and a part of him rationalizing it all as necessary sacrifice for the larger good of mankind. I had tears in my eyes, and Mr. Damon is an incredible incredible actor. Wonder to Mr. Nolan is in a family pursuing a drone through cornfields, tragedy is in the shot of a man standing in the darkness behind a door waiting for 23 years – that shot of Romilly (Mr. Gyasi) is incredible in the way it both captures his loneliness by crushing it to a moment and a stance. A blip, in the enormous context of the universe. Grace, to Mr. Nolan, are people driving their vehicles in a file while migrating away from the dust bowl, sanctity to him is in those objects we perceive and send to our memory (it is interesting mystery to him is in the diaphysical rather than the metaphysical, (cue: Mr. Carruth’s Upstream Color), in what we create as opposed to what is already out there (seldom has there been such scant disregard for spectacle provided by outer-space relegating it to the domain of purely functional), warmth to him is Ms. Chastain’s hair (I hope for purely descriptive purposes, this is considered Mr. Nolan’s The Tree of Life rather than the Kubrick film, because he seems to be interpreting/charting history as personal memory most clearly represented in the talking heads), in medium shots, in close-ups of faces looking at each other and up towards the sky, for the sky itself is empty and barren and indifferent and, well, just stares back. Gosh, do the clouds even move?
So yeah, I’ll want to disagree any theory out there that classifies this as a dying man’s wish, because I believe and I want to believe that what’s happened is Mr. Nolan finding a way through the genre he is working in (rationality) and through his technique, to actively shape and alter the memory and its perceptions, thus ending up causing the reality around. Cooper is struggling to survive gasping for air, and Murph once again sees Ms. Flora Nolan, and Mr. Zimmer’s score soars, almost causing her to feel something to push the jeep into the cornfields (almost mirroring the wonder of the earlier drone scene). Like The Hours, or Cloud Atlas, show us, cross-cutting causes the kind of exhilaration music often provides, because there is an inherent immediacy caused by the motion in it. The past becomes alive, and it feels as if anything might be possible.
In Mr. Nolan’s hands, across the barrier of space, it becomes an evidence of the transcendence of love. More than Memento, and maybe even more than The Prestige, there is an incredible union of form and content, and in that room, where Cooper is caught up in the memory space, and Murph outside desperately reinterpreting her memory, it feels almost as if the narrative is fuelling itself. Cooper watches those moments helplessly from the outside practically praying (like the video screens) across the bookshelf to be heard by his daughter and to be stopped, and it is one of the great moments movies have given us. He sees himself leave, and he breaks down, and in a classic usage of deus-ex-machina (as I said, narrative fuelling itself) TARS appears, both to provide context and to provide purpose (the transmission of quantum data). As Leonard Shelby did it all those years ago, the need is to rewrite those memories, or re-contextualize them so as to shift the guilt. This is where Mr. Nolan has made his most poignant and hopeful film yet, helping his protagonist leave the cage of individual memory and finding via love a way to not merely share the memory but essentially rewrite/repurpose them via those memory objects, rendering within them an associative sense and through them a meaning. It is terribly intimate moment, and Mr. Nolan plays it to the grandest most melodramatic pitch possible, wanting to celebrate this transcendence. He believes in the sanctity, for the room and its objects come to represent experience, aspirations, and identity, i.e. memory, and curiously that room with that book shelf and all its objects is not even present (or at least not shown) in the archived model of it on Cooper station. As Amelia says, migrating is not really finding a new condo.I want to come back to that room, and Ms. Chastain’s-Ms. Foy’s Murph, and their virtual absence from the final moments on Cooper station and beyond. I look back at the films I have unabashedly loved over the last few years (so much so that some of them are my passwords) – The Grey and its wallets, In the City of Sylvia and the unknown faces, Public Enemies and the trivialization, via history, of pursuits that probably were most personal, Moon and the commodification of memory – and I realize that memory is what kills it for me at the movies. The room is gone, earth’s gone and most importantly Murph has left it behind now that she has the closure and the comfort that it was her dad all along. And yet, amidst all of that there is just that tinge of sadness to the fact that Cooper just doesn’t belong to the present, on the station, where he meets the older Murph, her wrinkles a perceptible reminder of the passage of time, of a memory lost. Cooper has essentially seen three persons in his daughter, and when he feels her hand on her chin and closes his eyes, all I wanted to was to stop articulating it all and cry. She asks him to go, and in what might just be the most moving moment in all of his films, they seemingly share the memory of a new home to return to. It is a glorious declaration of our need for domesticity, of destroying loneliness. Cooper flies, to find Amelia, in the vastness of space, and I hope that wormhole is no longer there, for theory makes way for love and memory. After all, as Mr. Jonathan Nolan observes here, if science (nature) is enormous and formidable and indifferent, science fiction is always there to provide, in the form of a wormhole or a robot, the deus-ex-machina. It is so profoundly sincere and innocent in that hope of its that I want to cuddle up in the corner of my green room and cry. Mr. Nolan here has made a truly great film. More importantly, while I’ve always had boy-name for my future kid – Takeshi Kitano, with Beat being the nickname – I now have a girl-name too.