Movie Review: Interstellar

I’m a huge fan of Nolan movies and beside Inception my top list of favorite movies of all time consists of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and The Empire Strikes Back. Yet somehow I had not seen Interstellar until now, even though it was a foregone conclusion that I would love it. Even with just knowing that it’s a Nolan movie about space and wormholes. Once I heard that much last year, I didn’t watch any trailers or read any preview articles about it, knowing that I would eventually see it, almost certainly love it, and love it all the more the less I knew about it in advance. But somehow I never watched it when it was released or got it on DVD when it came out until now. It was actually just me wondering out of the blue how the music for the movie would be and looking it up it sounded really quite amazing. This had me think about a technical question on how it was done and suddenly I found myself being only 80% blind to the content of the movie instead of 95% as I had been before. That convinced me that I had to actually watch it and to watch it very soon! Which I did yesterday.

And I should have watched it last week! It would have been so much better going into the movie completely blind, not even knowing what the story is about. Not knowing about the setting, not knowing about the underlying conflict, not knowing about the goal. Many people consider Nolan movies to be confusing, but I personally think the one way in which they could be better would be being less predictable. And even just knowing a few basic things about the plot lead to me not really being surprised by the story of Interstellar. So in this review I will not be talking about the story at all but instead about why I think you should really see this movie. If this kind of movie is for you. Of course there is so much to talk about in this movie and I think I will do another post in a near future where I will totally nerd out about all the things I’ve seen and discovered.

The Heart of Darkness

But for now I’ll try to keep it strictly to the merrits of the movie aside from the plot. To outline the story just in very broad strokes, it takes place in a future where the world is in terrible shape and the hope for the future of huminity lies in the exploration of distant planets in space. However, the physics involved that allow humans to reach other planets do extremely strange things to our perception of time and space, which results in a very weird and bizare experience for the astronauts. A lot of talk about the movie has been about how much actual hard physics and space technology is in the movie and how much more accurate it is than any other movies that have been made before. And that is true. But Interstellar is not a hard science-fiction movie! This is a really funky movie. Much more than Dark Knight movies and even Inception, this movie is all classic, oldschool Nolan mindfuck. Or, as I would rather think about it, classic Nolan cerebral lovemaking. Nolan’s movies are often considered to be postmodernist or existentialist, and Interstellar certainly is weird. But there is absolutely nothing humorous, ironic, or mocking about it. It’s not a crazy fun ride or a space adventure or anything like that. This is a seriously heavy philosophical and emotional movie. One might even be temped to call it spiritual, but that term probably would create the wrong impression. It is in fact one of the defining aspect of Existentialism that it sits firmly on the blurry part of the border between philosophy and spirituality. It is concerned with issues that are traditionally considered religious while at the same time rejecting the concepts of the supernatural or the divine. All of Nolan’s movies touch on this spehere, but Interstellar dives into it much deeper than ever before.

And I think this is the main factor that will determine if this movie is for you or not, and how much you’ll enjoy it. The Batman movies are somewhat unusual superhero movies, but they are still superhero movies. Inception left many people confused about the plot, but it still entertains as a popcorn action movie. Interstellar just won’t do that. It doesn’t really have any action scenes and a narrative that is pretty simple. (While it’s very deep, it’s not complex.) And it’s almost three hours in length. Almost everyone is used to movies that run 120 minutes, but adding 45 more minutes to that makes a big difference. And since it isn’t packed to the brim with plot development, it also is pretty slow paced. Oh, and yeah: It’s also very bleak. It’s not a violent movie or an agonizing movie, but it’s dark. I’ve been thinking about elaborating on this a lot, but everything I come up with feels like it would give away too much. I think a comparison with Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell is really quite appropriate here. If you can get something out of these kinds of movies, I think you’ll also enjoy Interstellar.

Blah, blah, something about wormholes, blah, blah

One of the most amazing thing about the movie is the sound. It is, how we would say in Germany, a very brave attempt. And indeed, lots of people hate it! Dialogue is very often really hard to understand and the music often gets extremely loud. I am not exactly sure if it was the right call, but I understand why Nolan insisted on doing it and I very much enjoyed the final result. But I am unceartain whether much would have been lost if the voices were more clear and the music less intrusive, but probably a majority of viewers would have greatly appreciated it. It certainly was no accident or oversight. People have complained about Bane in The Dark Knight Rises being bad to understand in test screenings and Nolan argued that he wants it that way. And just look at the care and detail that he always takes with everything else in his movies. When you can’t hear what people are saying, he wants you to not hear it. I admit, I probably didn’t understand even half the sentences of what is being said in the entire movie. And people who did understand it often complain that the dialogues are bad. But I don’t think he is trying to cover up the fact that the things people say are banal and artificial. I think that’s really the entire point. Dialogue in this movie consists of two types: People talking about physics and technology in terms that most viwers won’t understand anyway but is there to set the scene, and people talking about their emotions and relationships. In either case, it really doesn’t matter what anyone is saying. Their mouths are moving, but nobody is saying everything. Almost the entire communication in this movie is done nonverbally. There is a wonderful quote from the old TV show Babylon 5, by its most strange and enigmatic character: “If it is understanding that you seek, you have to listen to the music, not to the song.” I think that’s what this movie is really all about. In real human communication, the things that come out of our mouth are full of data junk. So much of it is redundant or reflexive and does not actually contain any new information, and then you have of course all the stuttering and mumbling as well. When listeing to people talking you are missing words or whole sentences all the time, but the brain automatically filters those disruptions out and cleans up the message before it enters our consciousness. We’re not normally aware of it, but when you try to type down a recording of normal speech accurately, it immediately becomes obvious what a total mess it is. Almost no movie, TV show, or videogame ever does that and instead you get every single line that was carefully prepared and recorded as often as it took to get it just right. (The Big Lebowsky being a notable exception, but it may not immediately be noticable as our brain automatically does the usual cleaning up process.) By making the dialogue in Interstellar unintelligible the viewer have to rely on other cues to figure out what the characters have just tried to communicate to each other. And for me that worked perfectly well. I was not always completely sure what was actually happening according to the script, but there was never any ambiguity about the interaction between the characters. There are a few scenes of exposition talk where I think that might not have worked so well. Even with just picking out only every third or four words my knowledge of what these words mean was enough for me to figure out what physical principles they are talking about. If you don’t have this preexisting knowledge, I think there are many scenes where it seems like they are explaining very important things that will be necessary to understand the next parts of the plot, and people just won’t have a clue what they just said. In the end, all the science and engineering is not important for the story. But when you think it’s important and try to figure out the puzzle with half the pieces missing, it probably is going to feel very frustrating and confusing. The movie does not tell you “This is technobabble, it’s not important for the plot.” I think it’s a neat idea, but the potential to backfire is huge. And I think backfire it did, at least for most people.

Now the other thing is the music. I love the music. I wasn’t a fan of the older Hans Zimmer stuff, but many of his most recent works are really quite great. I think to a good degree he is delivering his customers the kind of music that they want. And yeah, you don’t expect anything highly unique or creative from the developers of the Call of Duty games. But when Christopher Nolan orders something really extravagant that is highly tailored to his vision of the final movie, then Zimmer is able to deliver that as well. The music for Inception was certainly unique, but for Interstellar it’s much more extreme. When you go all the way down to core, the entire music for the whole movie is just slight variations of the same very simple tune. Which is only five notes. And it repeats over and over in various very different but recognizable variants. Sometimes it’s very quiet. And sometimes it’s incredibly loud. I have a nice 5.1 sorround sound system set up here (one of the best investments I’ve ever made 12 years ago) and it’s just mind blowing. Rumor has it that one IMAX theatre ruined their sound system because they set it too high to make the dialogue more audible. I would not outright dismiss this story as a hoax. Good things my neighbours are on vaction or I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it at it’s full glory in the middle of the night. It’s kind of creepy and certainly very haunting, adding hugely to the often bleak and sometimes desperate atmosphere. Oh, and the main instrument is a massive church organ. Another ballsy move was to make space silent. In many shots there just isn’t any sound at all. You only hear things when ships are docking together or landing on a planet or when stuff is moved around inside them. When the music goes completely quite as well, it’s just fascinating to experience.

Where no man has gone before

As I mentioned in the tiny fragment of summary before, this movie is about using wormholes to reach distant planets. The movie is eerie and haunting from the very beginning even back at Earth, but once they start exploring outer space it just gets totally weird. Most of what they find looks normal, as it was shot in real places in Iceland or inside a full scale model of the spaceship, but it all feels completely wrong. It’s really hard to not give away too much here and I think it just needs to be experienced in person to full appreciate. But as I am concerned they might not just have been traveled to a distant point in space but just as well have been gone to a different universe or different realm of being. It’s all totally surreal. It’s all like a dream, but you might not really be sure if it’s a good one or a bad one. It’s creepy, but beautiful. Amazing and terrifying. It’s transcendental. Which again goes back to the core elements of existentialist philosophy.

They also do happen to find planets that are similar to Earth. Similar in some ways, but also very clearly not Earth. Doing the entire movie in space probably would have gotten boring pretty soon, but the planets are just as weird, beautiful, and unsettling. While they make for a nice change of pace of environment, they seamlessly maintain the overall atmosphere of the whole movie. It’s a truly bizare journey, but that’s really exactly what you’d expect when you follow Christopher Nolan through a wormhole into strange and distant corners of the universe.

So yeah, I enjoyed this movie very much. It probably isn’t going to become a regular member of my collections of amazing movies to constantly watch again, and I dare say I like Inception better. Simply because it’s much more digestible. But at the same time, Interstellar is even more amazing. I feel like I can not much better understand my dad’s love with 2001. Not that I feel like I understand or appreciate that movie any more now than I did before, but if someone who doesn’t like Interstellar would ask me to explain why I think this weird clunky movie is so amazing, I also would have a very hard time to even explain what about I like. This is a movie to keep staring into until one day it maybe stares back at you.