Albert Einstein’s special relativity theory, which is about 110 years old, says that time expands as space contracts. Something different has happened between filmmakers and their audiences: For about 120 years, directors have tried to put audiences on the edge of their seats – a place that only gets further and further away as time goes by. Why? Because people are intrigued and freaked out by the unknown, which there’s less of all the time.
But unless you’re currently working on unified field theory, the Einsteinian concepts that director Christopher Nolan incorporates in “Interstellar” – opening Wednesday – are just a nanosecond or so ahead of full comprehension. The result? A troubling complexity that will likely give your frontal lobes a twist, while at the same time Nolan’s visuals are dazzling your optic nerve.
“Physics are really the known unknown,” said the director (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception”), who has become known for his big-concept, big-canvas movies. “It allows you to play with paradox.”
As Matthew McConaughey’s character, Cooper, tells his weeping 10-year-old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), before he flies off to save Earth, “When I get back, we may be the same age.”
As reassuring as Cooper intends his words to be, Murph is not at peace. Neither are we.
According to the original screenplay co-written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan (who also wrote the short story behind Nolan’s 2000 breakthrough film, “Memento”), Earth is suffering an agricultural calamity, global Dust Bowl-like conditions, and a new home for humans is being sought among the stars. Cooper’s mission is reconnaissance: Accompanied by a crew that includes Dr.Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), whose father (Michael Caine) is the NASA scientist behind the project, Cooper has to link up with the crews who have already been sent to explore for hospitable planets, decide which will be humanity’s new home and start the process of colonization.
As Cooper and Co. travel through the space-bending wormholes and interplanetary phenomena conjured up by two Nolan regulars – production designer Nathan Crowley and visual-effects supervisor Paul Franklin – they hit several intergalactic dead ends. Murph grows up to be a scientist (Jessica Chastain), working on earthly salvation from her end.
“Yes, it delves into these theories and questions about gravity and time and black holes,” Chastain said, “but at the core it’s not about that, it’s about love. It’s something to be felt, not understood. You don’t have to grasp every theory.”
“I found the science pretty liberating,” added Nolan, who said that while he did do a great deal of research, there exists a “deeper mathematical understanding” that he doesn’t possess.
“I don’t know much about science, and I take a bit of pride in that,” he said. “If I can intuit enough to understand the emotional message of the story, and get with the journey I’m trying to take an audience on, I know I’m on the right track.”
For all the relativity, “Interstellar” is also about relatives. Nolan and his brother also co-wrote “The Prestige” (2006), “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). And he and his wife, Emma Thomas, who has worked with him on every film, produced it, along with Hollywood veteran Lynda Obst.
“We have a great partnership even if it takes over our entire lives,” Thomas said. “But it really works. Oftentimes, producers work with the same directors over and over and that becomes a family relationship, too, because ultimately when you’re on a film, especially a large one, you can’t be in it on your own. You have to have a deep level of trust with people. And what better way than with people you’re related to by blood or marriage?”
Like Chastain, Thomas says he feels the film is far more intimate and personal than “space epic” implies. While her husband strives to make movies that are “immersive,” and create an experience “impossible to replicate in your living room,” the film nonetheless contains very intimate moments, and felt like a much smaller picture to work on.
“They shot a lot of it doc-style,” she said. “Hoyte van Hoytema, the DP (director of photography), even carried the IMAX camera around. And Mackenzie is hugely talented and really brings the emotional piece of the movie home.”
Chastain said she and young Foy, as they were playing the same character at different ages, conferred “about how the character would speak, how we’d have our hair, the way we stuck a pencil in the bun, whatever we would do, little mannerisms. Nothing so big it would draw attention to it.” The actress noted that she’d played a similar role before – she was the younger version of Helen Mirren in “The Debt” (2010) – so that wasn’t so odd.
What was stranger, she said, was her solitude. The Murph character is alone for much of the movie, brooding about Dad and cogitating about how to save the planet. Chastain was on her own, too.
“The first time I met Chris was at a costume fitting,” she said. “My character is very isolated, and in some ways I felt that way on set. As an actress, I felt I was isolating myself and I felt like by not having those personal conversations, not having a dinner with Chris or anything, it was also being created for me.”
One might think Nolan had been doing that on purpose.
“I don’t know,” Chastain said, with a laugh. “If he did, he would be a genius.”
Few moviegoers would argue that Christopher Nolan is one of the more original and influential directors at work today, but he’s quick to agree that “Interstellar” is full of homages to films that influenced him. Allusions to the following, he said, could be found in his new movie:
“2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY” (1968): The big kahuna of sci-fi epics, Stanley Kubrick’s hallucinogenic space trip is reflected in “Interstellar’s” voyages through the wormholes and in one lengthy, graceful sequence in which Hans Zimmer’s score deliberately evokes Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, music inseparable from Kubrick’s movie.
“THE MIRROR” (1975): “Interstellar’s” use of elements “like ice, water, dust, wind and so forth for symbolic value as well as literal meaning,” Nolan said, was influenced by this autobiographical and largely stream-of-consciousness work by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.
“THE RIGHT STUFF” (1983): Philip Kaufman’s best-picture nominee, adapted from Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel, told the story of the original Mercury astronauts and one non-astronaut, test pilot Chuck Yeager – whom Matthew McConaughey’s “Interstellar” character, Cooper, closely resembles. “We screened it for the crew,” Nolan said of the film.
“REDS” (1981): Nolan’s use of the “witness testimony” in “Interstellar” – i.e., elderly interviewees recalling the devastation they lived through, en route to the world agricultural crisis at the center of his story – is the same device used in Warren Beatty’s epic about the Bolshevik Revolution, which won the actor-director a best-director Oscar. “I got a chance to talk with Warren about it,” Nolan said.
“THE DUST BOWL” (2012): “I was very influenced by Ken Burns’ story on the subject and asked if we could use some of the footage,” Nolan said of the PBS documentarian’s film on the ecological/agricultural catastrophe that ravaged the southern Great Plains during the ’30s. Some of the “witnesses” in “Interstellar” were actually Burns’ Dust Bowl survivors. “I love the idea of these people talking about events so extraordinary they actually surpass science fiction.”