Ever since his feature debut, Following, Christopher Nolan has specialized in making existential puzzle films with coherent-but-cryptic conclusions. As his ambitions – and budgets – have expanded, so too has the breadth of the themes he explores. So perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually turn to the abstractions of theoretical physics: the ultimate existential puzzle with coherent-but-cryptic answers. Interstellar takes place in multiple galaxies, multiple dimensions, and concerns the survival of the entire human race.
It doesn't get much bigger or more existential than that.
You've spent the last half-century aspiring to answer some of the most profound questions in the universe, Kip. And you've come closer than a lot of people. Your research in the fields of gravitational physics and astrophysics has earned you a spot on the all-star team of greatest living physicists, alongside Edward Witten and Stephen Hawking (what cosmic law of mutual attraction is responsible for the strange coincidence of Interstellar opening on the exact same weekend as The Theory of Everything, the biopic of Hawking's early life?).
We've seen movies based on comic books, toys, board games—but perhaps never before based on relativistic theories of gravity. Luckily, your fields of expertise are a bit more accessible than string theory or supersymmetric quantum fields. Black holes, wormholes, gravitational waves—this is the sexy stuff upon which a good hard sci-fi premise can be built.
You were its original architect, too. Interstellar began as a treatment written by you and producer Lynda Obst—but what remains onscreen is apparently much different than what you had proposed. But no hard feelings, right? According to a recent interview with Science Magazine, your ultimate goal was a film in which "real science, ranging from truth to speculation, is embedded deep into the movie's fabric from the outset."
What luck, then, that the project found its way to Nolan.
As much as his filmography seems to suggest that he operates primarily in the realm of the fantasy, his fidelity to scientific law is indisputable. He brought real-world dynamism to the superhero world, creating a Batman who eschews hyperkinetic comic book physics in favor of practical technology (he's just as much the product of a corporate R&D department as he is the product of a long ago street crime). In Inception, he applied a systemic logic to one of the most illogical human idiosyncrasies: dreaming. Even in The Prestige, Nolan's film about dueling turn-of-the-century illusionists, electromagnetism is revealed to be the source of their magic (there's even a cameo appearance by Nikola Tesla).
Like you, Nolan knows a little something about breaking new ground; he's the only blockbuster filmmaker pursuing original ideas (albeit in between rebooting superhero films). He seems the heir to Spielberg, doesn't he? A director whose every film is significant merely because he made it.
For anyone familiar with the narrative style employed by Nolan and his brother/screenwriter Jonathan, the first fifteen minutes of Interstellar is a treasure trove of minor plot details you just know are going to prove relevant by the end: books knocked off a shelf by a ghost; a wristwatch left behind as a memento. How these details expand in meaning and weave together is part of the fun of watching a Christopher Nolan film unfold. And Interstellar is fun. Even when it's aspiring to a profundity that it only occasionally is able to achieve.
The mission to outer space that follows these earthbound scenes finds the perfect balance of realism and excess. It's an adventure, but an authentic one. Disbelief is suspended at just the right height. The scenes back on our planet – where the changing atmosphere threatens the continued existence of oxygen-reliant life – are shot by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema with such a radically different palette (the yellowish sepia-tone of a fading photograph) that, late in the film, when editor Lee Smith cuts back and forth between the washed-out, monochromatic sequences taking place on hostile alien planets, it really seems as if we're occupying two distinct worlds simultaneously.
Sure, the finished product looks a lot like Kubrick's space opus from a half-century ago. And, yes, a lot of the technical precision and visual bravado of the outer space scenes are a fraction less striking after seeing the same stuff in Gravity last year. And, sure, the sound design sometimes overwhelms; Hans Zimmer's gorgeous Philip Glass-inspired score deserves better, I think, than to be drowned out by that patented Christopher Nolan third-act bass growl.
But despite that familiarity, despite those few flaws, the film has stayed stuck in my head. The ideas are big, the riddles are fascinating, and even if the way the solution hangs together feels a bit too loose, too perfectly imperfect, I'm indescribably grateful that a big-budget blockbuster film possesses the same rare ambition that you do: to ask and answer the most fathomless cosmic questions.