The Cathedral of Space and Brand Survival in Interstellar

Interstellar 3

Christopher Nolan might not be the incomparable artiste that Paul Thomas Anderson has become, the lyrical poet that Terrence Malick succeeds at being, or the rabble-rousers that the sicko David Fincher and the pop pastiche-aholic Quentin Tarantino are…but damn it, he’s the best Brand there is in Hollywood.  You know what you are getting every time you see a Christopher Nolan film, and unlike, say a Michael Bay, you should be ecstatic you’re getting it.  He’s going to entertain you and make you think while conjuring his own impossible cinematic dreams, attempt (sometimes clumsily but always admirably) to tap into a zeitgeist, dazzle you with his technical skill, twist the plot and up the dramatic ante every time he steps behind that camera.

His sprawling space opera, Interstellar, is no exception.  It is at times wondrously ridiculous and miraculously beautiful in its ambitions

In the not so distant future, food is running out from over-population and environmental calamities that have produced a new Dust Bowl.  There people are forced into farming as society has transformed from one of innovation to one of scraping by that has been branded as “caretaking.”  It is here where the widowed Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) eeks out an existence with his son and daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult), while he dreams of his lost opportunity to be an astronaut after a test flight crash and the disbanding of NASA years earlier.  The boy has already been tested by the school system and found to be a perfect candidate to be a farmer, while the smart-as-a-whip Murphy gets suspended for bringing a book to school that teaches the Lunar landing as a fact and triumph of the human spirit, when the new consensus teaches it was Cold War propaganda (and no one should ever dream of space travel again as growing food is the only noble pursuit).

But strange things start happening.  Automatic technology (drones and plows) begin acting up.  There are gravitational anomalies happening.  And Murphy thinks there is a ghost in the farmhouse trying to deliver her a message.  It all adds up to father and daughter stumbling upon a secret base where, lo and behold, Cooper’s former professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), is leading an underground NASA team that has discovered a wormhole beyond Saturn and is plotting manned voyages to search for inhabitable planets on the other side.  The very survival of the human race is dependent on their mission, and they want Coop to pilot the next one which will be headed by Dr. Brand’s own daughter, the aptly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway).


The first two hours of Interstellar go from earthbound survivalist drama to grand space spectacle and are interspersed with long bouts of dialogue espousing the scientific theories at work.  Those who find Nolan’s explanatory dialogue to be a nuisance might view some of this as major drag on the story.  It often comes across as a futuristic spin on Ken Burn’s Dust Bowl mixed with an episode of NOVA, all hosted by the McConaissance.  The family drama is punctuated by a typically melodramatic (but effective) Hans Zimmer theme, while the always evolving composer then playfully employs an organ and immense bass to place an explanation point on the mesmerizing space imagery.  Thus Nolan and his maestro paint space as a cathedral.  It’s all wonderfully photographed by first-time Nolan collaborator, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.

Interstellar 4

It’s the last hour, however, where true Nolan fans will rejoice and learn to appreciate the slow build of the first two hours.  It is here where Nolan composes his signature crescendo with Zimmer’s pounding score, interspliced editing of parallel actions of different characters in different locales, all building to an emotional climax where the true nature of the events we are tracking along with the characters’ own discoveries finally comes to fruition.  Witness Hathaway emoting and pining (and reaching for a hand), Chastain sticking to her guns and figuring stuff out, and McConaughey tumbling through space and time (Alright, Alright) into something that makes the Matrix look like a moonlit walk on the beach!  Things come full circle as is common in a Nolan narrative, and it’s all so wonderfully orchestrated you should be willing to forgive some of the more cloying and sentimental stuff like the scientific discussion on love and Caine’s constant reciting of that overused Dylan Thomas tome featuring the famous line, “Do not go gentle into that good night…”

Interstellar is that rare mainstream beast where art and entertainment collide.  It contains everything you would want from both a sci-fi film (cool robots, wormholes, blackholes, dramatic interpretation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and…voila, an actual fully visualized Tesseract!) and a Nolan Branded product (all of his moves and memes are there, including a watch that serves the same function as the pinwheel did in Inception, and a spaceship docking station that might as well be the evolution of the infamous spinning top).  It’s also refreshing to see Artificial Intelligence (as seen in TARS and CASE, two boxy limber monoliths) portrayed as helpful and non-threatening.  AI will be loyal and trustworthy if humans program it to be (as well as humorous and truthful).  The Nolan brothers (the script was co-written by Jonathan) make a clear statement that it is other human beings, not technology, that we should fear the most.  There’s a startling cameo by a certain major Hollywood actor (known for his Matthew McConaughey impersonation on David Letterman) who basically embodies, in human form, the destructive spirit of 2001‘s HAL where the mission is put above all, endangering all.

Interstellar 1

Yet it’s also boldly hopeful.  Early on there’s a bit of mystery surrounding who put the wormhole there and what beings might be intervening to save the human race from extinction.  But it turns out the Nolan twist is aliens have nothing to do with it (take that History Channel!)…it was always us…it was always all about us.  And it paints a future where we stumble, pick up our feet, brush off the dust…and not only survive…but innovate.  How can one not appreciate Nolan, a man who clearly loves his audience and pushes himself and us to the limits even when he occasionally stumbles over his own too-fast moving feet?

In the end, the Nolan Brand is fortified by Interstellar.  Is it any wonder that the fair maiden Amelia Brand is left dreaming and waiting for us to join her on our new homeland?  Won’t we, in turn, dream of joining her?  What a pleasant reverie, and how nice of Nolan to want to take us there.

Thus it was T. S. Eliot’s voice, and not that of Dylan Thomas, which ultimately echoed in my mind while musing on this Interstellar beast:

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark, the vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant…”

Nolan leads us into the dark…and reaches with us for the light.  And we shall gladly continue to pay him for that luxury.

Ah, but now you see…it’s the Hollywood Machine that survives!

Written by David H. Schleicher


Below is a photo of the free poster giveaway at the showing I attended.  Kinda evokes Andrew Wyeth…in spaaaaace!…doesn’t it?

Interstellar Poster


The world is a-buzz with Interstellar, which due to its heady and sometimes incomprehensible “science” has engendered more mixed reviews than is usual for Nolan, but there are plenty in rapture:


  1. Naturally, gotta refresh a Nolan Ranking after this!

    Inception – 10/10
    Memento – 10/10
    The Dark Knight – 9.5/10
    Interstellar – 9.5/10 (teetering on a 9, but I’m being kind with it fresh on the mind)
    The Prestige – 8.5/10
    Insomnia – 8.5/10
    The Dark Knight Rises – 8.5/10
    Batman Begins – 8.5/10
    Following – 7/10

    How would you rank Nolan’s canon?

  2. Great review! You helped me refresh my own rating of the film! The only thing that I’d say is that I’m not clamoring to rewatch it anytime soon. Largely because of the insanely elongated first act, but I did think it was exceptionally well done and very entertaining. I love your reviews. There are only two places that I can still read Post-Ebert, your website and the AV Club. Thank you.

    Nolan Canon:

    10/10 – The Dark Knight
    10/10 – Inception
    9/10 – The Prestige
    8/10 – Memento
    8/10 – Batman Begins
    7/10 – Interstellar
    6.5/10 – Insomnia
    6/10 – Following
    5.5/10 – The Dark Knight Rises

    With the key for me being a 7 is a movie that particularly like to watch again and a 5 as average and I might watch in passing, but wouldn’t particularly seek to watch again.

    • Kev D – I’m honored to have you here at The Spin and for you to place me in such lofty space as the AV Club!

      I do agree to some extent that Interstellar (unlike Memento and Inception) did not leave me instantly wanting to see it again…as it did feel like such a huge investment in time (not too different from when the explorers in the film weigh the cons of visiting the world closest to the Gargantua Black Hole knowing that they will lose so much time due to Relativity) – but I do wish to luxuriate in it again at some point. Gargantuan is probably a great descriptor of the film.

  3. Hi, David,

    I’m going to see this movie tomorrow with a science fiction group I belong to. We’re all psyched about it, and I’m sure the discussion at dinner afterward will be lively. Did you read the Jeffrey Kluger (co-author with Jim Lovell “Apollo 13”) article on this movie in the Nov. 10 issue of “Time” magazine? I believe you’d find it interesting, especially in terms of Hollywood vs. Nolan.

    As for that famous Dylan Thomas “tome” — it’s a beautiful poem, not a tome.

    T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” the source of your quote, plus the other quartets, are here:

    Just in case your readers are wondering about those quotes! (smile)


  4. INTERSTELLAR looked, felt, and sounded amazing on the IMAX screen. I was enthralled with it during its entire running time. Honestly, I’d take a Nolan film over the films of some of the aforementioned auteurs any day, but that’s just personal taste. McConaughey was solid and Hathaway was also really good. I also loved the girl who played the younger Chastain. And the cameo you mentioned was pretty surprising. I didn’t know he was even in it, and it was a different sort of role than he’s played in a long time. And the organ in the orchestral score kept bringing me back to 2001. All in all, definitely one of my favorites.

    As for ranking Nolan’s films overall, for some reason, I still haven’t gotten around to INSOMNIA. I keep meaning to do it, especially with the passing of Robin Williams. Anyway, my rankings:

    The Dark Knight – 10/10
    Inception 10/10
    Interstellar 9.5/10 (I may revise this in the future)
    Memento 9/10
    The Dark Knight RIses 8.5/10
    Batman Begins 8/10
    The Presitge 7.5/10
    Following 7/10

    • Chris – I almost glossed over the technical aspects. YES – this film was made for IMAX 70MM and looked and sounded amazing! It’s a crime that one day people will only see it in their home theaters. The fact that Nolan makes films on film that demand to be seen on the big screen is probably his most endearing trait.

  5. David, you have penned an impassioned review here. For me this is the film of Nolan’s career—it is not teetering near a 9, but is at masterpiece level – 10. I am less enamored of INCEPTION, but will play the Nolan game here:

    Interstellar 10
    The Prestige 9
    The Dark Knight 8
    Memento 7
    Batman Begins 7
    Insomnia 6
    Following 6

    You make a great point when you say that the last half hour of the film is “earned” (it is probably the most potent half hour in any film this year) and in citing Hans Zimmer, whose score may be the best of the year. Fine cast and Van Hoytema’s cinematography is sublime. Just a very great, emotionally overwhelming film.

    • Sam – I love that you loved this. I recall you not being so high on Inception so I feared you might feel the same way about this one. Looking forward to a full treatment on Wonders in the Dark. Do you think this might eclipse Boyhood as your film of the year? Oddly the two are both about the passage of time (I think Nolan even mentioned it in an interview).

  6. Thanks for an eloquent review of Interstellar. I can see you’re one CN fan. Actually, I just came home from watching it, and, good to read your POV. Wouldn’t say it’s ‘space opera’, but a spectacle definitely. But I’m afraid that’s what movies have to be nowadays, a grandeur spectacle to rake in box office sales. You can see I can’t whole-heartedly embrace it. But, you’ve pointed out many things that I agree though. First off, I think MM and JC are excellent; the continuity of the girl to adult Murph is so convincing. They look so much alike! However, I don’t think AH is a good choice for the role. And the poem being mentioned so many times had just about turned it into a cliché. Love the T. S. Eliot quote instead. And yes, that poster does look like Andrew Wyeth in space. And you know what, one reason I went to see it is that many of the filming locations are in Alberta, as a matter of fact, the baseball stadium is right in Okotoks, a small suburb town 30 mins. from my home. They filmed it in August last year and called for 300 extras to fill the stadium. I just read about it, not that I recognize any places, like corn fields and dusty land, could be anywhere. Reminds me of Days of Heaven, which was also shot in Alberta. The final credits have included fundings from the Alberta government. So, there’s my little earthy tax payer contribution to this out-of-this-world production. 😉

    • Arti – yeah I saw it was shot in your neck of the woods. Hadn’t realized you partly funded it :). Gotta love the public funding.

      I take your point on Anne Hathaway. I always feel like I have to forgive her because she tries soooo hard in every movie. I think ultimately she did a nice job here even though she wasn’t quite right for the part. I would’ve liked to have seen Marion Cotillard instead, but then I would always like to see her 😉

      • MC was in The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, wonder why CN didn’t get her this time. I missed her 2 Days 1 Night at TIFF in Sept., watch for it on your big screen.

  7. I couldn’t agree any better. Nolan sure is becoming the biggest brand in Hollywood and that’s not a good thing. The next Spielberg, eh?

    And for my rankings:
    Inception – 10/10
    Memento – 10/10
    The Prestige – 10/10
    Interstellar – 9/10
    The Dark Knight – 9/10
    Insomnia – 8/10
    The Dark Knight Rises – 8/10
    Batman Begins – 8/10

    • I think he might be trending “better” than Spielberg at this point in his career, as Nolan is more selective in his projects and signature in his style, and until recently (with the shaky Man of Steel and the horrible Transcendence) had been reluctant to slap his name on movies he didn’t direct. Spielberg is surely more prolific and perhaps more versatile (could Nolan make a Lincoln? I doubt it, not because he doesn’t have the ability, but because he wouldn’t want to). But yeah, to the general public…Nolan is a brand just like Spielberg (or, egads, Bay! HA HA).

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