Analyzing Interstellar: The power of the visual medium

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is an epic space odyssey about a crew trying to find a new planet to inhabit. The film has achieved acclaim for the beauty of its cinematography, such as this shot of Gargantua, a black hole.

2014 was arguably one of the greatest years in terms of movies that has been seen for a long time, such as Boyhood, Birdman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Nightcrawler to name a few. However, one movie movie critics seem to be overlooking is Nolan’s Interstellar, making 10th on Rolling Stone’s top ten list, but making 23rd on Metacritic and not even making it on The New Yorker’s.

In an era of ‘fast-food’ cinema, Christopher Nolan is known for crafting masterpieces. Nolan’s films are massively vast constructions that are unparalleled in the complexity and the depth they tackle. Interstellar, continues that trend established in Memento, and Inception.

Interstellar is a thrilling space odyssey that tells the story of a future, though not distant-future, Earth. The world is plagued by blight which has robbed the soil of its fertility and prevents crops from growing. Wheat and Okra are now extinct, and the world subsides entirely on corn, and the people are forced back into an agrarian society.

In the wake of this starvation, NASA, operating undercover, has been planning to leave the planet in search of another star-system to inhabit. However, those stars are millions of light years away. Salvation arrives in the form of a wormhole (a dimensional rift through space time that would allow someone to cross great distances almost instantaneously), that only 48 years an unidentified intelligence unbeknowingly placed in human reach.

Cooper (McConaughey) is a farmer, widow with two children and retired NASA pilot. Cooper finds himself reunited with former colleague Professor Brand (Michael Caine) who recruits him to leave his family (on an increasingly dangerous world) to pilot an uncertain journey through the wormhole to find a new planet to inhabit.

McConaughey–now having starred in Contact, True Detective and Interstellar–has made a name for himself in the genre, and viewers who revealed in his philosophical musing in True Detective will certainly enjoy Cooper’s character.

Things do not go as planned, and Murph reveals via transmission that the plan the whole time was to forsake the Earth and begin a new human colony. Upon Cooper and Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) launch a plan to return after solving the problem of gravity, by entering a black hole and analyzing the quantum data.

Cooper is forced to enter alongside his faithful robot TARS, who provides a wealth of genuine, expertly-time comic relief, to save weight, and allow Amelia to move on to the next planet to begin the colony.

Once inside the black hole, Cooper is placed into a tesseract, or fourth-dimensional object in which time is represent as a physical dimension, that was placed by the same fifth-dimensional being that placed the wormhole. In the tesseract, Cooper is able to interact with physical spacetime and relay the information needed to save the Earth to his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) by moving the hand of a watch.

In a welcomed return, it is revealed that Murph, who was “haunted by a ghost,” leaving messages throughout her childhood was actually communicating with her father in the tesseract. Murph’s first line in the film being: “I thought you (Cooper) were my ghost.”

The plot and characters are the major point of conflict among critics. Before addressing that the other aspects of the film should be examined.

No one, critic or viewer, contends that the cinematography in Interstellar is incredibly well done. The film is heralded for its awe-striking shots of the universe. As the ship slides by the massive body of saturn, or skirts across the utter immensity of Gargantua, a black hole, the ship itself is almost lost in the shot, portraying man’s true place among the universe — infinitesimally insignificant.

When Cooper and his company land on planets the shots are nearly as dumbfounding. Frigid ice caps, and super massive tidal waves flood the screen with vivid depictions of foreign landscapes.

Viewers lucky enough to view the movie in 70mm IMAX film, as opposed to ordinary 35mm or digital production, were given a truly stellar experience; the towering screen completely fills your vision, and gives the most immersive way to experience any movie, however, Interstellar in particular as there is so much more visual data in each shot.

The soundtrack to the film is equally immersive, and it alone is able to keep viewer completely on edge during the thrilling moments of film. The docking scene during which Cooper and Amelia have to risk a dangerous docking operation with a damaged ship is a standout; dramatic organ and orchestra music chime, while Cooper voice struggles to give commands completely captivates the viewer, and holds them in compelling suspense as the duo’s fate becomes unclear. The music halts with a sudden caesura and Cooper exclaims, “OK we’re out of orbit.”

“Despite a 169 minute runtime, Interstellar never really develops its central heroes beyond anything but static outlines – and Cooper is no exception. Viewers will root for him, and come to understand what he cherishes and believes about humanity, but any major revelations come from what happens to him – not necessarily what he brings to the table or how he evolves through his experiences.” –

Critics, rightly so, have taken qualms with the films frequent didactic exposition and static characters. Every character has turn in their respective role, but are chained to simple arcs, and simply used to drive the exposition and larger themes of the play. Changes and impacts on the characters prove to do little more than advance the plot.

In terms of plot the movie often goes through long phases of outright explanation of the theoretical physics at work. This hurts the film primarily in the last ten minutes or so. While Cooper is in the tesseract he begins to discover how the physical timespace works as he relays messages to Murph. The whole time his ecstatic voice explains to TARS everything that he is doing.

Nolan’s vision was heavily inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001, however, is superior in that during the final scene Kubrik trusted his audience to understand what was happening, where a Cooper outright tells the audience, significantly weakening the ending. It’s a case of good content and bad delivery — a speech not likely to be remembered.

Conceding all of that, I still assert that Interstellar was the greatest movie of 2014, and one of the greatest ever made.

All because of one simple reason: I have always maintained a visual medium, be it movie, graphic novel, or show, is a superior method of communicating a story, and this law is perfectly portrayed in Interstellar.

It goes without saying that the setting shots are beyond imagination and truly breathtaking, but what Interstellar succeeds in doing is taking a “static,” “undeveloped” character, traits that are associated with being unrealistic and unrelatable, and making them a powerful, compelling, relatable character.

I am speaking primarily of three instances. After re-entering orbit from the water planet, the crew finds due to gravitational distortion, 23 years have passed. Cooper sits down to watch all the video mail his family had left him over the years. He left a son and daughter on Earth, but watches as his sons appears a man, having just had his first child, and his daughter is now the age Cooper was when he originally left.

In that moment Cooper has a heart wrenching catharsis that is genius performed by McConaughey. I have ventured to call this the most powerful scene in all of cinema as it portray so much power and raw emotion. This scene which shows Cooper’s desperate love for his children combats the idea of man’s insignificance, as love the epitome of humanity is able to transcend all boundaries of space time.

McConaughey performance here, as well as in two other instances of catharsis, silences and holds the entire audience as they agonize and feel the exact pain Cooper feels, because they witness it, because it activates mirror neurons and triggers empathy.

This scene alone physiologically demonstrates in the viewers on brains the humanity and relatability of Cooper as a character. Something a novel nor any other movie, to this extent, will ever be able to accomplish

Interstellar may not feature the most complex story, or deep characters, but if the viewer allows it, Interstellar will take them on a truly remarkable and unchallenged experience of the human condition. While calling a movie an “experience” is often used negatively to make up for faulty plot and bad characters, this is not the case with Interstellar.

Although Interstellar does not succeed in telling anything new, it does in telling its story in the most human way possible.


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