Interstellar has a long screen history going back to the 1990s. It grew out of a meeting between producer Lynda Obst and renowned physicist Kip Thorne who was consulting on the film adaptation of Contact (1997) that she was producing. The two conceived a scenario that would make cinematic use of ideas from theoretical physics such as black hole theory and gravitation that were Thornes field of research. Among other things, Thorne is known for the idea that wormholes (which are usually sub-atomic in size) could theoretically be used for travelling interstellar distances with ease. This idea was popularised by Carl Sagan when he wrote the novel version of Contact (1980) and has become a regular incorporated into science-fiction ever since. Obst originally sold the script for Interstellar to Steven Spielberg but this was placed on hold due to his involvement with other projects. Spielberg had hired Jonathan Nolan, Christophers brother, to write the script but when Spielberg eventually bowed out, the script was taken over by Christopher Nolan.
Interstellar could be Christopher Nolans 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stanley Kubricks classic work casts an undeniable shadow over the film such that it could be considered that the Nolans are paying homage. The plots of both films function in very similar ways and feature comparable elements a space journey to the outer reaches of the Solar System (Saturn here, Jupiter in 2001 although Arthur C. Clarke did have the destination being Saturn in the book version of 2001) to investigate a stargate that had been left there by mysterious aliens; a journey that ends up being sabotaged partway through where it appears that those in charge are not being truthful about the nature of the mission; the climactic scenes where the astronaut undergoes a journey through a tunnel of lights to eventually reach a place beyond human understanding that is represented in peculiarly banal human terms a hotel room in 2001, a view in on a childs bedroom here from which he emerges with godlike powers.
In an era where box-office science-fiction is represented almost exclusively by superheroes and mass destruction spectacle, it is a genuine pleasure seeing a film that is rooted in solid science and high-concept science-fiction. We have a film that features such challenging concepts from physics as relativity, gravity and spacetime, time dilation effects, black holes and wormholes, which are a little more than the usual stuff that get served up to the popcorn bucket multiplex crowd. Even when we have had these on screen before, concepts like black holes were reduced to no more than a void of pretty lights that leads to the afterlife in Disneys The Black Hole (1979) or, even worse, The Black Hole (2006) where it somehow turns into an electrical monster amok in a major civilised centre. It is a great pleasure having a film that puts the science back into black holes the effects team talk about how they went to the extent of creating a program that constructed a massively detailed simulation of a black hole inside a computer environment for filming. Or where the film takes time out to correctly dispel the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1992-9) notion that a wormhole is like a whirlpool in space and that it would more correctly be seen as a sphere due to the fact that it is multi-dimensional. There is even lovely touches like the scene near the end where we go from people on a standard baseball pitch in a Midwestern cornfield to pulling back to see the baseball being hit upwards through the window of a house that faces down from above where we realise that we are in the midst of a centrifugally rotating Bernal Sphere, something we have not seen depicted on the screen before.
There are also major differences between Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of these is that Stanley Kubrick made a very cold and oblique film. Characteristically, Kubrick had a pessimistic view of humanity and in 2001 he showed the humans reduced to no more than blank ciphers by the technology surrounding them indeed, the most engaging character in the film was the least human, the computer HAL 9000. It is completely the opposite here Interstellar could be considered 2001 remade with heart. There are the same video messages from family to astronauts here but here these come with the increasingly haunted sense that the hero has become separated from his family because of the journey he has chosen to undertake, leaving both scarred by the loss. The final message of the film is where the journey into transcendental space is not about Matthew McConaughey evolving into something beyond human but reconnecting with the most important people in his life we repeatedly see him trying to reach across time and urge his earlier self not to leave. Like Altered States (1980), another 2001-influenced transcendental journey and film dealing with big concepts, the Nolans arrive at the sentimental end message that love is what binds humanity together.
Christopher Nolan creates a majestic and exhilarating work. In some ways, one is glad that Interstellar became a Nolan rather than a Steven Spielberg film Spielberg would almost have certainly sentimentalised the Dust Bowl opening segments and played up far more the theme of returning home and reuniting with ones family. Nolan has made an assiduous effort to depict spaceflight realistically even to the extent of shooting all the visual effects beforehand and having these projected in front of the actors in the ship cockpits. Although Gravity (2013), coming out thirteen months earlier, stole the edge on Interstellar in terms of portraying the rigorously scientific realism of spaceflight, Nolan does an amazing job here. There are some breathlessly exciting scenes during Matt Damons docking with The Endurance and with Matthew McComaugheys subsequent efforts to catch the runaway station. In the planetbound sections, there are some sensational scenes with the race to flee the giant oncoming waves or the fight down into the ice glacier. Nolan has gone to Iceland to shoot there and the glaciers, along with effects images of clouds made of frozen ice or an ocean with hundred foot high waves make wonderfully credible but understated vision of alien worlds. I was lucky to see the film in an IMAX screening and some of the most beautiful effects shots are those that place everything into perspective The Endurance reduced to a tiny dot of light against the vastness of Saturns rings or its shadow passing the debris field circling the black holes event horizon.
(Winner for Best Film in this sites Top 10 Films of 2014 list. Nominee for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain) and Best Special Effects at this sites Best of 2014 Awards).