Rewatching: Interstellar

Inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar placing high across three notable Letterboxd metrics, Dominic Corry reflects on how the film successfully hung its messaging around the concept of love—and what pandemic responses worldwide could learn from its wholehearted embrace of empathetic science.

Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, it’s powerful. It has to mean something.” —⁠Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway)

This story contains spoilers for Interstellar (2014).

Although it is insultingly reductionist to both filmmakers, there are many reasons Christopher Nolan is often described as a modern-day Stanley Kubrick. The one most people usually settle on is the notion that both men supposedly make exacting, ambitious films that lack emotion.

It is an incorrect assessment of either director, but it’s beyond amazing that anyone could still accuse Nolan of such a thing after he delivered what is unquestionably his masterwork, the emotional rollercoaster that is 2014’s Interstellar.

In the epic sci-fi adventure drama, Nolan managed to pull off something that many filmmakers have attempted and few have achieved. He told a story of boundless sci-fi scope, and had it be all about love in the end. It sounds cheesy to even write it down, but Nolan did it.

That Interstellar is such an overtly cutting-edge genre film that chooses to center itself so brazenly and unapologetically around love, is frankly awesome.

Love informs Interstellar both metaphorically and literally: the expansive scope of the film effectively represents love’s infinite potential, and love itself ends up being the tangible thread that allows far-flung astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to communicate with his Earth-bound daughter Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain) from the tesseract (a three-dimensional rendering of a five-dimensional space) after Cooper enters the black hole towards the end of the film.

Matthew McConaughey as Joseph ‘Coop’ Cooper, Mackenzie Foy as Murph, and Timothée Chalamet as Tom.
Matthew McConaughey as Joseph ‘Coop’ Cooper, Mackenzie Foy as Murph, and Timothée Chalamet as Tom.

In transmitting (via morse code) what the robot TARS has observed from inside the black hole, Cooper provides Murph with the data to solve the gravity problem required to uplift Earth’s population from its depleted home planet. Humanity is saved. Love wins again. Hard sci-fi goes soft. Christopher Nolan’s genius is confirmed, and any notions of emotionlessness are emphatically washed away.

This earnest centering of love in Interstellar is key to the film’s universal appeal, and undoubtedly plays a large role in why it features so prominently in three significant Letterboxd lists determined by pronoun: Interstellar is the only film that appears in all three top tens of “most fans on Letterboxd” when considering members who use the pronoun he/him, she/her and xe/ze. (“Most fans” refers to Letterboxd members who have selected the film as one of the four favorites on their profile.)

To get a bit reductionist myself, sci-fi adventure—in cinema, at least—has traditionally been a masculine-leaning genre, but Interstellar’s placement across these three lists points to it having superseded that traditional leaning, hopefully for the better.

Yet the film reliably still provokes reactions like this delightful tweet:

Although this tweet is somewhat indicative of how many men (and women, for that matter) respond to the film, I think it’s pretty clear the writer actually loves Interstellar wholeheartedly, final quarter and all, but perhaps feels inhibited from expressing that love by the expectations of a gendered society that is becoming increasingly outdated. The “damn you, Nolan” is possibly a concession of sorts—he’s damning how Nolan really made him feel the love at the end. It’s okay, @lukeisamazing, you don’t have to say it out loud.

Conversely, it can be put like this:

“The emotion of Interstellar is three-fold: Nolan’s script, co-written with his brother as with all his best stuff, masters not only notions of black holes, wormholes, quantum data and telemetry, but it also makes a case for love as the one thing—feeling, fact, movement, message—that can mean more and do more than anyone in our current time, on our existing planet, can comprehend.”

The writer of this stirring summation, our own Ella Kemp, is paraphrasing a critical section of the film, when Nolan goes full literal on the concept of love and has Cooper and Dr Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) debate its very nature, quoted in part at the top of this story. It comes when the pair are trying to decide which potentially humanity-saving planet to use their dwindling fuel reserves to travel to. Brand is advocating for the planet where a man she loves might be waiting for her, instead of the planet that has ostensibly better circumstances for life.

Brand: “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it.”

“Love has meaning, yes,” responds Cooper, heretofore the film’s most outwardly love-centric character, exhibiting a stoic longing for his dead wife, while also abandoning his ten-year-old daughter on Earth for a space adventure (albeit one designed to save humanity) than has now inadvertently taken decades. “Social utility. Social bonding. Child rearing.” Ouch.

McConaughey with Anne Hathaway as Dr. Amelia Brand.
McConaughey with Anne Hathaway as Dr. Amelia Brand.

Brand: “You love people who have died. Where’s the social utility in that? Maybe it means something more. Something we don’t yet understand. Some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it yet.” Amen.

Cooper remains unconvinced by Brand’s rationale, but this dispassionate display presages him going on to realize the true (literal) power of love (and his poor, science-only decision-making—thanks Matt Damon) when it provides him the aforementioned channel of communication with Murph in the tesseract. Nolan has a female character make the most eloquent vocal argument for love, but it’s the male character who has to learn it through experience.

So while Interstellar does initially conform to some prevailing cultural ideas about love and how it supposedly relates to gender, it ultimately advocates for a greater appreciation of the concept that moves beyond such binary notions. That is reflected in how important the film is to Letterboxd members who self-identify as he/him, she/her and xe/ze. We all love this movie. Emphasis on love.

Brand’s speech—not to mention the film as a whole—also can’t help but inform the current global situation. Interstellar argues for a greater devotion to both science and love, in harmony; such devotion might have mitigated the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic where both concepts were drastically undervalued by many of those in charge of the response.

Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck as the grown-up Cooper siblings.
Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck as the grown-up Cooper siblings.

Despite the reactions cited above, responses to Interstellar aren’t always split down gender lines. We’re all allowed to feel whatever we like about it, and substantial variety comes across in the many, many reviews for the film.

Zaidius says Interstellar is so good that, “after watching [it], you will want to downgrade all of the ratings you have ever given on Letterboxd.”

On the other hand, Singlewhitefemalien takes issue with Dr. Brand’s aforementioned love-based decision-making in her two-star review: “She wants to fuckin’ go to Planet Whatever to chase after a dude she banged ten years ago because women are guided by their emotions and love is all you need.” A perhaps fair assessment of the role Nolan chose his sole female astronaut to play in the film?

Sam offers food for thought when he writes “First, you love Interstellar; then you understand Interstellar.”

Letterboxd stalwart Lucy boils it down effectively in one of her multiple five-star reviews of the film: “I needed a really good cry.” It’s hard to say whether Vince is agreeing or disagreeing with Lucy in his review: “Fuck you Matthew McConaughey for making me cry.” The catharsis this movie provides for dudes becomes clearer the deeper you venture into our Interstellar reviews (and I ventured deep): “How dare this fucking movie make me cry… twice,” writes John. Let it out, John.

Then there’s Rudi’s take: “I sobbed like an animal while watching this but I’m not exactly sure what animal it was like. Like a pig? Like a whale? I don’t know but I do know that I cried a whole fucking lot.”

Emotionless? With all this crying?

Christopher Nolan inspires more debate than any other filmmaker of the modern age (when we’re not getting unnecessarily riled up about something Marty has said, that is) and while Nolan has the passionate devotion of millions of viewers, I’d argue he still doesn’t quite get his due. Especially when it comes to Interstellar.

By so successfully using love as both a metaphorical vessel and a palpable plot point in a sci-fi adventure film, he built on notable antecedents like James Cameron’s The Abyss and Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, two (great) films with similar aspirations that didn’t stick the landing as well as Interstellar does. In Contact, McConaughey engages in a similar debate about love to the one quoted above, but notably takes the opposing side.

Steven Spielberg (who at one point was going to direct an earlier iteration of Interstellar) did a pretty good job of showing love as the most powerful force in the universe with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but there hasn’t been a huge amount of room for such notions in the genre since then.

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar’s most obvious forebear, is often accused of being the director’s most brazenly emotionless film. And while that’s perhaps a bit more understandable than some of the brickbats hurled Nolan’s way, there’s more emotion in the character of Hal 9000 than in many major directors’ entire oeuvre. It’s also, in part due to Hal’s place in the examination of queer consciousness in the sci-fi realm, the film currently in the number one spot on the xe/ze list.

Two films that notably exist in Interstellar’s wake are Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which expands upon Interstellar’s creative use of time-bending (and like Contact, features a female protagonist) and James Gray’s Ad Astra, which tackles the perils of traditional masculinity with more directness.

Interstellar doesn’t solve the sci-fi genre’s cumbersome relationship with masculinity and gender, but it makes significant strides in breaking down the existing paradigms, if only from all the GIFs of McConaughey crying it has spawned. Its appeal across the gender spectrum is an interesting and encouraging sign of the universality of its themes. And the power of love.

Fans out of touch with their feelings may complain about the role love plays in the film, but that says more about them than it does the film. Love wins. Also: TARS. How could anyone not love TARS?

TARS and Christopher Nolan.
TARS and Christopher Nolan.

Further Reading


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