Christopher Nolan has always been fascinated by time and its effect on what we are able to know about events, people, the world, and ourselves. In Interstellar, Nolan has expanded that time-focused interrogation of epistemology to include the universe and all human history—past and future—as well. Interstellar is a film about space-time and the things that transcend it.
As Richard Linklater, director of time-obsessed films like the Before trilogy and this year’s Boyhood, put it in an interview with Sight & Sound, “It’s the big element, isn’t it, of our medium, the manipulation of time, the perception of time, the control of time? It’s kind of the building blocks of cinema.” Andrei Tarkovsky, a director very different in output from Linklater, took the idea further in his 1986 film theory memoir, Sculpting in Time:
“I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience—and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema: ‘stars’, story-lines and entertainment have nothing to do with it.”
So, when Nolan includes time manipulation within his narrative, he is at least pointed in the right direction.
However, Nolan’s manipulation of time is rarely translated beyond the facts of the narrative and into his film’s forms. Memento’s backwards structure and Inception’s slow-falling van are the two notable exceptions. Most often, his time-manipulation is mere narrative gimmick, even if the gimmicks are intriguing and entertaining.
Perhaps it is a by-product of working so squarely within the confines of the big budget, studio system, but Nolan’s films fall back time and time again on “‘stars,’ story-lines, and entertainment” rather than relying on the inherent power of film form. In other words, his characters talk about what’s going on instead of getting on with it and trusting the audience to either catch up or to be okay with not understanding what’s going on all the time. When Nolan abandons the exposition and allows his characters to talk about ideas instead of plot points, as in most of the second half of Interstellar, his films become sublime, because there are real ideas beneath all the blockbuster bombast. (One of the great things about the best parts of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is that its story-world was easy to understand, so Nolan was free to let loose the film’s reins and allow the story to barrel ahead.)
Letting Tarkovsky comment on Interstellar isn’t inappropriate, as the film homages all sorts of famous science-fiction films. The most obvious inspirations are Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Interstellar also owes a debt to Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, as well as (a critique of?) my favorite, Andrew Stanton’s WALL•E. All those films excel at allowing the audience to figure out what’s going on as the narrative unfolds, and they use cinematic conventions to communicate the passage of time and its effects on their characters.
Nolan never slows down to let us sit with any particular emotion. As soon as we understand what an image is supposed to make us feel, he cuts to a new one. This works to make the film fly by—and with an almost three hour run-time, it needs to fly—but it does nothing to make it linger once it ends.
There are a lot of interesting ideas undergirding Interstellar’s narrative. We’re going to feature a few Alternate Takes on the film, so look forward to reading and interacting with our critics’ various conversations with the film. For my part, I’ll stick to this idea of time and whether or not it is a burden or a blessing in our lives.
Interstellar’s characters are at war with time. Time is a resource more limited than food, air, or fuel. Time is also a thief robbing them of life with each other. They need to find both a new vein of time to mine and a way to foil the thief.
I can’t say whether or not Nolan believes in the possibility of eternal life, but Interstellar’s concept of eternal life is limited to three options: 1) futzing around with relativity, 2) passing your genetic code on through your descendants, and 3) the love the living maintain for loved ones who have died. The first is a kind of science-magic that eventually still ends in death, so I’m going to overlook that one. There’s something to the second, biologically, but I don’t think that’s the kind of eternal life we’re all looking for. We want to be aware of the life we live eternally. We want to keep our memories of the life we’re living now, not have them subsumed into another.
The third option is most interesting to me and to the film, because that’s the story arc destination of the main characters – trusting love and abandoning certainty. In Interstellar’s world, love is an extra-dimensional quality that we dimensionally-bound humans are capable of experiencing. Just as time is a dimension beyond our control, love is a dimension beyond time’s control, and we have somehow tapped into it. Love transcends time.
On the surface, that’s a very sentimental, pseudo-philosophical idea, the stuff of nerdy greeting cards. But theologically, it makes sense. If God encompasses all things and is both beyond and within all things including time, and if God is good and perfectly loving, if love is the best descriptor we have for who God is and what God does, then love does transcend time. Time is the realm of love like the height, width, and depth of the room where I’m sitting writing this review is the realm of Elijah. I can also leave this room. It does not bind me. Stepping across this room’s threshold, I transcend it just as God’s love is capable of transcending time.
And we are made in the image of God. I think that means we are capable of love, among other things, and if our love is like God’s love, our love too can transcend time. Perhaps mortal death is like stepping outside this room of time and into the greater world outside. I don’t know yet, but after Jesus resurrected, he didn’t seem bound by time and space anymore. That gives me hope. In a long sermon about loving neighbors, Jesus also said that the love we practice in this life somehow translates into the life beyond. That gives me hope, too, and it’s a kind of hope that, like the best cinema, “widens, enhances and concentrates [my life]—and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer.”
You might also find these reviews of Interstellar helpful: