Like many this past Thanksgiving week, I went to the movies. Tuesday night, before the weekend rush actually, I saw Interstellar at a theater in Times Square. I liked the movie, and thought I’d write a few reactions.
The Math of Interstellar
Interstellar was the newest Christopher Nolan film to fold time and space atop themselves. Instead of Parisian avenues, the space adventure folds alien cloud glaciers over one another. Instead of layering time across dream levels, it layers time with Einstein’s relativity.
The hours that Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway spend on the surface of an alien planet astride a black hole are decades to the outside world. In Nolan’s Inception, the effect was flipped. The decades spent in the “Limbo" dream level were hours to the outside world.
The time multiples of both movies were not only similar plot devices though, they were similar numbers as well.
In Interstellar, an hour on the alien planet is equivalent to seven years on Earth (a ratio of 1 hour to 61,360.7 hours). In Inception, Leo DiCaprio says five minutes in reality are an hour in the dream world. For each dream level, that 1:12 ratio multiplies upon itself. Then for the fourth and final “limbo” level, he uses a “strong sedative” that raise that number to 1:20. So the final ratio for the protagonist’s dream time is 12*12*12*20, or 34,560 dream hours to one real hour.
[Just a totally random aside here, but I find it kind of beautiful that all those ones and twos multiply into ‘three four five six zero’ — it’s that wonderful and strange serendipity of the real, like journeying to another world for complex answers only to find a child sitting and counting. Or maybe Ford Prefect sitting somewhere inside the machine, quietly threatening it.]
So, the two Christopher Nolan movies have similar time ratios. The multiplier meant to imply a staggering amount of time in Inception was roughly 35,000. For Interstellar, Nolan upped it slightly (considering the geometric scale) to roughly 60,000. I find that similarity interesting because it implies that, in the mind of one of the finest modern directors, that region is the Goldilocks zone for our conception of time: fast enough to astound, but not so much that it confuses and obscures his message.
Some numbers are just too big for practical comprehension. The distance to the Moon, for instance, is a digestible 238,900 miles while the distance to Saturn (Hathaway and McConaughy’s first destination in Interstellar) is stultifyingly long at over 746 million miles. That’s the difference between circling the Earth ten times and circling it nearly thirty-thousand times. Even that comparison doesn’t make the number comprehensible.
Finding a common number between those Nolan movies gets at the science behind the art about science. For actual science on Interstellar though, just ask Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He offered commentary on the reality of this space adventure as he did with last year’s Gravity.
Frankly, Interstellar felt a bit like a sequel to Gravity. Wormholes and such aside, both movies aim for realism in space travel and hinge on *spoiler-ish* zero-G disaster sequences. And *more spoilers-ish* both films are fundamentally about gravity: Interstellar's drama centered on the effects of time relativity and its plot revolved around time’s relationship with gravity. Maybe you’d title it Gravity 2: Time! or Gravity 2: This Time, It’s About Time. Or maybe even, recalling a bit of Nolan’s Memento (man, he really loves to mess with timelines!), Gravity 2: This Time, It’s Chronological. Either way, the movie poster would almost certainly contort the ‘Y’ in Gravity to look like a ‘2.’
The Music of Interstellar
Perhaps the most recognizable trope of Christopher Nolan's films, more than time dilation or a big thing floating improbably over another big thing, is their music. The blare of a Hans Zimmer horn section is synonymous Nolan. Following Inception and the Batman trilogy, that blast of sound became an action movie go-to for a years. Every movie with explosions had to have a trailer with that same explosion of sound, so much so that it became a bit of a joke. In an interview with Vulture, Zimmer himself called it “a perfect example of where it all goes wrong. That music became the blueprint for all action movies, really."
Zimmer left the elephant gun behind for Interstellar’s soundtrack. Instead, he borrows heavily from another composer: Philip Glass, and specifically Glass' 1982 work Koyanisqattsi. At times, the soundtrack was so similar that, sitting there in the theater, I began to wonder if Nolan had just licensed it for his new film. (He hadn’t, no sense kicking old Hans to the curb when he can just borrow heavily from Glass.)
If you haven’t seen or heard Koyanisqattsi, I highly recommend it. (It's free on Hulu.) Written to score a 1982 film of the same name, it's one of the masterworks of America’s preeminent minimalist composer. The film is a compelling work of art. There are no characters, dialogue, or plot to speak of. Koyanisqattsi is purely music paired with image and ordered together to produce a kind of sensory history for human technology and its imprint on the world around us.
Traveling from nature to industrial to commercial to future tech, it interrogates the trajectory of human society and its place in the natural world. The music shows this evolution with each chapter — Organic, Cloudscape, Resource, Vessels, Pruit Igoe, The Grid, and Prophecies — pedaling up and down mechanically as humans reach further and further, build higher and higher, move faster and faster.
That Interstellar borrows heavily from Koyanisqattsi makes sense. Both are chronicles of human development concluding with environmental destruction and space exploration. With most of Interstellar occurring in space, its imagery has a purity of frictionless physics. Light from an alien sun angles across a spinning space station in a consistent wave, moving mechanically like Glass’s score: rising and falling by all its syncopated variables. Violinists in Glass’s traveling orchestra would play the same note over and over for minutes on end, varying slightly as new elements entered. The two works parallel each other in imagery, plot, and style.
That’s not to take anything away from Interstellar — the similarities should only serve to complement each other. However, if Zimmer’s soundtrack becomes as popular as his earlier film scores, I hope fans discover Glass and Koyanisqattsi through it. Besides its contribution to music, the 1982 film added shots to the visual language that were groundbreaking at the time, but may seem commonplace now: long exposures of taillights streaking over a highway, slow motion movements of street crowds, juxtaposed shots of waves and clouds, long sequences of empty landscape, and slow motion close shots of a spaceship taking off.
The Poetry of Interstellar
Several times in the film, Michael Caine’s character quotes the famous Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” He actually uses the full opening stanza, its usually omitted second line packing a punch spoken by a dying man on a dying Earth:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
First recited in voiceover as the mission to save humanity breaks through Earth’s atmosphere, the poem marks a powerful moment in a film with many deeply affecting chapters. It was gratifying for this once poetry minor to find the medium on such a large stage. Poetry doesn’t break out of the ivory tower enough these days, even though it’s the “news that stays news” as Ezra Pound would say.
After that opening stanza, the two famous lines repeat across four stanzas recounting the lives of “wise men,” “good men,” “wild men,” and “grave men.” I’d be more than delighted to go line by line on this wonderful Welsh work of words, but I’ll focus on the ‘wise men’ stanza:
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Interstellar would have been well served to invoke not only the tension of that first stanza, but of this second one as well. Wise men understand that death is natural and even right, but still they fight against it with the knowledge that their brilliance still had yet to strike the heights it could. Wisdom, when facing death, is found in both accepting and not accepting the end. Interstellar broadens the ‘dying of the light’ to the entire planet, but doesn’t broaden this essential tension along with it. The colonization of another galaxy, even done in the last gasp of a dying planet, should have its moments of pause.
Like nearly every futuristic movie, book, and television series these days, Interstellar carries a foreboding prophecy of collapse and a rebuke to the environmentally destructive ways of modern society. I have no issue with art offering worthwhile warning (though it’s interesting that this message seems to have grown in Hollywood while the average American has maddeningly become more skeptical of climate change — about one in four now don’t believe it’s occurring according to Gallup). Interstellar's misstep in this message is that it champions the environmental message while also assuming a nineteenth-century colonial perspective. It assumes new worlds are ours to inherit.
Now, I admit the two scenarios are different. When European leaders met in Berlin in 1888 to carve up Africa, it was for the continent's resources and not because Europe was collapsing into the North Sea. Survival is a stronger standard than enrichment. That said, I think that had the movie addressed the tension inherent in Thomas’ second stanza, its environmental message would have better stood out from the others and offered a richer, more complex view of what it means to survive as a species or even as a planet.
Outliving the Earth
The movie’s tagline: "Mankind Was Born on Earth — It Was Never Meant to Die Here” brought up a strange memory for me. In 2006, my summer between high school and college, I worked as a ‘street canvasser’ for Environment California. Basically, I was one of those annoying clipboard people who raise money for polar bears and such. The job was particularly meaningful to me because California was in the midst of debates over Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), still one of the strongest greenhouse gas bills enacted in the United States, and the money went to lobbying the bill through the conservative state senate.
As you can imagine, there are two types of people who I spent the most time talking to: people considering giving money and people just excited to have someone to talk to (people uninterested in talking or giving money tended to move away quickly). The second category was less lucrative, but definitely kept those hot summer days outside interesting. Even in California, a lot of people wanted to debate the existence of climate change with me. I missed some potential donors, I'm sure, but was was (and am) more than happy to respectfully have that debate; anyone open to debate might be open to being convinced. That said, we also got a ton of wackos.
One particularly wacko-dense canvassing spot wouldn't surprise my fellow Palo Altans: outside the Main Library on Newell Road. Honestly, I've forgotten all the crazy things I heard that summer, save one theory from a man outside that library. When prompted about climate change, he very cheerily told me that climate change didn’t matter. Not that it didn’t exist, that it didn’t matter. I hadn’t heard that one, so I (maybe ill-advisedly) asked him to explain. In his view, Earth is "a launching pad for humanity” — we’re meant to leave Earth and live after it becomes a cold dead rock. Absurd as his millennia-long view felt when raising money for an immediate threat, his image of a “launching pad” has really stuck with me. The Sun will go out in about a billion years, and if that doesn’t get us, Andromeda colliding into the Milky Way might. But despite that uncertainty, I think there is a human exceptionalism that exists in us all that assumes, somehow, we’ll engineer our way out of it. Armageddon isn’t set on the calendar; it’s a fate our descendants can fight against, we believe. In other words, we agree with that guy I met outside the library on a hot summer day. Interstellar agrees with him, even sets its tagline to say as much.
Personally, I’m excited by that idea at the heart of Interstellar and enjoyed the movie thoroughly (though, as I said, I think it would have done well to complicate some of its perspectives). A scientific epic told intimately, it had scenes of both grand imagery and quiet emotional weight. Nonetheless, the truly moving moment for me Tuesday night was actually when I left the theater. I’m used to fading from the noise and fantasy of the theater to a quiet parking lot next to the Googleplex in Mountain View. Instead, I walked out into the neon light of Times Square. It was like waking from a dream and forgetting where you are in those first few seconds, only to learn the dream wasn't entirely over.
Besides the shock of the real world seeming to match the fantastical brightness and myriad colors of the movie, it struck me as strangely inspirational. I’d just watched this fable of humankind striving upward and then I emerge into just that: spires of light rising into the sky, life and energy penetrating the darkness. Times Square isn’t my favorite place as a New Yorker, but it does have an undeniable power at night. There’s a grandeur to its hubris and a beauty to its scale that was a moving thing to behold after leaving Interstellar. In a strange way, it felt like an affirmation of the story — an assurance that humankind could meet such a challenge one day and come out on the other side of the wormhole.