Random fact time: a few months ago I was really into illusions. My interest and abilities have tapered off, but as a magician I learned one thing very quickly. More important to a good trick than executing the moves is how you sell the trick. If you sell the trick as “the laws of science are being disproven,” it’ll usually fall flat. People won’t buy that. If you sell the trick as a question, though, people will usually accept it.
The question is simple: do you want to see a magic trick? Contained within that are layers and layers of questions. Do you want to see a mystery? Will you come with me on a journey? Will you suspend your disbelief so that I can show you something extraordinary? A really good magician, and a really great trick, capitalizes on those questions perfectly.
Christopher Nolan is a really good magician. Interstellar, his latest film, is a really great trick.
I say that because of one thing: Interstellar is fundamentally different from many of Nolan’s previous films. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to scrutinize its plot half to death. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to rigorously apply the laws of logic to it. Unlike Inception, for example, Interstellar is something entirely different–and it knows it.
In Interstellar, Nolan tells a tale that hinges on the audience’s accepting one rule. That rule is stated up front, within the first ten minutes, and is hammered home throughout the film: within the world of Interstellar, anything that can happen, will happen. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you wonders. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you a breathtakingly expansive and thrilling plot. He gives you a beautifully developed relationship, fantastic performances, and a heart wrenching drama.
But first, you have to accept the rule.
If you do the film is phenomenal. Like I said, the plot hits all its beats perfectly, gliding smoothly along. Even when the science gets wonky and the exposition is unclear, the relationship at the heart of the film carries the audience through. And what a relationship it is.
Interstellar, simply and without spoilers, is about a man named Cooper, and his quest to find a new world for the dying human race to inhabit. He has a family and a life back on earth, but he leaves it all behind with a promise to his daughter: I’m coming back.
Interstellar hinges on the relationship between Cooper and his daughter. In fact, the film’s heart isn’t what it’s been billed as. Nolan seems to be less interested in humanity finding a habitable world, and more interested in Cooper trying to get home. And the way that desire for home is developed, is beautiful. Even as the team tries to find a new home for humanity, Cooper knows he’ll never be home unless his daughter, Murphy, is there.
The audience feels that ache, and that longing, viscerally, and Nolan takes that to new levels. For example, because of relativity, time passes far more slowly for Cooper than for Murphy and the rest of the people back on earth. Those people are, somehow, able to send Cooper messages, though Cooper can’t reply.
Every time Cooper watches those, the emotions rage–both for him, and for the audience. And like I said before, those emotions form the heart of the film. By the end, the audience, like Nolan, almost cares more about Cooper getting home than him saving the human race.
That takes skill to pull off, but Nolan rises to the task with considerable aplomb. Except for, of course, one thing.
All of the drama, all the emotion, everything in the film past the ten minute mark necessitates the audience accept the rule–that anything that can happen, will happen. And so, at the end of the day, the feeling I have about the film hinges on what I said at the very beginning.
Interstellar is a magic trick, and Nolan is a magician. Like any magic trick, the magician can sell it as best he can, but the magician can only sell it. Nolan sells the rule the film is based on as best he can, but he can only sell it–he can’t make the audience buy the rule. So Interstellar ends up throwing itself on the mercy of its audience, and Nolan asks very similar questions to those asked by a magician.
Nolan asks you, the audience, right at the beginning of the film, do you want to see something extraordinary? Do you want to see emotions and relationships stretched across years and years, forcing a visceral reaction? Do you want to see a thrilling plot? And just like the magician, Nolan’s questions can be summarized into one. The magician asks, “Do you want to see a magic trick?
Nolan asks, “Do you want me to tell you a story?” I answered yes, and I encourage you to the do same.