Typical of filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s predilection for high concept fare, his science fiction adventure Interstellar tackles the sort of weighty material guaranteed to push the envelope even as it strains the brain: An unnamed environmental calamity systematically imperils the Earth’s ability to grow sustainable crops, thus threatening human habitation of the planet.
As a result, a team of scientists and astronauts must come up with a plan to save the human race from extinction – by taking the species’ survivors to another home somewhere else in the Universe. Think Einstein, wormholes, binary codes and gravity that does things you shouldn’t try at home.
The premise guarantees huge audience interest – Rotten Tomatoes users clock in at 99 per cent wanting to see this film in a sampling of more than 70 thousand respondents. Projections for the film’s first weekend in theaters come in north of 50 million dollars.
The script was first undertaken by screenwriter Jonathan Nolan some seven years ago. The final product became a collaborative effort between the brothers as older sibling Christopher pared the content to make the complicated science more cinematic and easier to handle for an audience not necessarily steeped in rocket science.
Much of the story’s inciting incident relies on historical events such as blight which caused the potato famine in Ireland and the American high plains phenomenon known as the Dust Bowl that spawned the great westward migration in the years immediately following the stock market crash in 1929.
“We combined this with ideas taken very much from Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl (and) what struck me about the dust bowl is – it was a man-made environmental crisis but one where the imagery, the effect of it, was so outlandish, we actually had to sort of tone it down before we could put it in the film,” Christopher Nolan told attendees at a studio press conference to publicize the picture.
“But the real point, though non-specific – we’re saying in our story that mankind is gently being nudged off the planet by the Earth itself and the reason is non-specific because we don’t want to be too didactic or political. That’s not really the point for me.”
Younger brother Jonathan had been working on the concept for the movie for some seven years prior to cameras rolling on the project. The complicated science behind the story line necessitated him immersing himself in such topics as the theory of relativity and certain scientific equations put forth by Albert Einstein in a 1905 paper.
For all the science and technology involved in fashioning the film’s script, the data-driven detail remained secondary to both Nolan brothers thematically. Both filmmakers contend the core of the movie has less to do with relativity and science than it does with relationships between people.
“We found that the more that you explored the cosmic scope of things, the more out into the universe you went, the more the focus came down to who we are as people and what are the connections between us,” director Christopher explained.
“Einstein’s a fascinating figure,” Jonathan added. “You begin to realize the common element for all these thought experiments Einstein did to try to understand the massive nature of the Universe around us – there were always people at the heart of all of it.”
“There were all these relationships with a sense of melancholy or longing or sorrow. One person in a train at the speed of light…if you want to explore these bigger questions…you have to move in the opposite direction to make sure it’s grounded in the human experience.”
The film opened in theaters less than a week after a pilot died following a critical explosion downing one of entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space planes from a height 12 miles above California’s Mojave Desert. That incident came only days after a NASA rocket malfunctioned and was destroyed in its ascent from the launch pad near the Virginia coastline.
The current state of the American manned space program remains somewhat in decline – except for the continued presence of NASA astronauts rotating through the orbiting international space station, a situation the Nolan brothers consider in need of remedy.
Director Christopher recalls being present at Griffith Park Observatory taking in the last few minutes of the final transport of the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2012. The shuttle has since become part of the permanent exhibit at the California Science Center near the USC campus.
“Watching the space shuttle come to Los Angeles on top of the 747 – it was a very moving moment, actually, and a little melancholy at the same time,” said the older Nolan.
“What you felt was, that sense of that great endeavor collective endeavor, the hope, the optimism of that, is something it feels like we’re in need of again. I feel very strongly that we’re at a point where we need to start looking out again and exploring our place in the Universe more.”
Jonathan Nolan frames the space program in the context of his generation and the expectations of continued progress that has yet to materialize. “All those Americans who landed on the moon, those human beings who landed on the moon, did so between Chris being born and me being born, and no one had gone back since.”
“You know, these Super 8 films that you grew up watching of rocket launches, and you get to a certain age, and you realize those speeches about going back – they’re speeches,” he emphasized.
“And if you charted our evolution as a species in terms of altitude, we had peaked in 1973. And that was kind of a sad realization and I thought, well, I mean, growing up you’re promised jet packs and we get Instagram. Kind of a bum deal, I think. So, I was rooted in this kind of optimism in which we start to journey once again.”
Interstellar is rated PG-13 and runs two hours 49 minutes.