Christopher Nolan and the locked-room mystery: Interstellar
On Friday I managed to go to see Interstellar, at the cinema, a rarity for me these days. And it was a mighty long experience, so much so that I misjudged the starting time of the film and the amount of parking I needed and was haunted during the film by the promise of a ticket upon the return to the car. (I was lucky.) Quite appropriately, while I was watching the film I was also still in the past (why did I think the film started earlier?) and rehearsing the future (this film is going to cost me £50. But it might not…). This didn’t impair my enjoyment of the movie, though. Although I understand and agree with many of the criticisms of the film – though I have to say its liberties with science don’t bother me – I liked its scale, Matthew McConaughey (Coop) and Anne Hathaway (Brand) in the central roles, the use of the robots, and in particular the ‘realistic’ look of the spaceship interiors. Some of the effects sequences were quite exciting, such as the re-docking with the spinning Endurance or the ‘escape’ from the black hole (though not as exciting as Gravity).
The narrative does have major weaknesses. The visits to the two exo-planets seemed mechanically differentiated: we’ll kill a crew member on this one! Oh, here’s a villain on this one! (I was particularly irritated by Matt Damon’s character, who was obviously going to turn out to be wrong ‘un, and the plot didn’t disappoint.) The ending, where Coop flies off to ‘save’ Brand on the third exo-planet, using a local ship that surely would not have the fuel to get there, waved off by his 120-year-old daughter, was silly. But the core of the film is time, not outer space, and the really crucial space of the film is not the through-the-wormhole other galaxy to be explored, but Murph’s (Coop’s daughter’s) bedroom.
In some ways, Interstellar reminded me strongly of Inception (a far better sf film, I would say). Both films are emotionally located in the Father’s loss, of both wife and children, and a desire to restore or heal that trauma; both films return to an interior space which holds the key to the film’s enigma; both films attempt to subvert or complicate Hollywood continuity narrative through time-dilation motifs (caused by the subconscious ‘levels’ in Inception, and by proximity to the black hole and relativistic effects in Interstellar); and both feature Michael Caine as a benign old mage who effects the male protagonist’s re-entry into narrative time. In Inception, this is Cobb’s (Leonardo di Caprio) trajectory towards re-establishing a future with his children through completing the Fischer mission; in Interstellar, this is Coop’s escape from the entropic Earth suffering from slow-motion ecological catastrophe, and the stasis of being a farmer, looking down at the dirt instead of up to the stars.
Both films are locked-room mysteries, by which I mean that the solution to the narrative enigma – what is Fischer’s secret, held in the subconscious ‘safe’, in Inception; what is the solution to Professor Brand’s gravity equations in Interstellar – is contained within the finite set of interior narrative elements rather than coming from outside. For Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and his father (Pete Postlethwaite), for Cobb and his children, and for Coop and Murph (Mackenzie Foy/ Jessica Chastain) this is to do with the healing of emotional estrangement, a resolution of the parent/child relationship. The time-paradox ‘solution’ in Interstellar isn’t so much about the transmission of the binary code that will unlock Brand’s equation, but the fact that it is Coop who is able to do so. The ‘infinite’ rooms that Coop is translated into after entering the black hole are a figure for his emotional imprisonment, his need to return to that space and time to try to undo, or repair what has been done. Murph feels the same need to return to that room, and it is her realisation that it is her father who is the ‘ghost’ transmitting information from somewhere else that impels her towards the mathematical solution. In a sense, in Interstellar the physical trajectory of the narrative (Coop’s journey outward to the stars) is countermanded or superseded by the emotional trajectory of the return to the room. It is the latter that provides the key to the former. Although, as Ian Sales in his blog on Interstellarnotes, Brand’s rationale for going to the third exo-planet (where her lover has landed) – ‘love is the only thing which transcends time and space’ is ‘cringeworthy’ vapouring of the highest order – it does express the underlying emotional plot, and the impetus behind both Inception and Interstellar.
This is banal enough, I agree. But I am reminded of the moment in Vonnegut’s Timequake in which Kilgore Trout stands upon a beach with Vonnegut and others towards the end of the novel, and asks Vonnegut to pick out two stars from the sky. ‘Now then’, he says, ‘whatever heavenly bodies those two gints represent, it is certain that the Universe has become so rarefied that for light to go from one to the other would take thousands or millions of years. Ting-a-ling? But now I ask you to look precisely at one, and then precisely at the other.’ When Vonnegut confirms he has done so, Trout continues: ‘Even if you’d taken an hour [to look at them], something would have passed between where those two heavenly bodies used to be, at, conservatively speaking, a million times the speed of light.’ ‘What was it?’ Vonnegut asks. ‘Your awareness,’ replies Trout. ‘That new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering the Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something new and beautiful, which is human awareness.’ He then concludes: ‘I have thought of a better word than awareness. … Let us call it soul.’
Unashamedly humanist, Timequake inserts the cosmological into the realm of human consciousness and human emotion. True, by calling it ‘soul’, Vonnegut explicitly nods to metaphysics, to the spiritual, even. This is a gesture found throughout cosmological sf, of course, from Olaf Stapledon through 2001 to Interstellar. Where the human narrative of the film of 2001 ‘ends’ with another locked room, the strange out-of-time apartment where Bowman finds himself and where he is translated into the Star Child, there seems to be no ‘God’ in Interstellar: the time-loop structure places the human as the Other, the means by which human beings can, by their bootstraps, life themselves off the Earth and into the stars.
Interstellar and Inception ultimately return to find the solution to their narrative conundrums in the most tricky of locked spaces to open, the ‘heart’. Nolan, in these two films, reveals the humanism (if not outright sentimentality) at the core of his sf work. Rather than the solution to Interstellar’s locked room being an orang-utan and a chimney, it is instead a message from (human) parent to (abandoned/ neglected) child: I love you.