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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, July 28, 2021
Austin Wellens

‘Interstellar’ inspires awe and tears

So here’s the thing. My original plan was to run out tonight, catch the first screening of Christopher Nolan’s newest work, “Interstellar,” collect my thoughts and calmly put down some words about the movie. However when I made these plans, I wasn’t expecting the film to be the full body spiritual gut punch experience that I just had (and am still kind of shaking from).

So the deal is, I’m going to try my best to organize these very fresh and overwhelming feelings into some sort of coherent order, and y’all can sort them out in whatever way seems best to you. Cool? OK, cool.

Now then, “Interstellar” is nearly three hours of pure, dictionary-definition awe. This is both its effect and its stance. And the two are hard to pull apart, but bear with me.

A real long time ago, I wrote about my concerns regarding the fact that after the Dark Knight trilogy concluded, Nolan might be given more money than he knew what to do with for his next film. Turns out I was wrong, he knew exactly what to do with that money, and it represents the best argument for big Hollywood that I’ve ever seen.

See, what makes movies that cost millions and millions of dollars worth the absolutely insane amount of time, effort and resources that go into them is the fact they can make things real. They can realize the impossible, and most of the time this translates to opulent, CGI-based visuals which get bigger and bigger as they go on.

What makes “Interstellar” such an experience, though, is the fact Nolan wants something more real than, say, “Avatar.” He understands that while film can create some absolutely wonderful illusions, that’s usually all they are. He also understands this isn’t all film can do. It can make these illusions real, relatively speaking.

The way to make them real, as a filmmaker, is to treat them with the same sense of wonder we’d experience if we were actually seeing the things in real life. For Nolan, this means embracing the physicality of the thing. It’s the reason so much of “Inception” and (now) “Interstellar” were made with practical—rather than digital—effects. It’s also the reason behind people getting to see the film Tuesday—rather than Friday—as he early released it to theaters showing it on actual film. It’s based on a true respect for the power these sounds and images can actually hold over us. It’s reverent, in a way.

And it’s exactly what filmmaking of this massive scope is best at producing. The best parts of classic Hollywood are the impossible dreams it could realize. It’s the James Bond stunts real people actually performed. It’s the sheer scale of humanity on display in “Gone with the Wind.” And in “Interstellar,” Nolan was given a canvas the size of a galaxy and he created a black hole.

The use of practical effects—of actual, built-to-scale spaceships, alien landscapes with real, physical texture and imaginings of space that make them feel like landscapes—all inspire the same wonder at the universe that the film desperately, desperately argues for.

See, this ability to create full-bodied, tangible realities in an effort to inspire awe in the viewer is reflected by the movie’s awe in the face of human complexity. By constructing a fully realized world, one where the light looks like it’s bending around objects because it actually is, one that looks like we could touch it because we actually could, “Interstellar” leaves the viewer with nothing to do but marvel at the vast, impossible, beautiful wonder of it all. And not just at how big and complicated the universe is, but how small and complicated people can be, and that despite all of this baffling, endless existence, we can still do things like go to the moon, figure out black holes and imagine new realities.

There’s an extremely obvious comparison to be made between “Interstellar” and “Gravity” which is probably unfair to both films, but I’m going to do it anyway because it’ll help me illustrate my point, if I have one.

“Gravity,” basically, admires humanity’s ability to survive in a universe it views as cold, ineffable and horrifying in its blankness. Space is all encompassing and rendered with the pointed intensity digital filmmaking is capable of: It’s cool and smooth and mechanical and (therefore) terrifying. All of which builds to the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster. You strap in, there are thrills and chills and it’s exhilarating, but everything is going to be OK and at the end the ride stops and you get off.

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Next to this “Interstellar” is like strapping yourself into a rocket. It’s real, it grabs you. There’s dust and you can feel it. There aren’t any handrails, and you aren’t just sitting in it, you’re connected to it, operating it and you can’t just hop off whenever you feel like it. It’s a huge mixture of dust and starlight and it’s all real. You’re a part of this giant, complicated universe, one that’s vast and almost infinitely complex but ultimately, um, effable. And we, as humans, get to try and eff it.

It borders on a genuine religious awe, but one in which a god has been replaced by the amazing, beautiful contradictions of human beings. Between our most basic survival instincts and our capacity for empathy. Between our ability to be so incredibly selfish, and so incredibly selfless. Between self-interest and self-sacrifice. And it marvels at the fact that despite how tiny and complicated and flawed we are next to this massive, complex, indifferent universe, we can still transcend, explore and understand it all.

It is 100 percent the most beautiful sentiment I’ve ever seen in a big budget film. It’s making me cry again just writing about it. And if we’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars on films, it might as well be to remind ourselves just how much human beings are actually capable of. And “Interstellar” does that. So go see it, is I guess what I’m saying.

Email your rapturous exclamations about “Interstellar” to wellens@wisc.edu

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