Interstellar: a new direction for Christopher Nolan?

We take a closer look at the trailer for Interstellar, and wonder whether it might mark a stylistic shift for director Christopher Nolan...

We’ve become so used to trailers for expensive mainstream films to be accompanied by big honking horns and eye-popping special effects, the first full promo for Interstellar almost came as a shock. While we weren’t expecting Christopher Nolan to bring anything as bombastic as, say, Inception (whose trailers helped make honking horns fashionable), the trailer for Interstellar is decidedly coy, even by the director’s standards.

The online reaction to Interstellar’s first full trailer has been somewhat mixed. While most responded warmly to its low-key approach, others were left either dissatisfied or even slightly irked by its lack of detail; of the trailer’s two-minutes-and-change duration, only around 30 seconds of it contains anything in the way of space exploration and astronauts.

A closer look at the trailer, however, does reveal a fair amount about Interstellar and what its story might have in store – and it hints at what could be a very different film from Christopher Nolan.

A dustbowl future

As was widely reported last year, Interstellar takes place in a future benighted by ecological disaster: crops are failing, and the planet faces the gloomy prospect of imminent starvation. We’d heard in news stories – including this one over at the Fort Macleod Gazette – that Interstellar’s partly about finding other planets on which to grow food, and this certainly appears to be borne out by the trailer.

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What really struck us, though, is the way Interstellar’s dark future is presented. Its imagery is clearly informed by the real-world ecological catastrophe which swept America’s southern states in the 1930s. The Great Plains were swept by a terrible drought, which in turn led to crop failures, dust storms and the displacement of some 500,000 people.

The crisis formed the basis of John Steinbeck’s novels, Of Mice And Men and The Grapes Of Wrath – the latter adapted in classic fashion by director John Ford in 1940. There are numerous shots in the Interstellar trailer that look remarkably like those in The Grapes Of Wrath, from its setting (possibly Oklahoma or Texas) to the composition of its intimate shots of families crammed into dusty trucks. 

Where the dust storms of the 1930s forced thousands of people to abandon their land and seek food and work elsewhere, the protagonists in Interstellar will have to head far further afield.

Our guide through the dust is Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, a loving father to two kids who, despite his initial reluctance, is coaxed into blasting off on an interstellar mission to find life and hope beyond our own solar system. “We’re not meant to save the world,” an unusually posh-sounding Michael Caine tells us. “We’re meant to leave it.”

A space odyssey

The trailer shows us relatively little of Interstellar’s space travel, but this, we’re assuming, is an attempt to save the film’s biggest visual treats for a later promo or, better yet, its big-screen release in November. What we do see, however, points to a cerebral space adventure akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact or Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff.

Although Nolan has dabbled in science fiction before, this is his first film to rope in astronauts, ships and wormholes in space – and the handful of effects shots in Interstellar look pleasingly utilitarian. Unlike the exotic and faintly kitsch space suits of Prometheus, those in Interstellar look chunky and uncomfortable. What we’re guessing are hypersleep chambers look grubby, chipped and simplistic – like something cobbled together by scientists in a massive hurry.

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As Cooper and his crew – which also includes Anne Hathaway and a few other, as-yet unidentified members – head past Saturn, the trailer cuts back to Earth.

The shot above sees Jessica Chastain take up the role of Cooper’s daughter Murphy, now much older,  and apparently in the midst of a worsening environmental disaster. In the space of a second or two, the trailer establishes that Interstellar‘s plot will take place over several decades, as Cooper journeys into parts unknown.

The Spielberg connection

Anyone who’s followed the history of Interstellar will likely know that it initially began life as a Steven Spielberg project. With a premise created by physicist Kip Thorne and Lynda Obst, Interstellar first started to come together at Paramount in 2006, with Jonathan Nolan in charge of writing the screenplay. When Spielberg dropped out of the production, Christopher Nolan stepped in as director.

While it’s said that Christopher Nolan has rewritten his brother’s script to make way for his own ideas, the trailer appears to suggest that Interstellar still has the ambience of a Steven Spielberg film. There’s a familial strain between Cooper and his daughter Murphy – something Spielberg often includes in his stories. But Interstellar also contains a tone of hope and wonder rather than existential crisis and despair – a Spielbergian signature so evident in such movies as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Nolan said in a CinemaCon Q&A last year that he wanted to make something universal with Interstellar – his own take on a “golden age” blockbuster:

“I grew up in an era that was a golden age of the blockbuster, when something we might call a family film could have universal appeal. That’s something I want to see again. In terms of the tone of the film, it looks at where we are as a people and has a universality about human experience.”

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That Nolan should attempt to make a family film is in itself a fairly radical departure for the director. His films have varied from taut thrillers (Memento, Insomnia) to superhero fantasies (the Dark Knight trilogy). But the common link between them is a protagonist wracked by guilt or past experience: the avenging protagonist of Memento, so damaged that he can no longer form new memories, the guilt-ridden dream-invader of Inception, whose own dreams are haunted by spectre of his wife, or pop culture’s ultimate tortured hero, Bruce Wayne.

Interstellar’s Cooper clearly has a troubled past of his own, but the tone of the trailer points to a character bravely finding a way to create a future for his children (and by extension, the human race) rather than journeying into the darker reaches of his own psyche.

In terms of subject matter (a marriage of drama and hard SF), influence and tone, Interstellar looks like something of an anomaly, both in terms of the director’s body of work and Hollywood’s recent output. With Interstellar, it looks as though Christopher Nolan is boldly going in a stylistically different direction – and that in itself is something well worth getting excited about.

Interstellar is out in UK cinemas on the 7th November.

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