2014 • 169 minutes • Paramount
Sometimes, when I watch a mainstream Hollywood film, I like to play a game. In that game, I imagine what the screen would look like if everyone who is a white dude who doesn’t need to be a white dude wasn’t a white dude. You’d be (not) surprised by how much that supposedly default setting is only really necessary to the marketing campaign. I can usually play this game quite easily with Christopher Nolan’s filmography, but in watching Interstellar, I was, for the first time, thwarted. While Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper doesn’t necessarily need to be white, he does necessarily have to be a man, because Interstellar, among the vast number of themes, concepts, and ideas that populate its three hour running time, offers an alternative take on what it means to be a father.
Towards the end of the film, we discover that Cooper is actually the character’s last name. He is not provided with a first name in either the film’s credits or any supplemental material. (This does lead to the inconsistency that Cooper’s grandson is Cooper Cooper, unless, of course, the child has his mother’s surname. I imagine this is an oversight, but I read the text, the author is dead, etc.) He doesn’t merit a first name, because his main function is to be a father—to his daughter Murphy, to his fellow scientist Dr. Brand, and to humanity. This sounds like the set-up for a Great White Male Savior character. And, in many ways, it is. But I find that the details that complicate it. Despite a speech early on about how humanity used to be full of explorers and not caretakers, Cooper’s paternal function is to sacrifice himself. “They didn’t choose me,” he concludes late in the film. “They chose her,” he marvels.
Throughout Interstellar, Cooper’s fatherhood is constantly framed in terms more familiarly associated with motherhood in fiction. He doesn’t stride manfully off to save the world; he resists every inch of the way, wanting to be there for his children. When Professor Brand, Dr. Brand’s father, tells him to stop thinking about his family, Cooper rebukes him by framing the entire world as composed of families. When his team revives a man who has been living alone for decades on a new planet, the man grasps him and begins weeping to see another human face; Cooper cradles him firmly but gently. Later, the same man harps on the fact that Cooper’s survival instinct is stronger than anyone else’s because he has children, obliquely recalling anecdotes about women getting bursts of strength when their children are threatened. The other fathers in the text—Cooper’s son and Dr. Brand’s father—behave traditionally to their detriment, with Cooper’s son refusing medical treatment for his clearly afflicted family and Professor Brand sacrificing his morality because he thinks he knows best. While the viewpoint of the film obscures it, Cooper is only important because Murphy is important. In their last scene together, the now elderly Murphy sends away her father away from her deathbed so he can function as that ghost for her. Their relationship is important in both the narrative and in the real world—when was the last time you saw a mainstream Hollywood film that included a father gently encouraging a clearly adored daughter in the sciences without a whiff of patronizing protection?—but that relationship is necessarily about a father who is, for all intents and purposes, inspiringly dead.
And that’s just one thing to tease out and chew on among so many. Nolan’s visualization of the wonders of the universe, from worm holes to black holes; the concept of love—all love, not just romantic love—as an elemental force; the tragedy of bent time; the practical and special effects that do exactly what such effects are meant to do; the utter genius of the robot designs, from their physical puppetry to their voices to their worldview; and so on and so on and so on. It’s crammed absolutely full in a way that recalls the best and most ambitious science fiction, even if its trappings are distinctly non-genre, as the ever sharp Gavia Baker-Whitelaw points out that Nolan is always wont to do. (“In Inception,” she points out, “…Nolan is telling a story of pure fantasy, but it’s illustrated in the visual language of a real-world drama.”) It’s almost too much to parse, which is why I’m focusing so closely on one element of the film that struck me deeply. As the mixed reaction to the film shows, not everything lands, but enough lands that shows that Nolan is evolving. His output is always fascinating because he’s the rare director with the resources, talent, and star power to pull off genre films in a way that appeals to mass audiences. I don’t always agree with how he does that, but I certainly respect the fact that he can.
I saw this film in theaters.