Books in Space: Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”

BOOKS ARE EVERYWHERE in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, beginning with the opening shot. The camera, gliding slowly across the length of the bookshelf, lingers over several titles, and lingers as well over a toy space shuttle, also sitting on the bookshelf, gathering dust.

The dust is of course no ordinary dust, but shorthand for everything that is wrong with the planet. Nolan admires Ken Burn’s documentary about the 1930s, The Dust Bowl, and uses the same interview format, lining up eyewitnesses to testify to a succession of crop failures. This is not the 1930s, though, but a Dust Bowl redux, happening in the near future. Even though climate change isn’t explicitly mentioned, the cough-inducing and crops-destroying dust storms do a good job giving us a taste of the extreme weather and severe infectious diseases projected by climate scientists. Wheat and rice are gone at this point. The last crop of okra ever grown on the planet has already been harvested. The only thing left is corn, but even this is on its way out, threatened by blight that replaces the earth’s oxygen with nitrogen. Probably one more generation of humans will survive; after that, mass extinction.

The secretly operating NASA hopes to transport the earth’s population to a different home, in a different galaxy — by way of a wormhole, suddenly detected near Saturn and apparently put there by intelligent aliens. The Lazarus mission has already used that opening and gotten out and found three promising planets, so NASA is now sending the Endurance, led by ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to decide which one is habitable. As the spaceship lifts off, mission head Professor Brand recites these lines from Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

These lines will be recited three more times before the ending shakes off that “good night” once and for all, so it is fair to say that, as much as Interstellar has touted its grounding in science — the Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne was on board as consultant and executive producer — the film is grounded perhaps more fundamentally in literature, underwritten by a poetic license that might turn out to have mathematics as one of its scripts.

Interstellar is bookish to a fault. More than one critic has railed against its wooden, at times excruciating dialogue (lines such as the by now notorious “Love is the one thing that transcends dimensions of time and space,” spoken by Anne Hathaway playing Amelia Brand, daughter of Professor Brand; or “Pray you never learn just how good it can be to see another face,” spoken by Dr. Mann when he is roused from his deep sleep on the forbidding planet where he has been stranded). That is one form of bookishness: the characters here are simply the conduits for the printed words that must have been in the heads of the two screenwriters, Chris Nolan and his brother Jonathan; treatises on mysticism and psychology that they seem bent on injecting into the film, on the same footing as the mathematical equations, which are also very much in evidence.

Those very equations, however, point to another sense in which Interstellar might be said to be bookish. These are actual, astrophysical equations, but as seen on screen, line after line, covering the entire blackboard, they actually look like an exotic script, an alien language hardly anyone can read. This is what math is to 99.99 percent of moviegoers: mysterious and never to be understood. Data from the black hole might indeed be the thing needed to unify relativity and quantum mechanics, and allow humans to exit the earth’s gravitational field, but we wouldn’t know just by looking at those arcane squiggles. Math is akin to magic in this sense: it is a universe unto itself, embedded in the quotidian one we know but not accessible to most of us. It is also a lot weirder, with a lot more room for otherwise inexplicable phenomena. What is unthinkable elsewhere is entirely thinkable here.

Such as reverse time travel, the ability of future generations to reach back and engineer events of the past. Those intelligent aliens who planted the wormhole turn out to be none other than our own highly evolved human descendants, existing in five dimensions, and giving rise to narrative time lines equally convoluted. In one sense this is familiar Nolan territory: flashbacks and obsessive crosscutting are nothing new; they have always been his signature style. Beginning with his first film, Following (1998), and continuing through Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), the human mind for Nolan has always been a labile, multidimensional space, rotatable at 90, 180, and 360 degrees. This shape-shifting and ever-receding labyrinth is the logical backdrop for time that flips over, or goes backward. Nolan says that his fondness for reverse chronologies comes from growing up in the age of VHS and being able to watch movies over and over again, taking them apart differently each time. “You’re making films that are going to be watched more than once,” he says. “People are going to watch them in a different way. They’re going to have a different relationship to that narrative.” Films like Memento and Inception internalize these serial disorientations and turn them into a Möbius strip of the mind.

Interstellar is a little different. Reverse chronology here is not housed in the mind, as the labyrinth of memory, but projected outward into the vastness of the cosmos, as the weird, seemingly nonsensical, but entirely mathematical space-time of relativity and quantum mechanics. This kind of math has an objective correlative: the tesseract, a four-dimensional analogue to the three-dimensional cube. The word, from the Greek τέσσερεις ακτίνες (“four rays”), was first coined and used in 1888 by Charles Howard Hinton in A New Era of Thought, a nonfictional work about the fourth dimension. In its later incarnations, the term would sometimes morph into a more graspable form — in the Marvel Universe, for example, it is simply an Infinity Stone, an object of extraordinary power. Nolan goes back to the earlier, weirder version, giving us a four-dimensional continuum that physicalizes time as vehicular space. It is this that allows Cooper to go back several decades and haunt his own house as a ghost, sending cryptic messages written first in dust, and then in Morse code, providing his now-grown daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) with the necessary data to create a unified theory of physics. Humanity is saved, and Cooper himself gets to go home in the flesh, 124 years old in earth-time but not aged at all, having spent only a few hours on the time-dilated planet. His daughter, 10 years old when he left, is now on her deathbed, an old woman over 90.

According to Wired, Nolan’s tesseract is a visualization of the equations of Kip Thorne, “the product of a year of work by 30 people and thousands of computers.” It is telling, though, that this high-tech, high-concept cosmic marvel should have more than a passing resemblance to the internal mental architecture of Inception. It is telling, as well, that the “bootstrap paradox” that results, by which a chicken sends an egg back in time to be hatched into the chicken that it becomes, is not at all unique to this film but a staple of the science fiction genre, beginning with Robert Heinlein’s story “By His Bootstraps” (1941), and used to great effect by Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, before showing up in The Terminator series and Doctor Who.

There’s a reason why that toy space shuttle is sitting on a bookshelf. Mathematics might be the movie’s operating system, but what powers it is a poetic license of a fairly old-fashioned kind, often running a parallel program of allegory, perhaps to match the director’s equally old-fashioned commitment to shooting on 35 mm and 70 mm film. The film “is about human nature, what it means to be human,” Nolan says. And so the villain is named Dr. Mann, while one of the legible titles on the bookshelf is Ted Morgan’s biography of Somerset Maugham, best known for his best-selling, human-nature-probing novel Of Human Bondage. The other books are not so clearly allegorical; still, their plots tell us something — Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Isabel Wolff’s Out of the Blue, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, Curtis Oberhansly and Dianne Oberhansly’s Downwinders — all back-trekking narratives with a past that is malleable, visitable, and changeable. And presiding over them all is Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, that circular, multigenerational, and counterintuitive novel that gives magical realism its classic definition.

Interstellar is not quite magical in that sense, although there is considerable magical thinking here as well, making it almost an anti-cli-fi film, holding out hope that the end of the planet is not the end of everything. It reverses itself, however, when that magic falls short, when the poetic license is naked and plain for all to see. In those moments, it suddenly dawns upon us that the ocean that rises up 90 degrees and comes at us like a wall is not just a special effect on some faraway planet, but a scenario all too close to home.


Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.