Should You See ‘Interstellar’ on Film? Yes, and This is Why
There are plenty of directors in Hollywood, but only a few remaining filmmakers, who still make movies on old fashioned celluloid. Of that group, Christopher Nolan may be the most vocal and the most inclined to use his ample power to encourage theaters and moviegoers to choose film over digital—as he’s done with 'Interstellar,' which opens two days early at locations that offer 35mm or 70mm IMAX projection. It’s difficult for me to say concretely that you need to see 'Interstellar' on film; having only seen it once, projected in 35mm, I can’t compare the film and digital experiences. But, I can say that watching 'Interstellar' on film gives it an additional layer of poignance that wouldn’t be there otherwise. 'Interstellar' on 35mm may not be the superior experience, but it is undeniably the more complete one.
On film, the high-tech future of 'Interstellar' is frequently interrupted by a low-tech reminder of the past: cigarette burns. On the one hand, these cue marks for projectionists make for a peculiar and incongruous sight in a film about a distant future of space exploration and artificial intelligence. On the other hand, they fit perfectly with one of Interstellar’s most pointed themes, represented in the film by repeated readings of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
Over and over throughout the movie—far too often, frankly—characters recite Thomas’ words, particularly its most famous line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Some kind of blight has ravaged the planet, and ruined its ability to sustain plant and animal life, so the last remaining members of NASA (led by Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper) blast off for another galaxy to find a new potential home for the human race. In the context of that story, the poem represents man’s struggle to overcome its limitations, and to push our species forward in the face of overwhelming and even impossible odds. Projected on film, though, Thomas’ words take on additional and even more literal meaning: the dying of the light of old celluloid projectors.
Like the planet Earth of 'Interstellar,' analog filmmaking and projection is doomed; if it doesn’t go completely extinct in our lifetime, our children’s children will only experience it the way we experience oil lamps or black and white televisions—as ancient, vaguely ludicrous museum pieces. Projected film’s end, like the movie’s Earth’s end, is inevitable. From very early in 'Interstellar' it is made clear that nothing can be done to save the planet. But this is how you rage against that dying light: By releasing your movie on an antiquated format and letting theaters who still operate that format show your movie before those that don’t.
It’s not just old-school film that’s imperiled in modern Hollywood; it’s old-school filmmaking that’s in trouble as well. 'Interstellar' is almost the antithesis of a modern blockbuster. It’s weighty, poetic, ambitious, and stridently uncommercial. It’s not jammed with wall-to-wall action and violence; long stretches focus on characters and dialogue and—rarest of all—ideas; about philosophy and physics and love. 'Interstellar’ is not based on an existing property, and its basic concept ensures it will never be an ongoing franchise. This is decidedly not a crowd-pleaser.
It’s not a perfect film either. Christopher Nolan has a reputation for directing dark, gritty movies, and this one is easily his grittiest—like, literally, as the scenes set on Earth are covered in absurd amounts of dirt. People shovel dirt and scrape it off their sleeves, and set their dinner tables with the plates upside-down to keep the filth out of their food (so gritty!). It would seem like a playful joke at Nolan’s critics, if Nolan ever made jokes. Indeed, the rest of the film is painfully over-serious, and there’s a fundamental conflict between Nolan the pessimistic filmmaker and his optimistic message here that never really resolves itself. Neither does 'Interstellar'; it’s got about three-too-many endings, and its final scenes feel particularly out of place in the story that’s preceded them. And a lot of the finer points of the plot and the logic around that story don’t hold up to scrutiny.
With all those issues,' Interstellar' is guaranteed to have problems. But given its themes, 'Interstellar' is almost more powerful because of its flaws. Nolan is fighting a losing battle here, against an unwieldly script and an industry that’s moving away from the kinds of stories he likes to tell and the kinds of technology he likes to use to record those stories. But if he’s going out, he’s not going gently into that good night. 'Interstellar' is his rage.