‘Interstellar’ and the Relativity of Cinematic Time

Interstellar Memento 1

Warner Bros./Newmarket Films/Art by FSR

Time is a precious resource in Christopher Nolan’s most personal (i.e., non-bat-related) films, and time rarely ever runs in a linear, straightforward fashion. In Memento, time is split between a receding past and a stagnant present that changes the shape of knowledge and memory with every revelation it produces. In Inception, time is collapsed upon itself many times over, with a singular moment in one tier of consciousness extending to a multiplied time scale in others.

Interstellar perhaps presents his most tortured relationship to the movement of time, wherein time is relative yet deeply consequential depending on your orientation with the cosmos, and must therefore be approached strategically. Your experience of time in Interstellar is hardly universal. It depends very much on where you are.

While the film’s genre-entry depiction of the procession of time is intended as a rumination on relativity, black holes and the like, as a cinematic (i.e., non-scientific but experiential) exercise, Interstellar’s depiction of temporal relativity is truly affecting. It’s maybe the strongest suit of a rich but messy film, for it exercises something unique about the very act of watching movies.

The minutes that accumulate in a film’s runtime rarely mean the same thing for every film. Instead, the sense of a film’s duration is often experienced relative to its subject matter, pacing, content, etc. Time can be collapsed and extended in filmmaking – this is part of the illusion we take as a given whenever we walk into a theater, and this much is obvious. What’s unique about Interstellar is that the knowledge of experiencing time differently from the characters onscreen is something that becomes part of the film itself – where a variety of characters experience temporal duration differently.

One of Interstellar’s most striking moments features Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway) returning from the first planet they visit, a barren waterscape burdened by skyscraper-high waves, to a distraught Romilly (the excellent David Gyasi) who informs the crew that he’s waited for them in desperation for 23 years. For them, it was only a matter of hours.

The moment drew an audible gasp from the theater in which I saw the film, and it seems to be a moment that can be accomplished in few forms of moving image media, even television which mostly still abides by a weekly rollout structure or set episodic runtimes. In that moment, the engrossing suspense of Cooper and Brand’s first planetary visit (which produces the death of another crew member) forces one to temporarily forget about the experiences of other characters, a gap that becomes starkly apparent upon their return. The elision of time is then transformed into a traumatic event as Cooper views 23 years worth of video feeds from his now-grown son and daughter.

Interstellar simultaneously draws the audience into the procession of time as subjectively experienced by its central character, Cooper, while also providing glimpses into the differential temporal experiences of supporting characters, and it’s this gap that produces the film’s most effective dramatic tensions.

Interstellar has been largely discussed this past week as a cinematic experience that must be witnessed in a movie theater, and it’s the particular quality of the film as a theatrical experience that makes Interstellar an event, rather than simply another blockbuster film, despite any aspects of the film itself that read as lacking. In emphasizing the theatrical experience, Interstellar has demonstrated how essential the space of the movie theater is to the special choreography of cinematic time.

In the movie theater we become subjects to the temporal organization attempted by the filmmakers, not agents of it. We lose control of the temporal procession of moving images – the tool of the remote, if you will – and are witnesses to a kind of unrolling of time that we continue to experience all too rarely in the face of a contemporary media landscape in which we are continuously encouraged to produce our own tailor-made schedules. Often, this experience of subjecthood in the movie theater can be a pest – the near half-hour block of ads and trailers that preview the feature at my local AMC for example – but within this potential also lies a power largely unique to moviegoing that largely can’t be reproduced in media-watching at home with the pause button at your fingertips.

In the nearly three-hour block that makes up Interstellar, my relationship to the space of the IMAX theater changed. The minimal legroom shared by a sold-out crowd, the near-agoraphobia of a steep stadium seating opposite an even steeper and cavernous screen – all this quickly faded away as Interstellar took up its space. By the end of the film, when the lights went on, I had a startling experience of returning back to the reality of the physical space in which I had been sitting for hours, for the crowd and my knowledge of it had largely washed away to the procession of sounds and images. Time had transformed that space into something else, by fashioning a screen into a vessel.

Nolan can do this better than any contemporary Hollywood filmmaker currently working: turning the act of watching into an experience, one that lessens significantly after leaving it but maintains an intense stranglehold on your attention and emotions in the moment.

Honestly, the film could have been 45 minutes shorter or 45 minutes longer and I still would believe, while walking out, Interstellar exists within its claimed 169-minute runtime – with Hans Zimmer’s cyclical, Philip Glass-like score turning linear time into a cycle of motifs rather than a progression towards a narrative climax. Interstellar is brimming with suspense and drama, and to this effect it eschews a traditional Hollywood structure of storytelling, using a significant scope of time as a canvas in which to realize a vast range of scenarios. As its characters became alienated from the traditional progression of time, so did I, affixed now to a unique form of cinematic time that was engrossing within its own discrete logic.

I can think of few films in which I have had comparable theatrical experiences, and it is no coincidence that such a temporal phenomenon is uniquely possible with theatrical films.

This year’s Boyhood showed how time can unfold and be erased at the same time, demonstrating how we live in the present with an ever-receding relationship to the past.

Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York is perhaps the most ambitious debut feature so far this century, depicting the progression of decades in a way that actually makes it feel as if decades have past.

Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, more so than any of the Hungarian autuer’s films, shows the tragedy of time’s unforgiving progress, and how its cycles can slowly produce a devastating existential crisis against those for whom time most easily forgets.

Catching a repertory screening of La Dolce Vita a few years back, I was struck by how deliberately Fellini’s vision of the sweet life etches away at the soul of the audience and its drifting protagonist, inevitably giving way to a desperate, disturbing, misogynist outburst by the film’s end, making the audience I was with feel like they had experienced the arc of a night-long party from fun to debauchery to hungover regret. And while I have not had the pleasure of seeing Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in a theater, the film is so repeatedly transfixing and hypnotic in its depiction of “real time” feminine labor – though it is not real time, but another example of a film that uniquely condenses, concretizes and extends time. Perhaps Andy Warhol’s structuralist works like Empire and Sleep are still the closest we’ll get to a cinematic depiction to events as they unfold in more quotidian daily life.

For in cinema there is no “real time.” Time is inherently and powerfully manipulated and rendered relative through the machinations of the medium. Experiencing that firsthand is an ever-greater rarity as the movie theater continues to recede from the center of the narrative cinematic experience. Interstellar may be, as a genre entry, a work of futurism designed to encourage a sense of wonder and possibility through the utilities of technologies not yet manifest. But in cinematic terms, the film is old school, relying on practical effects, celluloid photography and an emphasis on the theatrical experience to produce meaning and significance.

Though it’s a film about the 21st century and beyond, Interstellar feels like a reminder from the 20th century that cinema, traditionally understood, can transport audiences through time in ways unattainable elsewhere.