This post contains massive spoilers about Interstellar. Read no further if you have not seen the film.
In the 2012 documentary Side by Side, which examines the shift from celluloid to digital filmmaking, Christopher Nolan, of all the directors interviewed, is the staunchest in his pro-celluloid stance. “A transition starts with people offering a new choice,” he says, “but it finishes with taking the old choice away.”
That sentiment resounds in Nolan’s Interstellar, which is also concerned with a transition, from a dying Earth to a new planet. Michael Caine’s Professor Brand has two plans for saving humanity. In Plan A, Brand will solve an equation that will allow him to transport Earth’s population through a wormhole. In Plan B, everyone on Earth will die but the species will survive embryonically and start a colony on a new world. In an echo of what Nolan says about film technology, Plan A is eventually revealed as a false option.
That Interstellar is a film about film hasn’t gone unnoticed. Watching a movie projected from fat chunks of celluloid, you can’t really miss the double meaning in Professor Brand’s quotation of Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The death of film has also clearly been on Nolan’s mind. Not only has he used his box-office clout to bring back celluloid on a substantial scale, but Interstellar’s website also offers an accessible breakdown of the different analog and digital formats, publicizing differences in quality that many moviegoers didn’t notice as theaters quietly converted to digital projection.
Nolan’s format of choice is 70mm IMAX, formerly known as just plain IMAX, before IMAX launched an unrelated digital-projection technology in 2008. But the movie also plays smoothly and beautifully in five-perforation 70mm, which Paul Thomas Anderson used for The Master. It’s perhaps no coincidence that both 70mm formats made their marks at the height of the space age, a pivotal period in the backstory of the film. The majority of 70mm films were produced between the mid-’50s and the early ’70s. IMAX made its debut at the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal.
In Interstellar, the achievements of this era have been suppressed. Murph’s teacher (Collette Wolfe) complains that Murph (Mackenzie Foy and later Jessica Chastain) is using the old “federal textbooks,” which have been replaced, to read about NASA and the “useless machines” of the space race. She says it’s important to leave the “excess and wastefulness of the 20th century” behind. (Digital projection, a technology that purported to be less wasteful than celluloid, began its rollout around 1999.)
Interstellar is, in both form and content, a passionate celebration of “useless machines.” The narrative emphasizes analog communication through binary pings, Morse code, and the second hand of a watch. TARS’s readouts look like PET computer text. The Endurance resembles a giant sprocket. When Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) makes an emergency docking, he must put two ships in precise rotational synchronization — the kind of issue that might be familiar to an old-time projectionist.
While the story doesn’t posit a 1-to-1 parallel between the survival of celluloid and the survival of the species, there is the legitimate possibility that, as labs close and we’re left with the shorter lifespans of digital-storage formats, we’ll be forced to leave large swaths of cinema history behind. (As Nolan notes in Side by Side, “There are no archival formats worth anything in the digital realm.”) Professor Brand says that Murph’s generation will be the last to survive on Earth. In the lingo of a film production workflow, the term generation refers to a successive stage of printing.
Movies, of course, have always been a form of time travel: We age, but screen characters do not. Interstellar even takes us on a sort of tour of the medium’s post-silent-era history, showcasing the way we’ve filmed the past (in its Dorothea Lange Depression sequences) and the future (in its numerous allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey). In one sequence, Cooper even turns into a filmgoer of sorts: He cries, with light flickering on his face, watching transmissions that have accrued over the previous 23 years. Fortunately, the clips are well preserved.
In the climactic sequence, the best evidence that Interstellar is a kind of allegory about celluloid, Cooper enters the tesseract and sees time rendered as a physical dimension, something he can manipulate and move backward and forward. The visual design — with bands of moving light, boxy windows that allow Cooper to see in the past, and vertical lines that look quite a bit like celluloid scratch marks — strongly evokes a film strip in motion.
Seen with analog projection, Interstellar plays like celluloid’s last stand: the Lazarus-like resurrection of a medium written off for dead.