Interstellar and Ida: The Sound and Silence of Exploration

Two movies this year represent the opposite ends of a cinematic spectrum. One is on the cutting edge of technology in IMAX, with huge visual and sound effects, taking the audience far out into space. The other is a black-and-white film shot in boxy Academy ratio, a quiet focus on one individual.

Interestingly, both deal with the similar theme of exploration, albeit from contrasting perspectives. Interstellar leads us to outer space; Ida brings us inward to explore the inner space of the self.

This is not a full review of Interstellar but just some ripples from my viewing experience. Nevertheless, the following discussion may contain spoilers, so consider this a caution. I did write a review of Ida, you can read it here.

First it’s the buzz, then it’s a bang. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has landed with a weekend opening of $50 million in box office sales; interestingly, still second to Disney’s Big Hero 6‘s $56 million. Nolan is no stranger to mind-boggling productions, Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), and Inception (2010); and then there are the legendary Batman/Dark Knight series, but Interstellar is his most grandiose… and loudest.

Interstellar

Some time in the future, we see Earth barely habitable. Gravitational abnormalities have offset the functioning of this meagre planet, which has deteriorated into an uninhabitable dust bowl. Space exploration is prohibited, for the mere survival on Earth has become the priority. The younger generation is encouraged to be farmers, growing corn mainly as it seems to be the hardiest of crops.

Even NASA has gone underground, yes, an alarming irony. Farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and astronaut, stumbles upon it and is quickly persuaded by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to come out again to pilot the space craft ‘Endurance’ to seek out new lands, for the sake of his children, as they could be the last generation on Earth. Further, Brand’s ambition echoes Cooper’s ideals that humans are explorers and pioneers, not caretakers of this dusty land.

To accompany the exploratory spirit, we hear the ear-piercing blastoff of ‘Endurance’ into space. I was in a ‘regular’ theatre, not IMAX, and not the UltraAVX (Audio Visual Experience), so it was bearable for me. For realistic depiction, I can totally understand why such volume is needed. But I did find there were moments where the sound had drowned out the dialogues at the most critical points.

Regardless of such mishaps, the music is commendable. Noland’s music collaborator in the past, film composer Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack exudes more than realism. His score involves an ensemble combining 34 strings, 24 woodwinds, 4 pianos, and a 60 voice choir. But the major, humungous sound comes from a 90 year-old pipe organ in London’s 12th Century Temple Church.

I’m glad the pipe organ is the instrument of choice and not, say, electronic heavy metal band with guitars and drums, because loudness is not a self-serving end. The huge, stunning sound of the pipe organ evokes sacred, cathedral music, and here, the cathedral of space. Into the vast and lofty universe, human exploration is more than mere colonization. Space travel is the vehicle by which infinitesimal human searches for the ultimate or to attempt comprehending minutely the grand design. The huge sound of the organ literally vibrated under my feet, aptly depicting our awe-inspiring universe. I must stress too that there were quieter moments as well, I especially enjoyed the flowing strings sending the spacecraft towards Saturn like a cosmic ballet.

In their collaboration process, Zimmer and Nolan may had been fascinated by the intricate machinery that is the construction of the organ, or the pipes that look like rocket burners, or its loudness best to depict the grandiose human venture of space exploration, or as Zimmer puts it, to “celebrate science”. But maybe unbeknownst to them, that deep human quest in search of the Infinite could well be the hidden inspiration that sparks the sounds in Interstellar, just like in the movie, unbeknownst to Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain), Cooper’s scientifically-minded daughter, a well-intended ‘ghost’ tries to communicate with her by leaving hints in codes, guiding her onto a purposeful path.

Coincidentally (or not) the recent groundbreaking Rosetta’s Philae probe landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has ignited jubilation not just because of man’s achievement, but also, as a news announcer said, the probe could bring answers to questions such as ‘how did we get here?’, ‘are we alone?’ or even solve the enigma of ‘life itself.’

Throughout the movie, we hear Cooper mention ‘They’ many times. ‘They’ have led him to discover the underground NASA site; ‘They’ had constructed the several dimensions, the time/space reality… His daughter Murph has asked him, “Who are ‘They’?” Cooper might have the inkling of who ‘They’ are at the end of the movie: ‘We brought ourselves here,’ he says. He might be the agent, but there still remains the question of the a priori Initiator: who had constructed the different dimensions to start with, the time/space continuum, the planets, the stars, galaxies, wormholes, or, gravity?

I feel the organ music is just right for the ultimate exploration.

**

In contrast to the sound of Interstellar, Ida is a film that offers silence.

Anna has been raised as an orphan in a Catholic convent in post-war Poland. At eighteen, on the verge of her vow to become a nun, Mother Superior tells Anna to seek out her only, closest relative, her Aunt Wanda. The film follows Anna’s trip to the city. In her uniting with her Aunt, she also discovers her past, and a totally different identity. Her parents were Jewish, killed in the Holocaust; her birth name is Ida Lebenstein.

With her Aunt Wanda, Ida goes on a road trip to seek out those who might know her family’s past. On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, a jazz musician called Lis, who exposes Ida to a new tune, and a different set of pursuits. Her cynical, life weary Aunt also reveals to her what other lives are like. With the opening up of possibilities comes the burden of choice.

Ida and Lis

The film is shot in black and white, boxy Academy ratio like early films. It carries minimal sound, no score, sparse dialogues, but the images speak with deep poignancy. In the flow of human history, what is one individual anyway? But what responsibilities one has to bear for one’s decisions. What leads Aunt Wanda to jump out the window? Or Lis to go on travelling, playing the saxophone gig after gig? Ida or Anna, what does each name hold in terms of meaning and purpose?

Director Pawel Pawlikowski had done post-graduate work in philosophy and literature at Oxford. His background might have led him to explore with a contemplative mind. He must have known too that the self is a vast space for exploration, as unknown and inexplicable as outer space, yet no less a subject of intrigue.

And personal identity, another realm to decipher. Is identity determined by birth, race and ethnicity, or something else? Does one have a choice? How does one define oneself? Is there anything worthwhile to pursue that transcends traditions or even religion? Maybe the best way to explore that inner space is through silence and a meditative mind. You don’t want to let the irrelevant sound drown out the relevant. Truth may just be hidden in a still, small voice.

**

Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Interstellar wins Visual Effects Oscar.

Feb. 21, 2015: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film at Indie Spirit Awards.

Jan. 15, 2015: 5 Oscar noms, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects

Dec. 11: Hans Zimmer gets a Golden Globe nom for Best Original Score
Ida gets a Golden Globe nom for Best Foreign Language Film

Dec. 7: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film and Agata Kulesza Best Supporting Actress at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics Circle

Related Post on Ripple Effects:

Ida’s Choice: Thoughts on Pawlikowski’s Ida

The Tree of Life by Terrence Malik

Notes on the Synthesis of Films, Art… Life?

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

20 thoughts on “Interstellar and Ida: The Sound and Silence of Exploration”

  1. Of the two films, “Ida” seems more compelling to me, even though I’m a big fan of space exploration, which NASA has seemed to have already given up on. Maybe the personal exploration of Ida seems more real. Thanks for this fascinating look at both films.

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    1. Cathy,

      I think you’ll enjoy Ida. It will be good to read up on some of its production background before watching it … like, the director found the girl Agata Trzebuchowska in a coffee shop. She was quiet, solitary, and reading a book. He knew right away he had found the right actor for the role. And, as someone with a science background, you just might be interested in Interstellar… or, maybe not. Here is another tidbit: the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is a consultant for and an executive producer of the movie. 😉

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  2. I am so glad you had a review on here for Interstellar. My hubby wants to see it and from the previews it did not hold much interest for me. I do not usually care for “space” movies but I will give this one a fair shot. Also because a friend of mine said it was good and we have similar tastes. But I had not heard of Ida! Oh my….right up my alley! I can’t wait to see that. It sounds awesome! Another cool movie I was very surprised I would like was The Artist. I was amazed at how well it was done! Did you see it… or like it?
    Thanks so much for taking time to review these! 🙂

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    1. Courtney,

      Ida is now Poland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the coming Oscars (Next Feb.) It has a good chance of being nominated. I sure hope it will go all the way to win the award; however, competition is keen. And yes, I’ve seen the Artist and really enjoyed it. You’re along that line, since both films were shot in Academy ratio, and b/w. If you’re interested, here’s my review of The Artist from a few years back. I hope you’ll have the chance to see Interstellar too, just for a comparison of the two ends of today’s cinematic offerings.

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  3. I missed Ida when it was at our local theatre so will have to wait until it’s on dvd but it’s a movie I want to see. Interstellar too, perhaps, although less so.

    I’m off to see St. Vincent this afternoon with Bill Murray (I’m not going to the cinema with Bill Murray, I’m sure you understood that!).

    Thanks for the interesting reviews as always!

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    1. Letizia,

      I too have gone to see St. Vincent with Bill Murray. 😉 And enjoyed it, surprisingly. Hope you’ll have the chance to see Ida. I have a hunch that you’re going to hear about it more as the Awards Season approaches. It’s Poland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category, and I think it has a good chance of getting a nomination.

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    1. Jeanne,

      Interstellar does make a strong argument for space exploration… The Philae probe landing on Comet 67P is something to cheer for and hopefully it will continue to send back photos.

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  4. Interesting coupling of films here, I would not thought of connecting the two. I saw Intersteller in IMAX and the music and sound effects reverberated through my whole body. I felt like at some points a panic attack was inevitable…what a way to create suspense! I too loved the pipe organ Zimmer used…it surely evoked a cathedral…and in some ways a horror film.

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    1. David,

      I wouldn’t have thought of bringing these two together if not because of the concept of exploration, one outer space, the other inner. Also, I really appreciate in this hi-tech age, there are still filmmakers who’d opt to shoot quiet, meditative films in b/w, Academy ratio. BTW, The Grand Budapest Hotel is also a boxy film. Now that’s one I’d like to see a comeback during the Awards Season. As for Interstellar, the whole house shook when that organ blasted, walls and floor… don’t think I can handle the IMAX. 😉

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  5. I’d watch Ida, but have no taste for Interstellar. I know that part of my problem with Interstellar is living in the midst of NASA country, where we’ve had to watch the government dismantling our space program, piece by piece. I’ll not chronicle the problems, but they are real. Perhaps a new administration , in a new time, can reinvigorate the exploratory urge.

    It was quite startling to see the name “Wanda.” That was my mother’s name, and it’s not at all common. At least it hasn’t been. I’m seeing it more often now, but once a year or so still isn’t frequent!

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    1. Linda,

      Interstellar is a voice advocating for space exploration. It just might be trying to stop NASA from going into oblivion. So maybe in that sense you might like to support it. 😉 I doubt if Ida would come back onto the big screens but hope so. If not, you’ll have to wait for the DVD. I have a hunch that it will be on the short list for Best Foreign Language Film come Oscar nominations. It is Poland’s official entry.

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  6. Ida sounds wonderful. I will look out for it. A coworker saw Interstellar over the weekend and commented she liked the movie but she thought the music was really amazing which surprised her because she never paid much attention to film scores before.

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  7. I remember your review of Ida and had hoped to see it while it was here “one night only” in a film fest but alas, it didn’t play out. I’m thinking that as wonderful as the music sounds, Interstellar isn’t my thing — just can’t get into space and/or sci-fi. But the score sounds terrific.

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    1. Jeanie,

      I know what you mean. I’m not particularly a Sci-Fi fan either. And I think you’d enjoy Ida. Watch for the DVD then. I sure hope it will be shortlisted at the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film category.

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  8. I had the choice of Interstellar or Mockingjay this week we chose Mockingjay loved it. I want to see Interstellar and the Imitation Game from the trailers and your review. I’ll look out for Ida too thank you 😊

    Like

    1. Charlotte,

      I’m waiting for Imitation Game too, anything from Benedict Cumberbatch. 😉 As for Interstellar, it’s not for everyone, to be honest. I know some just aren’t into Sci-Fi’s. But I like the actors so watching their performance was a pleasure.

      Like

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