Why Interstellar's Organ Needs to Be So Loud

Hans Zimmer's score drowns out dialogue and has already broken an Imax theater, but there's thematic significance in all that noise.

Paramount Pictures

BRAAAM. Razor blades against piano keys. “Rrrmph Emphrhgh Drhtghfml”! Over the course of five films, Christopher Nolan's collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer has produced some of the most iconic sounds and incomprehensible characters in the action movie lexicon, for better or for worse. Their teamwork has made cinema a more visceral action experience; it has also routinely split moviegoers’ eardrums.

That’s the case with the score of Interstellar, which, not even one week out in theaters, has already proved divisive. An opening-week survey shows that worldwide viewers are complaining the volume drowns out the dialogue. In San Francisco, there are reports that the movie broke an Imax theater. And while many of these problems had to do with the thruster-infused sound effects, Zimmer's organ has been routinely blamed.

Yet there’s a method behind the deafening volume of the Interstellar organ, which should not be dismissed as another instance of Zimmer contriving a grating action-movie sound, or Christopher Nolan failing another movie with poor sound design. In this case, the booming collaboration makes total sense. In the context of a movie that embraces the idea that emotions and feeling are the most important dimensions of human experience, the overwhelming nature of the score is all part of the way Interstellar works as a cohesive whole.

Over the course of the film, the core five-note melody (the soundtrack is released on November 17th, but for a taste listen to Trailer #3) is expressed in different ways. The score is an ensemble effort combining 34 strings, 24 woodwinds, four pianos, and 60 choir singers, all of which get their time to sound off.

But the starring, and most meaningful voice, is the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ, currently housed at the 12th-century Temple Church in London and played in the movie by its director of music, Roger Sayer. As Zimmer recently told the Film Music Society, the organ was chosen for its significance to science: From the 17th century to the time of the telephone exchange, the pipe organ was known as the most complex man-made device ever invented. Its physical appearance reminded him of space ship afterburners. And the airiness of the sound slipping through pipes replicates the experience of suited astronauts, where every breath is precious (a usual preoccupation with sci-fi movies that is taken very literally in Zimmer’s music, which also features the exhalations of his human choir).

Zimmer’s score—which alternates between a 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Minimalism—of course has an element of spirituality to it. But the organ does more than just recall churches. From the movie’s earliest moments, it performs some very necessary narrative legwork for the overburdened screenplay. When it kicks in as Cooper chases down an Indian surveillance drone, a light touch on the organ keys, paired with rousing strings, creates a whirling, ethereal sound that channels Cooper’s interior life. The giddy tone it sets demonstrates that Cooper is a risk-taker and adventurer, which solves the screenplay’s early problem of establishing emotional motive for Cooper to leave his children.

As organs are wont to do, this one resonates. And there are moments when the decibels at which it does can only be described as an action-movie crutch. The organ gets a noticeably more heavy-handed touch as the plot becomes ever-more preposterous. It blasts when the elder Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine, hands over the keys to the spaceship—and his life’s work—to a farmer (Cooper) who presumably hasn’t piloted anything except a plow in a while. It booms when Ann Hathaway’s younger Dr. Brand shakes hands with “Them,” heavily foreshadowing events to come. Some of these moments necessitate the extra spiritualistic oomph, but it’s often the case that when the plot turns implausible, Nolan and Zimmer ramp up the organ.

But the volume—and the way it occasionally drowns out everything else—seems to be the point: This is a movie where emotion is the overriding principal, just as Anne Hathaway says midway through when she muses, “Love is the one thing that we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” The way the film is constructed, Hans Zimmer delivers on its transcendent promise. His score supersedes the nonsensical aspects, conveying a sonic experience so powerful it overwhelms the tiny, logic-based details.

Nolan knows when his sound design is poor, but he’s adamant that it makes a point. When Bane was deemed incomprehensible by test audiences in The Dark Knight Rises, the director staunchly refused to re-do the dubbing: As he told The Hollywood Reporter, he wanted to make that point that the visuals were just as important as the audio “otherwise it’s just radioplay.” Another exec close to Nolan added that abstracted sound makes for a more participatory cinematic experience. A comparison of the test prologue and the final cut of the film show that Nolan did indeed clarify Bane's voice, albeit very quietly and without an official statement.

The deliberate obscurity of the sound—a tactic also used by David Fincher—has been attributed to a new trend in blockbuster filmmaking called the sonic soup, when cerebral directors champion realistic sounds so the viewer’s required to be at attention to understand.

But the “sonic soup” doesn’t apply to Interstellar. Space, obviously, has no sound. That’s a fact Nolan embraces with his mysterious space-organ, as with all of the movie’s other sounds. There’s a scene in which Cooper, roused briefly from a cryogenic nap, finds his fellow astronaut Romilly (David Gyasi) suffering from motion sickness. Cooper shakes out his earbuds and hands them to Romilly. As Romilly eases into the organic sounds of crickets and rain, the film cuts to a shot of the ship suspended in deep space, the earthly atmospherics continuing all the while, artificially creating a brief calm. With his audio, as with all things, Nolan doesn’t aspire to realism; he aspires to be remembered.

While Interstellar contains some of Nolan’s most noticeable moments of a pure booming score, it also contains some of his most flagrant uses of silence. The juxtaposition is both meaningful and effective. Interstellar is all about humans coming to terms with a future in five dimensions instead of three. Appreciating it means bearing with all the dimensions of Nolan’s epic filmmaking, thunderous, theater-shaking organ included.