Starring- Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Bill Irwin, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Mackenzie Foy, Timothee Chalamet, Leah Cairns, Topher Grace, Josh Stewart, Matt Damon
Director- Christopher Nolan
PG-13- some intense perilous action and brief strong language
I have to confess that Interstellar, easily one of my most anticipated movies of the year, comes as a bit of a disappointment. Some people are going to find that vindicating. Anyone who accumulates the loyal, sometimes rabid fanbase the size of Christopher Nolan’s is going to wind up under unusually heavy scrutiny; naturally, some people aren’t going to like what they find, and Nolan certainly has a small but incredibly vocal opposition.
However, I’d like to think we can all agree on one thing — Christopher Nolan makes movies like he’s tinkering with explosives. Eventually, it’s going to blow up in his face. You can’t say he isn’t ambitious; he’s always been reaching for the stars — here, literally. Interstellar comes close to attempting a thesis statement on the meaning of human existence altogether, and there aren’t many directors courageous enough to take a stab at that. If Interstellar doesn’t get anywhere near its ambitions, well, of course it doesn’t. But in the moments where it comes closest, where its grasp very nearly catches up with its reach, Interstellar is transcendent.
In a day-after-tomorrow future, Earth is a dying world. It’s become a giant, swirling Dust Bowl. Blight has destroyed most of the crops; only corn still grows and even then, not for much longer.
Former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is just old enough to remember a time before, when the human race was still fascinated by the prospect of exploration and advancement. Now, just about everyone — including him — has been forced into farming. Human progress has stagnated.
Cooper is still prone to stargazing, however, and when his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), discovers a gravitic anomaly in her own bedroom, Cooper realizes it’s a message. It guides him to what appears to be the last NASA station, under the command of Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who has for several years now been assembling missions into outer space in search of a new planet to sustain the human race. The latest one is in need of a pilot, and Cooper is perfect for the job.
And so, leaving his family behind for what he knows might well be years, Cooper and a small crew including Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), sets off to check on the last undiscovered worlds that might be capable of sustaining life. Time for them runs more slowly, and the world they left behind ages without them. Soon, it’s an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) running the show at NASA — and realizing that without solving the problem of time and space itself, the mission will come far too late to save everyone on Earth.
I don’t know whether or not it’s fair to say that there’s been all that much debate surrounding Nolan’s work — at least, not substantially more than any other film. His opposition has always seemed to be a vocal minority. Nevertheless, I should make clear that I’ve been a devoted fan for years. The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception — none of these films is entirely without fault, but I could watch any one of them over and over again without getting tired of it. Heck, I even defended The Dark Knight Rises, kind of. (My review of it reads extremely positive, but repeat viewings have dulled my enthusiasm somewhat.)
Interstellar was one of the bigger deals for me this year. I think it was inevitable that it was going to let me down at least a little. Still, I’m disappointed that it let me down as much as it did.
But on those moments when the writing, the direction, the characters, the acting, and the themes are in lockstep and working as well as they possibly can, you definitely start to see the shadow of what it could’ve been — sometimes even the light casting that shadow.
Interstellar is this big, ambitious, unwieldy thing, and the fact that it’s as contained as it is constitutes some kind of miracle, especially since it’s Nolan’s most significant step yet out of his usual wheelhouse. While his films have taken a slightly more optimistic bent post-Inception, Interstellar is the first thing he’s made that leaves his typically grim approach behind almost entirely. It was originally pitched as a Steven Spielberg project, and you can see that all over it — it’s a movie that, while acknowledging some of the darkness of the present and even the near future, takes an optimistic view of humanity’s ultimate fate; it’s built partially on good, old-fashioned sci-fi adventuring but mainly on an uplifting tale of the joy of discovery and the wonders of the universe.
And Interstellar has no shortage of wonders. It is, on one hand, simply an extremely well-designed piece of science fiction. The technology has a distinct look and feel and seems, for the most part, like a fairly logical extension of our current reality. There are a couple of robots along for the ride that don’t resemble anything we’ve seen in the past — they’re structurally like that giant computer IBM entered in Jeopardy a few years ago but nevertheless manage to register as characters worth caring about. There’s also something about sci-fi technology that not only looks unique but also moves in a certain way — there’s a dance-like fluidity to the way the parts interact, from the cockpit that rotates within the larger structure of the ship to the way the robots move by rolling like tossed jacks. Interstellar builds its futuristic world quite well — on Earth as well as in space. The first act is one of the film’s strongest segments. Despite some occasional meandering, it captures the state of humanity quite well and without beating you over the head with everything. It’s a world that’s largely given up on progress and has, as a result, regressed a bit technologically — except on the farming front, while miles-long fields of corn are mowed by complex robotic combines and other minor artificial intelligences. Most people aren’t aware that the world is dying, but there is a mild sense of unease hanging over everything — the last of the crops are dying, dust storms plow through once-busy towns with alarming regularity, and people are getting worried about what must be coming next.
Nolan shows uncharacteristic restraint in sketching out this world. It would be easy, in this pre-apocalyptic setting, for him to slide into the almost pathological darkness that characterizes most of his work. But here, he’s smart enough to allow things to play out with enough of a sense of normalcy that the desperate world of the future still feels like a place inhabited by ordinary people going about their everyday business. Actually, generally speaking, very little of Interstellar has the tonal appearance of a Nolan film; it is, as previously stated, like a Spielberg film with a few distinctly Nolan twists.
Of course, Interstellar finds far more wonders in the distant reaches of space. Nolan might not be anywhere near the visual stylist that Alfonso Cuaron is, but Interstellar comes very close to Gravity in the way it captures in the incomprehensible vastness of space. And Interstellar doesn’t restrict itself to Earth’s upper atmosphere and thus has twice as much to work with — chief among them the rivers of light bending ceaselessly into a black hole at the edge of the new galaxy the crew explores. The planets they visit feature such sights as a frozen landscape of clouds and — featured prominently in the trailers — tidal wives that stretch miles into the sky. There were moments when I wished Nolan would dwell a bit longer on these discoveries — he’s not a notoriously impatient director, but it sometimes seems as though he holds most of his shots just barely too short for the emotion to come across. Still, he’s an able enough director that the ample spectacle on display in Interstellar mostly sticks.
Of course, for me, the majority of his appeal has always been his ambitions as a storyteller. He’s never been perfect, but he’s largely able to write something well-structured and thematically interesting that always ends up in a different place than it starts and isn’t totally predictable in every detail. Interstellar represents a departure, though, as it’s one of those rare occasions when he’s found himself filming someone else’s script. Maybe that’s why so much of my disappointment in Interstellar is centered there. At the same time, a lot of its flaws are things he’s struggled with for years, even in his best films.
Don’t get me wrong — Interstellar is still a highly ambitious piece of storytelling and one that sporadically strikes some incredibly strong notes. It has a strong opening third and an almost-as-strong final third. That middle section can meander a bit, but even it isn’t awful. Unfortunately, there are just enough things amiss throughout that Interstellar always seems barely less resonant than it wants to be.
Nolan has always had an issue with the humanity of his characters — they get the barest personalities and motivations, usually connected well enough to involve you and complete the film but rarely deep enough that they could carry everything entirely on their own. Interstellar is more of the same — there are some engaging characters scattered throughout (the relationship between Cooper and Murph, which is, to be fair, the film’s most important by far is actually quite effective), but most of them are sketched very broadly, and not in a particularly lively or energetic way. It says a lot that the robots rate as some of the most likable and “human” characters on the crew.
Nolan has also had problems in the past with his ability to focus on something not only intellectually but also emotionally. He’s a sharp guy and a pretty solid structural writer, so his films very rarely leave you hanging, but if he has to deviate from the course in order to get something across, he’ll happily do so (I’m thinking, for example, of the accidental fascism/authoritarianism The Dark Knight occasionally indulges in order to make a larger philosophical point). There’s nothing quite that troubling in Interstellar, but the film gets so wrapped up in the visceral power of space exploration and all that associated imagery that it forgets how big a part of this story Murph is. Her actions have a huge role in the film’s thematic endgame, but the script reduces them to boring, science-y stuff that doesn’t get explained very well and mostly happens off-screen. It doesn’t spend a whole lot of time fleshing out adult Murph as a character, either, so the conclusion the film reaches about humanity’s relationship with the universe, while complete and not entirely incorrect, rings a bit hollow. The revelations and lessons learned are either funneled through the wrong characters or undersold within the right ones. The movie also has a hard time dramatizing them sometimes — the stop on the ocean planet, while visually quite impressive, feels somewhat empty because of how transparently it’s only there to move the plot along so we can get to some of the emotional meat.
Those thematic undercurrents also present their own problems. I think Nolan has always had a slight problem with taking weird poetry breaks in order to have the characters basically verbalize the themes — think Gary Oldman’s monologue at the end of The Dark Knight — but for the most part, it doesn’t matter. He’s still pretty good at having his ideas turn up as concrete elements of his story and characters, so they come across organically. Interstellar manages to come full circle thematically — and that at least makes it entertaining — but it swaths its ideas in so much symbolism, metaphor, and poetic philosophical talks that they lose most of their real-world application. I don’t even disagree with what it’s saying — not at all, in fact. But it expresses that solely through weird fortune cookie nuggets, pseudoscience, and outright nonsense instead of trying to render it through organic, real interactions and situations. For my part, a movie that’s thematically successful is one that essentially sets out to prove its point — not just to invoke structured symbolism or indulge in the odd poetic monologue. It’s about taking that thesis and testing it as honestly as you can through your characters and what happens to them. Of course, the rules are different depending on the movie you’re making — a dumb action movie is going to have to handle that material differently from an art movie. As far-reaching and ambitious as Interstellar is, though, I feel as though the rule applies. It’s not enough for me that I can take just about everything that happens in it and determine exactly what it symbolizes in the grand scheme of things. I want to then be able to take those elements in my mind, turn them over, and find that what the film pointed me toward was inevitable. Interstellar doesn’t do that. And I say again — I actually agree with what it’s saying (or at least, what I perceive that it’s saying), and there are a thousand ways the film might’ve included something more concrete alongside the symbolism and philosophy. It just doesn’t, so instead, the movie’s more an interesting subject for a term paper than something I found genuinely challenging.
Of course, I nitpick because I love. If this started to sound like a deconstruction of Christopher Nolan, know that it wasn’t intended to be. I can list, at length, the flaws of the filmmakers I admire most in far more detail than those in whom I have no interest. Those flaws, unfortunately, are more pronounced in Interstellar than in a lot of the other movies he’s made.
Still, he’s ambitious, and Interstellar might be the boldest thing he’s made to date. That he got anywhere at all with it is more a testament to his strengths than its significant flaws are to his weaknesses. Interstellar is extremely uneven and pales in comparison to his best work. Frankly, I don’t see myself coming back to it more than one or two times — unless my opinion changes radically. But it’s still bold, innovative filmmaking, and it needs to be seen at least once — preferably on the biggest screen possible.