I think it’s fair to say that in recent years, Christopher Nolan has become a victim of his own success. Ever since Memento — and Batman Begins to a much greater degree — it seems like everyone has been expecting Nolan to reinvent cinema. And not just once, but with every film he makes. It’s certainly not without reason: Nolan is a highly skilled filmmaker and he’s one of the few people in Hollywood with the leverage and creativity to try and make the next great intellectual masterpiece with an original premise and a hundred-million-dollar budget.
But ever since Inception came out to such a befuddled response and The Dark Knight Rises left fans underwhelmed (to say nothing of his extremely divisive cinematic godson, Man of Steel), something weird has been happening. Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk backlash, looking for flaws to call attention to just because he’s popular now. Maybe he has so much clout that no one will try to say no to him. Maybe he’s under so much pressure to try coming up with something new and brilliant that he ends up nurturing ideas that only make sense within the confines of his own skull. Hell, maybe it’s all or none of the above, who am I to know?
But something with Nolan definitely went awry at some point. After seeing Interstellar, there isn’t a doubt in my mind.
The premise should have been a simple one. Humanity has completely destroyed Earth, so now we have to go and find a new home. That bare-bones premise is already loaded with potential for themes of loss, hope, risk, our obligations to each other as human beings, the power of science and creativity, and so on. Yet Nolan just had to go and make it far more complicated than it needed to be.
For starters, we open on a world that’s become overrun by dust storms and disease. Very few people are educated, to the point where children are actively encouraged to go into agriculture instead of science and engineering. The logic goes that humanity needs food more than it needs new inventions, despite the fact that conventional farming — due to the aforementioned blights and dust storms — has become a completely futile endeavor. So either all of humanity has completely given up or they’ve all suddenly became stone-stupid.
For one thing, this stretches suspension of disbelief right from the get-go. For another thing, it means that our mission to the stars is actively being hamstrung by most of humanity. We need a working spaceship that’s capable of travelling at faster-than-light speeds before we can have a story, and how are we supposed to have that when NASA is understaffed and underfunded to the point where it barely exists?
Well, our characters have to use a wormhole that conveniently opened up at pretty much exactly the same time when the Earth started dying out. And the wormhole opens up to a different galaxy with a dozen planets that may or may not be fit for human life. Even better, our protagonist (Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey), is a former space shuttle pilot who finds a top secret NASA facility. How does he find it? Magic. I’m not even kidding. The coordinates are handed down in such a way that it really does look like the Hand of God, and none of the characters can figure out why.
The plot repeatedly hinges on deus ex machina miracles, hoping we’ll be invested enough in the story to keep watching and see if we get an explanation. Then the explanation comes, and it’s a huge pile of bullshit that makes even less sense.
All throughout the movie, I kept asking “Why?” over and over. Why do characters act as they do? Why is “gravity” being used interchangeably with “magic?” Why does the movie have a sequence near the end that’s clearly trying so hard to imitate 2001: A Space Odyssey? Who the hell could possibly think that it would be a good idea to try and imitate 2001: A Space Odyssey? And perhaps most importantly, why is this hard science fiction movie being used to express the notion that love can quite literally transcend time and space?!
The answers to these questions range from incoherent to nonexistent, and the questions’ existence is problematic to begin with. There are so many disparate ideas in this movie and a lot of them fail to mesh together, but by God, does Nolan commit to each and every one of them.
Say what you will about Christopher Nolan, but he doesn’t do anything halfway. As with so many of his other movies, this one has ideas and plot twists that couldn’t possibly have looked good on paper, yet Nolan powers through them with such determination that he almost — almost — sells it. If nothing else, he creates something that looks astounding in the process.
The film is so epic in scope that I’m honestly getting exhausted just thinking about it. The production design is uniformly astounding, though Nolan’s impeccable skill with a camera and his flair for special effects both help a lot. Everything about this movie, from the suits to the spaceships, from the different planetscapes to all the wonders of space travel, looks impossibly good. Particular mention is due to TARS and CASE (respectively voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart), a couple of monolithic robots who can configure themselves into pretty much any shape to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. They also provide a bit of welcome — but not overdone — comic relief, which is a plus.
An IMAX screening would certainly not be for the faint of heart. The movie was jaw-dropping enough on a standard screen, for God’s sake. Additionally, Hans Zimmer’s score was pure cacophony from start to finish, and I’d hate to hear what it would sound like on deafening IMAX speakers.
Then we have the cast. I was honestly quite disappointed in Matthew McConaughey’s performance, specifically because his presence was so distracting. Maybe it’s the southern drawl or the distinctive attitude, but I could never bring myself to forget that I was watching a Matthew McConaughey performance rather than a character. Compare that to Anne Hathaway, who does a fantastic job acting against him as the female lead. As for Jessica Chastain, this is probably the weakest role I’ve seen her in to date. That’s not to say she’s bad, just that I’ve seen her done far better work in the past and I know she could have done better work in this picture. Such a shame. Michael Caine also appears, but I won’t even comment on him; you should know what you’re getting with Caine by this point, especially since he’s been in every single Christopher Nolan movie since Batman Begins.
John Lithgow puts in a memorable performance, Topher Grace appears out of nowhere, and Matt Fucking Damon shows up in the back half to steal the whole damn show. Wes Bentley appears for a brief yet thankless role, ditto for Casey Affleck. The latter is sort of perplexing, since Affleck and Chastain are both playing McConaughey’s kids, yet Cooper’s daughter is so much more important to the plot for no apparent reason. Huh.
Speaking of which, I should point out that the theory of relativity has a way of making time very complicated. Because gravity accelerates time, you see, our space travelers age at a very different rate as those back on Earth. This is why Cooper is only ever played by McConaughey while Cooper’s daughter goes from Mackenzie Foy to Jessica Chastain to Ellyn Burstyn before the movie’s over. I didn’t want to believe the reviews when I read that Inception had a more straightforward narrative, but all the time differences have a way of mucking up the plot. To say nothing of all the unanswered questions and unquestioned answers.
Ultimately, I respect Interstellar far more than I like it. I commend Christopher Nolan for his ambition, and he certainly made a dazzling picture with creative visuals if nothing else. Additionally, this was clearly made with the goal of encouraging the audience to keep supporting NASA and further scientific advancements, which greatly endears the film to me. Unfortunately, those good intentions are all for naught if the film presents advanced scientific theory without enough effort to try and make the concepts accessible to a laymans’ audience. Moreover, the movie presents the theme of “love conquers all” in such a ridiculous and saccharine way that it sends the entire plot flying off the rails by the time the climax rolls around.
I maintain that Christopher Nolan is a great filmmaker and I’m sure he’ll deliver a true masterpiece someday. But this movie isn’t it. I’m sure there will be plenty of film students out there who will watch the film umpteen times and dissect it two dozen ways from Sunday, and more power to them. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else, however.