Don’t be fooled, Interstellar is no blockbuster. Nor is it the critical darling think piece so many expected it to be. It seems crafted to engulf the minds of the critical community in nit-picky debates about minute details; destined to conjure up various theories and interpretations (a la Inception) but I don’t see that happening. For all its loopholes, space travel and time relativity, it’s relatively straightforward. Almost shockingly so. That’s not to say that it doesn’t aim for something more; for something meant to transcend your usual theatrical experience. Christopher Nolan reaches for the stars. He comes up short.
There’s no battles, no aliens, no ticking time bomb. Interstellar‘s a film about blackness and bleakness; dust storms and global scarcity; destiny and family. A gun doesn’t once appear on the screen. There’s not even really a villain so much as an antagonist with a competing view of the greater good and a finer tuned sense of self-preservation. The villain is in a sense time itself. And Planet Earth. And dust.
At a critical juncture, Matthew McConaughey‘s Cooper convinces Anne Hathaway‘s Amelia that time is a precious resource. With a nearly three hour running time and a bulk of scenes this guy deems unnecessary, Nolan tends towards squandering said resource. Establishing shots are at first spent on Earth; Cooper’s a retired NASA pilot and now a farmer. His children Murph (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck) have only known a world of ashes and dust. Crops around the world have become infected and extinct. Corn is the last consumable vestige of survival on Earth and its kernelly goodness is fast fading. But as time bends onward, the whole scarcity act is swallowed up by the impending doom of super blustery dust storms; the harbinger of phlegmy coughs; humankind’s asthmatic nemesis. The corn supply isn’t quite in top shape but there’s apparently enough to go around to serve meals of corn fritters, corn on the cob and corn bread. The classic corn triple play.
When a gravitational anomaly sends Cooper and Murph to a top secret NASA base, Cooper is recruited to man a mission into the intergalactic unknown in hopes of discovering new resources and, ultimately, salvation for humankind. About as little time is spent on the logistical rationale behind Cooper showing up and shipping off within what seems like a matter of days as it is on Professor Brand’s (Michael Caine) uncompromising over-reliance on this has-been pilot. It makes about as much sense as Rambo showing up on the White House’s doorstep and being asked to lead the president (who in this case is obviously 1997 Harrison Ford) to the front lines of an ISIS mass beheading assault. I mean it’d be cool and all but what?
Utterly enraptured by the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Brand is all about doing things the “ungentle” way. He’s so Thomas-esque, the man is basically rage against the machine. So after one (1) meeting with ol’ Cooper, Brand’s got him strapped into a (must have been) multi-billion dollar top-secret aircraft set on a world-saving mission. Because anything that’s roughly as logical as Armageddon is apparently good to go for screenwriter bros Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.
And this comes down to the main issue of Interstellar: the Nolan Bro’s screenplay. For a usually straight-laced, sober duo, their scribemanship here has a prevailing feeling of being one bong rip too deep. It’s hard – if not entirely impossible – to defend some of the Nolans’ more hokey moments – the “love connection” speech, obviously telegraphed dialogue, the debatable “fifth dimension” scene, that ending… – and it all winds up feeling like a mixture of trying too hard and not trying hard enough. It’s at once Nolan’s most shamelessly sentimental film, but also his most emotionally honest. Only when it tips into a wholly saccharine realm, it turns entirely unbecoming. Once those thematically iffy moments bind themselves to the finale and become inextricably germane to the larger themes at play, Interstellar shows itself for being a half-baked, if fully beautiful, failed experiment in synthesizing the inimitable success of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That’s because Interstellar is an exercise in blue balls. It keeps getting so close to giving us what we wants and then shies away at the last moment; revealing a much less sexy underbelly as it goes. It’s an intimate human voyage through time and space, beset with little to no set pieces and made picture perfect with a massive budget and technical wizards hammering out intergalactic spacescapes the likes of none other. The pieces are all right; the whole just doesn’t come together as it should. You can almost smell its desire to be something more. The sting of it letting you down is palpable as it closes up shop and that’s partially what makes it the laudable misfire it is.
Seeing the film in one of seventy-one 70mm IMAX screening around the world imbued me with a great sense of privilege until I saw the actual picture. On Earth, it’s dusty. Grainy. Sometimes inexplicably unfocused. In space, it’s unreal. Otherworldly. Wormholes have never looked so sexy. The one hour of full-blown, in-your-face, pants-pissin’ IMAX shots does come around to save the day – justifying the costly asking price – though Hans Zimmer‘s theater-rumbling score often crosses the threshold into full blown audio assault if experienced in the large-picture, super-duper loud format. His low throbbing Gothic bass notes declare all out war on your eardrums as they crescendo and decrescendo. Turned down a notch lower, it’s one of the finest aspects of the film (a film that is more often than not a visual treat.) But like candy, the FX-heavy landscape doesn’t nourish a greater sense of thought-provoking reflection so much as sheer awe; nonetheless, it’s a thing to enjoy in all its savory nutritionlessness.
Nolan swings for the rafters and ends up splicing it just at the perfect angle where you can’t quite tell if it’s gonna be a home run or a foul ball. You hang in anticipation. And right at that moment of truth – in that prevailing reverent silence – the ball disappears into a wormhole. It’s hard to confirm whether Nolan’s latest is really an instance of Casey at Bat or, like 2001, his sci-fi opus will take years to fully digest, appreciate and understand. But I would tend towards the later not being the case. It is just heady and barely open-ended enough to stomach an argument for the other side. Though I’d have to likely also be offered corn bread.
The success and/or failure of Interstellar is hard to quantify. It’s grand and self-aggrandizing. It’s often more numb than it is smart. It’s a visual feast to behold with the emotional stakes to match. The talent both in front of and behind the camera (visual effects teams in particular) is rapturous and almost entirely engrossing. Though the “who’s who” of talent doesn’t ever pretend that Interstellar is a true actor’s film, McConaughey has a few scene where he dusts off his Oscar and lets it all hang out. When he does, hearts will break. But like a kid who ate too much candy and puked on a Picasso, Interstellar is only truly beautiful once you wipe all the muck off.
One thing seems certain: this will likely be the last time the studio system cuts Nolan a blank check to do with as he will. His directorial carte blanche will expire when it inevitably disappoints at the international box office. His license to kill will all but be revoked. It’s almost tragic but, time being a flat circle and all, it’s also inevitable. If only the Nolans bros had let Rust Cohle free to wax on time and stuff when they do decide to unleash their philosophical digressions. Apparently that’s just too much to ask.
With Interstellar, Nolan rages against the dying of the light, but like a theater minor without the proper know-how, he rages just a little too hard.