Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014
When George Melies made “A Trip to the Moon,” it was 67 years before humanity would actually visit the moon. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, comes over 40 years after arguably are greatest achievement in space travel, years after the space shuttle program was retired, and our at a time when our space program feels resigned to budget-cut rendered more pragmatism. This frustration, the feeling that we’re given up exploration out into the stars, is at the forefront of the first quarter of Interstellar. But there is another, very stark difference between the attitude of the two films; Melies was a magician. His trip to the moon wasn’t a prophecy or prediction, rather using space exploration as a way to enter into our imaginations. Nolan’s film is far more interested in the nuts and bolts of colonization but relents into messy attempts at saying something it doesn’t quite want to say. And that seems to be the problem I have with Interstellar: it’s lukewarm science fiction, neither hard no space opera.
The film (and yes, this was shot on film) is about Cooper, a NASA pilot turned farmer after a blight has destroyed most of the world’s crops. As a result, the earth will soon be uninhabitable. The dying earth subgenre is one of the more interesting to me in Sci-fi and there haven’t really been any major attempts to tell those stories on film…and this won’t really be one of them because rather quickly, through an impossibly difficult set of circumstances he is asked by what remains of NASA to pilot a ship through a newly discovered wormhole (if you watched Farscape this part was familiar territory) to find a new suitable home for humanity.
Christopher Nolan is an immensely talented technical director, but the majority of his films lack much character or emotional depth (I would contend Inception being the closest thing to an exception). I enjoy his films, and this isn’t a slight against him, I just don’t think those are elements he prioritizes; different directors value different things, like on the flip side you have someone like Clint Eastwood who prioritizes performance at the cost of technical miscues. The feeling I had watching Interstellar was that Christopher and his brother Jonathon were really enjoying playing with time dilation and relativity as challenges to plot mechanics; just as the dream layers in Inception, the act structure of The Prestige, or the reverse narrative of Memento. The problem is that what they filled their impressive narrative structure (the film uses a rather impressive, extended parallel edit [though the differing temporalities of the spaces of action brings up a rather heady question] towards the end of the film. Griffith is largely credited with developing parallel editing and the fact that this involves a farm, family drama, and a crop fire feels very Griffithian) with, were a mix of uninteresting sci-fi cliches (just once, I’d like to see scientists actually act smart and like professionals), and 2-dimensional (I guess that’s a pun considering the last act of this movie) attempts to talk about “universal themes.” The result was a rather interesting predicament, but one I’ve seen before in ambitious stories that try to do too much: there was too much going on and at the same time not enough substance at work within the film.In some ways, the reason 2001 worked was that you had a master technician (Kubrick, whose cynicism is an underrated quality of that film) and one of the greatest imaginations in science fiction (Clarke), and in that film the technical grandeur of Kubrick’s world of space travel acted in harmony with Clarke’s 1960’s moon-child sci-fi spirituality (cf. diverse thinkers from Timothy Leary to Sun Ra). The Nolan Brothers didn’t need to deviate from a hard science-fiction saga, but we end up getting the whole love as physics thing which I think they felt they needed to include, and a for a film that advocates for space exploration to broaden our worldview to include thinking about our entire species and over long periods of time, it feels a bit weird that it’s mostly about one guy and his family.
Hans Zimmer’s score (which references 2001, which may have been why critics seem to compare the two movies more than they probably should, with its use of Strauss-ian organ and then sounds a lot like a Goblin score at times) is the aspect I’d recommend most about the film, ironic given that the film is marketed as IMAX ready spectacle. There are a few really cool images (the 5th dimension is the visual highlight), but there are fewer compelling visuals than perhaps in any Nolan film so far. Or perhaps at 3 hours, those visuals feel few and far between.
I’m not sure how I felt about Matthew McConaughey in this film. There are several unintentional snicker-worthy moments and several of them are heightened by McConaughey’s whispery surf-philosopher style. In fact, there are a lot of talented people in this movie, but I’m not sure about a couple of them, though the casting it does fit into Nolan’s M.O. of every small part being played by somebody kind of famous, preferably from the 80s, and I’m certain John Lithgow appears as reference to the vastly underrated 2010. Interestingly enough, like 2010, for me the most compelling character in the film was a computer. I could make some larger statement about how a robot is the perfect embodiment of Nolan’s film style, but that would be like saying Wes Anderson only cares about wallpaper. Rather, I think what makes TARS so interesting, in addition to his radically different robot physique, is that as a character he is an ontological contradiction; a devoted member of a crew to save humanity that isn’t human and expressly cannot care about humanity, or that he is a hero who, by his very nature, cannot make a decision to be a hero. It’s absurd, and often it’s the absurd that brings us to the cosmic. And at this point, I would say that a similar film, one that hasn’t aged particularly well but draws its strength from contradiction, and features a certainly miscast Matthew McC0naughey, in Contact. I think that film is an example of both scientific expertise and asking genuine and searching questions about humanity.