Interstellar: Don’t reach for the stars

I would love to appear reasonable about a Christopher Nolan movie.  Nolan discussions so easily sink into Scalding-Hot Takes (especially when his fanboys do things like ‘make Interstellar the #12 (!) movie of all-time on IMDB’), and having a strong opinion on him can look like either blindly following the silly sheep or curmudgeonly marginalizing someone just to be a contrarian.

But, man, Interstellar is a mess, and I can’t take refuge in the non-confrontational middle ground just out of cowardice.  This is a shockingly bad movie, a failure on all levels skating by on the name of its creator.  I can’t imagine that time will be kind to it.

black hole

Rendering of a black hole. More interesting than this movie. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

To dispense with a quick plot summary: Interstellar is set in the un-identified future, when environmental conditions have threatened life on Earth for all future generations.  This forces NASA to investigate a wormhole near Saturn that might enable a spaceship to find other habitable planets for humans.  An astronaut named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must leave his family (including a daughter ultimately played by Jessica Chastain) at home in order to pilot the ship and hopefully save the human race.  Congratulations, you’ve now learned about 1/15th of the plot.

In Interstellar, everything is off, backwards, out of place.  Nolan’s filmmaking instincts, never particularly sharp to begin with, have completely abandoned him.  The wrong scenes, characters, themes, and lines are emphasized, while more deserving ones get marginalized or ignored.  Characters don’t arc, and the movie fails at developing the pivotal father-daughter relationship at its core.  Nolan (working off a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan) treats science and reality as one giant tease, relying on them when necessary and arbitrarily discarding them whenever convenient.  The movie runs three hours and feels five, because it doesn’t have the conflict, compelling characters, or gripping scenes to sustain itself.

Problems arise immediately with the opening act on Earth, a bland sequence that sucks the life out of the film.  It feels simultaneously rushed and incomplete, probably because Nolan doesn’t know how to cut through the noise and develop his characters.  There’s brutal, heavy-handed dialogue in a front porch scene between McConaughey and John Lithgow and an implausible sequence of the family tracking down a drone that could have cut with nothing lost.  And there’s a laughable plot hole, as Michael Caine’s research team, for some reason, never bothered to track down the best astronaut in the world for a dangerous, unprecedented mission. Good thing an absurd coincidence brought him to them anyway, eh?

Once McConaughey finally launches into space, the movie necessarily improves, as the heartland-Americana fluff dies away and Nolan can try to wow us with an immersive journey through a wormhole.  But the bulk of Act Two is strangely bloated and meandering, lacking tautness in its scenes and needlessly bogged down with an overly-complicated plot.  It’s always amazing that, for all the exposition Nolan stuffs into his characters’ mouths, his movies are still such a chore to keep track of.  Michael Caine’s Plan A vs. Plan B proposals illustrate the problem: they keep the characters from having a definitive goal to which they can aspire, ultimately leaving us in an uncomfortable limbo.  Because we don’t know what the crew’s actual mission is for so long, the whole thing feels like it’s gone off at half-cock.  A superior film would have recognized that the dense, avant-garde subject matter meant that the actual storyline should be simple. (And I haven’t even gone into half of the story’s complications.)

[pullquote]Emotionally, Nolan remains as unsatisfying as ever; it’s hard to not have grown weary of his blunt, amateurish techniques for drawing out the feels: on-the-nose dialogue, obvious manipulations like dead wives, and an abundance of crying.  Seriously, there’s an incredible amount of crying here.[/pullquote]

Emotionally, Nolan remains as unsatisfying as ever; it’s hard to not have grown weary of his blunt, amateurish techniques for drawing out the feels: on-the-nose dialogue, obvious manipulations like dead wives, and an abundance of crying.  Seriously, there’s an incredible amount of crying here.  What kind of writing is this?  He apparently isn’t familiar with the wise axiom that states, “If your characters cry, your audience won’t.”  And when the tears aren’t melodramatic enough, he’ll halt the entire story to have Anne Hathaway deliver a sermon on the powers of love that represents one of the worst moments in 2014 cinema.

In too many Nolan films, the central relationships feel like they were crafted by someone who’s never had those experiences himself and is just imagining how they might be.  He’s the classic filmmaker who knows more about movies than about life.  That’s why we walk out of his movies spending more time figuring out what happened than thinking about the people involved. As Grantland’s film critic Wesley Morris wrote, the key relationship here is “conceptual and taken for granted rather than explored,” thus making the film feel “too notional to be affecting.”  If you ever wonder why people say they didn’t care about the father/daughter relationship in this movie, that’s why.

Almost as frustrating is the movie’s paucity of visually striking shots.  Sure, there are impressive visual flourishes—such as when the spaceship travels through the wormhole—but they’re transitional moments.  Nolan, as usual, doesn’t hold a shot for long enough to leave an impression; he’s always frantically cutting to the next thing, no matter what that thing may be, without any firm sense of dramatic instinct guiding him.  (This video, which looks at the beginning of Inception, is a good primer on this problem.) 

And Interstellar‘s convoluted and deeply unsatisfying final act takes all the intriguing science upon which it was based and turns it into a mushy, incoherent ash of underwhelming pop-psychology.  Not only does Nolan rely on a weak cop-out to solve his characters’ problems (if the advanced beings are saving McConaughey from the future, that’s as much of a Deus ex machina as any other supernatural save), and not only does he regress into high-school-yearbook notions of love, but he also squanders an enormous opportunity to stamp himself into cinematic lore.

Lest we forget: the protagonist of Interstellar GOES INTO THE MIDDLE OF AN EFFING BLACK HOLE.  This is a writer’s wet dream, a scientist’s Christmas morning on the North Pole.  Black holes are the most tantalizing mystery that we can contemplate, as essential to our universe as they are incomprehensible to our minds…and THIS is what Nolan thinks is the most interesting direction to take that in?  To McConaughey’s daughter bedroom, so he can deliver a message in Morse code?  Are you kidding me?

I don’t mean to suggest that Nolan is talentless, or that I’ve never enjoyed anything he’s done.  Inception and Memento were based around intriguing concepts.  And while I’m not much of a superhero person, his interpretation of Batman and the world of Gotham obviously resonated for a great number of people.

But his movies always seem to get in their own way.  He purports to be such a visionary, but his stories are laden with caution and convention.  He writes complicated, convoluted narratives that ultimately resolve themselves in pretty simple ways that don’t provoke discussion about the themes and ideas.  He introduces protagonists with tortured pasts, but he has no psychological insights to offer.  He makes movies about dreams and magic and new worlds, when his biggest strength–straightforward spectacle–would play best in stories that don’t require hints of anything abstract, subtle, or emotional.

It’s pretty clear by now that Nolan movies will be humorless, sex-less, passion-free exercises more concerned with the cold mechanics of their plot than anything truly human, with excessive cutting and exposition substituting for atmosphere, character development, and warmth.  So they’d better as hell be entertaining.  Inception and The Dark Knight, despite their flaws, were.  But with Interstellar, Nolan has demonstrated nothing except that he needs to scrap everything and go back to the drawing board.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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2 thoughts on “Interstellar: Don’t reach for the stars

  1. Whoa first off, the family tracking the drone scene was not only beautifully crafted, but essential to the movie. We learn so much about the family and are introduced to the strange aberrations of gravity that are occurring. Cooper and Murph are both mesmerized by science, and Tom is someone who will blindly follow orders to his death (a fate Murph saves him from as Earth conditions harshen).

    As a physics major, I agree with you on the level that I should have liked this movie more, given the gorgeous visuals of our Universe that is presented to us, but I’ll argue that the parts not under the umbrella of science fiction, and rather, family drama, was incredibly emotional. Did you not feel anything when Cooper lost 40 years Earth time and watched the videos of Tom and Murph all grown up?

    It’s an imperfect movie to be sure, particularly towards the end, but if you can’t think of a single scene, conversation, character, or revelation worth watching a second time, then I think you may have been watching the movie with your eyes closed.

    • The drone scene was also implausibly crafted. There’s no way in the world it was been traveling at a speed that would have allowed the vehicle to catch it.

      And no, I didn’t really feel anything when Cooper watched those videos, because Nolan just thinks the *idea* of losing decades of Earth time (and thus having your children grow up without you) is enough to go on. Sure, that’s a poignant enough idea, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that.

      But, you know, to each his own, and different strokes, and etc etc.

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