Interstellar is the latest from Christopher Nolan, a planet hopping film tied together with relationships. Some of the clumsiness of the Dark Knight trilogy exists here to suggest Nolan hasn’t quite mastered people, but as promised Interstellar will take you to new worlds and show you spectacles never before seen. Interstellar contains several great set pieces and tries its best to give believable human reasons for getting to each one, proving itself more competent than most blockbusters on this scale. Part of the realism of the film comes from an unusual attention to scientific probability. Space is barren and cold, and our little oasis is a pale blue dot. If something goes wrong with our speck, finding the next one is nigh impossible. The film is a testament to the size of the problem we face, if the need for man-kind’s next giant leap comes sooner rather than later.
Matthew McConaughey plays a future farmer, one of many non-agrarians pressed into service to hold a neo dustbowl at bay. Set a couple decades after an non-specific cataclysm, the world’s population has plummeted and what’s left struggles to grow enough food to maintain humanity. Interstellar spans several generations, from John Lithgow’s understated grandfather (a role evocative of the gentle Lithgow in Love is Strange) through McConaughey’s destined pilot to his daughter, who grows to look a lot like Jessica Chastain. A distractingly star studded cast packs most of the corners of this film but there is no weakness in the acting. The portrayed dynasty spans the final days of Earth as we know it, and Nolan spends a good amount of time on the ground doing a little *ahem* world building. Eventually though, McConaughey finds himself drawn into the mission to save mankind, which involves being flung into space and exploring new worlds.
The mission breaks the film into several segments, each of which forces the crew to grapple with realities of science and human behavior which they had not accounted for. Nolan infuses this with the quiet of space, quoting Solaris and 2001 frequently in scenes played to classical music. The quiet of the void is broken up by the hurried rhythms of high stress situations, depicted in the modern Hollywood style with fast cut exposition and a “hey are you paying attention” score. These sequences tend to involve the gravity and air resistance of atmosphere bound fighter plane physics, as if to contrast the dreamy silence of the interstellar travel sequences. These set pieces are incredibly well done, in fact Nolan’s skill with action diminishes the somewhat milquetoast dialogue that bookends chaos. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the ending; once the smoke clears everyone ends up standing around awkwardly with not much to do.
Unfortunately the denouement demonstrates the difficulty with Interstellar. The film is one of the best researched and furthest reaching space flicks in some time, basing the flight of fantasy in the cooler regions of science rather than laser cannon bombast. It has that air of realism that has charged such classic science fiction films as Sunshine and Alien. However, Nolan feels compelled to graft human sentimentality onto the action rather than let it flow in naturally. Little details are clumsy, like how McConaughy has to exit Earth (the entire thing) seemingly 15 minutes after agreeing to the mission, thereby leaving a rift with his daughter. Or consider how a long mid-film speech about the need to consider love among the factors in planet navigation, which is reacted to with appropriate incredulity, ends up being correct. Nolan is allowed to construct his universe however he sees fit, but by making a sentimental backbone he undercuts the attention to realism. Although the plot is understated, the ending requires a deus ex machine of such proportions that it could have used another half hour of rationalization explaining why we couldn’t have skipped everything to begin with. Although unfair, Interstellar begs comparison to 2001. In Kubricks masterpiece, the ending shows us something alien and unfamiliar, taking us as far as it can. Interstellar leaves Earth but never really gets away from our self-centered drama.
As the space travel and drama are discordant, let us consider Interstellar on a smaller scale, where it works as a successful psychoanalysis of human behavior. This is likely Nolan’s intention, considering the long opening sequence and the plethora of frequently conflicting opinions about important decisions. Almost every conversation consists of people disagreeing with each other at a philosophical level about choices. Early on McConaughy ends up in the principal’s office arguing about his daughter’s curriculum, which now whitewashes both the excesses and triumphs of the 20th century to create a better proletariat for desperate conditions. The Interstellar spaceship project stands in stark contrast to this policy, a huge resource drain on a crippled world economy. Which is better, to hunker down and denigrate humanity in order to make it 50 more years, or to possibly burn out on a roll of the dice? Similar questions pervade, often posed as; should I give up what I have right now for what could be? Sometimes the arguments are genteel, such as between astrophysicist Chastain and her mentor played by Michael Caine, and sometimes the arguments are surprisingly selfish and brutal. This discourse takes place in small unadorned rooms or plain open areas and at close quarters. The most intellectually rigorous part of Interstellar can be found in these margins. However despite the fact that complicated ideas are bouncing around in the film, Interstellar is made up of didactics rather than conversations. No one changes or even shows doubt in their viewpoint (unless literally forced to), which prevents the written dialogue from generating nuance or realism and maintains the destructive interference between the words and the spectacular effects.
Interstellar is a well-made film, assuredly directed and supported. The issue is that it fails to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps this is especially galling because of the history of transcendent films set in the vacuum. Or maybe it’s because sometimes it really seems like Interstellar is going to live up to its potential, such as during amazing bravura sequences dealing with special relativity at an island getaway and heated exchanges on an icy world. Although the way Nolan displayed human relationships seems like a misstep, Interstellar’s scale demonstrates a growth in Nolan’s ambitions and technical expertise. If he insists on continuing to improve the blockbuster, I suppose we’ll have to keep watching them.