Interstellar

November 21, 2014

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Any attempt to make a huge, awe-inspiring, intelligent science fiction epic is at its heart a great ambition, but the ambition doesn’t come from the difficult special-effects work and technical expertise to pull off the visual spectacle. Rather, it comes the difficulty of exploring Big Ideas on a budgetary scale that demands a standard narrative and emotional form – after all, who is going to pay that much money for something abstract and probably alienating? One of the peculiarities of cinematic history, at least for my uncomprehending, relatively young mind is the success and ongoing popularity of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film to which Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar owes a great debt. 2001 is, structurally, four separate films, the only real connective tissue through the whole thing being the black, alien monolith. It is quite accepted that the only character with any genuine emotion is the computer HAL 9000, and his “villainy” also gives the third section of the film the most recognizable cinematic “thrills” you’d expect from Hollywood, as well as its most moving tragedy.

By eschewing the work needed to invest us in characters as would be the norm, Kubrick allows the story and the visuals overwhelm us with the sense of discovery and possibility and ultimately transcendence that is unique to such science fiction explorations. Christopher Nolan, a director obsessed with the rational, copies the structure of 2001 and makes attempts to mimic its melding of the realistic and the spectacular, but Interstellar is constrained by its adherence to traditional audience expectations with its central character, the astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his desire to be with his family. The notion of sending characters out into the vast void of the unknown only to have them turn inward is not a bad one, but the script (often clunkily expository and even worse when it spells out its themes) and the directorial emphasis gives us an either/or experience – the more inward and rational the film wants to be, the less intriguing its big ideas become.

It’s this inability to have it both ways that zaps significant sections of the film of its impact. Often seen as a puzzle-box director, who likes to use high concepts and looping structures to tease out a mysterious thriller, Nolan’s rather cold approach doesn’t work here in what many have considered to be his most “personal” film. The only sequence where he truly pulls off the two comes when the astronauts have to visit a planet on the edge of a black hole, but because of relativity every moment they spend there is multiplied in time back home. The disaster of the enterprise has real weight to it, and the aftermath is tragically moving. Otherwise the film only really works for an extended period of time during the third act where a villain emerges, and Nolan manages to graft the theme of survival versus sacrifice onto an enjoyable but traditional action scene.

It’s in the admittedly beautiful, final act – the “Beyond the Infinite” section – where the limits of the script and his approach are exposed. Rather than looking outward at the awe of possibility and the unknown, Nolan (and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan) obsessively adhere to a narrative coherence that must explain the mysteries that pepper the first two acts. The film should move out but instead it loops back to close the circuit. It’s perhaps the best example of the film’s failure to consistently marry the emotional and the conceptual threads that run throughout, something that is achievable as Robert Zemeckis’ somewhat similarly themed Contact pulled off more than fifteen years ago. The central issue might be that Zemeckis has an emotional (some might uncharitably say sentimental) streak that Nolan simply doesn’t. The Prestige, still his finest work, succeeds because the intricate plotting burrows down to not reveal the rational, but to plunge us into the irrational as though the narrative is driven by the characters and not the other way around. Interstellar looks beautiful thanks to Hoyte Van Hoyttema’s (replacing Wally Pfister but staying true to his style) talented eye, and the ideas bouncing around about time and relativity are intriguing, but Nolan’s earthbound sensibility prevents the film from pushing itself beyond the conventional.

-M

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