It’s wonderful to live in a cinematic universe where Christopher Nolan exists. While other filmmakers are content to stay in their creative cocoon and make the same movie over and over again, Nolan always reaches just beyond his grasp. His latest behemoth, Interstellar, contains enough groan-inducing humanism and questionable plot points to sink most mortal movies. Yet, Nolan’s fascinating mess wins the day with its visual audacity, ingenious story structure, and bat-shit craziness. Interstellar may puzzle and infuriate you, but it also provides the pure exhilaration of watching an artist reach for the stars and come perilously close to touching them.
Interstellar begins at an indeterminate point in Earth’s future, when blight and drought are pushing humanity to the breaking point. “This world is a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a long time now,” laments engineer-turned-farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). He’s a practical man who set aside dreams of space travel in order to provide for his family, and yet his powerful intellect keeps him sneaking glances skyward. When he and his precocious daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), decipher mysterious signals directing them to random GPS coordinates, Cooper is only too eager to indulge his curiosity.
Using an older script from his brother, Jonathan, as a foundation, Christopher Nolan intricately creates a visual realm caked in dust. The muted palette in the opening scenes belies a world too obsessed with money and resources to entertain crazy notions like hope and imagination; even the Apollo moon landings have been debunked as sophisticated hoaxes to bankrupt the Russians. Once Cooper uncovers a secret NASA mission to explore an intergalactic wormhole, however, Nolan is free to unleash the dizzying spectacle we’ve been waiting for.
Cooper and his crew, led by plucky scientist Amelia (Anne Hathaway), are tasked with entering a wormhole and exploring three worlds that might sustain human life. Together with his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan has the immense task of translating fanciful scientific conjecture about black holes and alien worlds into convincing cinematic landscapes. It’s a monumental task that sometimes gets the better of him, but Nolan avoids many of the possible pitfalls by keeping a laser focus on his story rather than an orgy of special effects. Everything from the action sequences to the set design accentuates the sheer scale of what Cooper’s crew is up against. They may have the data and the intellect to undertake this mission, but they are hopelessly overmatched.
Much like Inception before it, Interstellar takes great liberties with time—or spacetime, in this instance. As a screenwriter, Nolan ingeniously structures his scripts to emulate the story’s thematic underpinnings. For Inception, it was the ‘dream-within-a-dream’ conceit that took the story deeper and deeper into our hero’s tortured subconscious. Here, the folds in spacetime allow Nolan to not only play fast and loose with narrative structure, but to inform his hero’s search for answers, both spiritual and cosmological. Watching the storyline bend and twist is a sublime pleasure that will have audiences discussing their own theories on the drive home.
It’s become popular amongst cinephiles to argue over the similarities between Nolan and one of his primary influences, Stanley Kubrick. Interstellar will only intensify that debate. Visually, Nolan has never veered closer to Kubrick’s wheelhouse, particularly in a spectacular space-docking sequence that owes much to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, we see a welcome return to the silent vacuum of space, with massive structures dancing around each other in a silent ballet.
Ironically, it’s the area in which he traditionally resembles Kubrick—his cold and detached view of humanity—where Nolan deviates the most with Interstellar. He makes a conscious effort to incorporate humanity into his characters and the story’s overarching themes. In one bravura scene, for instance, Cooper reviews several video transmissions sent from his family. For Cooper, an excursion to the surface of a foreign planet took only a few minutes; for his family it took 23 years. It’s a great piece of physical acting from McConaughey, who agonizes helplessly as his family grows old and embittered right before his eyes. Whether Nolan fully manages to organically blend the human and the infinite is debatable, but scenes like this show his willingness to grow as a filmmaker. Some will find this ‘kinder, gentler’ Nolan refreshing, while others will be rolling their eyes and wishing for a return to his nihilistic, calculating approach.
Those casually dismissing Nolan’s haphazard collision of true love and quantum mechanics, however, are missing the greater beauty of his mission statement. Emotion feeds the human experience; deprivation will result in starvation just as surely as the scorched earth Cooper and his crewmates left behind. Perhaps it isn’t an original concept, but we’ve never seen it applied quite so ingeniously.
There are questionable plot points sprinkled throughout Interstellar, most of which can be attributed to Nolan’s unquenchable thirst for dramatic tension. Complications continue to pile up, each accentuated by Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score. Nolan cuts frantically between Cooper’s cosmic escapades and the efforts to contact him from Earth, now led by a grown-up Murph (Jessica Chastain). Strangely, the intercutting here lacks the same rhythmic precision of Inception, which effortlessly juggled multiple dream worlds. It suggests that Nolan was trying to impose more complications than the plot structure could support. These missteps might not undermine the overall effectiveness of Interstellar, but they certainly detract from individual scenes, making them feel tacked on or self-indulgent.
What should you expect from Interstellar? Nothing short of an endlessly engaging spectacle that demands acceptance on its own terms. While sometimes a victim of his own ambitions, Christopher Nolan puts every ounce of his creative energy (and generous funding) on the screen. Love it or hate it, Interstellar is a smart, daring science fiction film that will stop at nothing to entertain and challenge you.
– J.R. Kinnard