In many ways, ‘Interstellar’ is the movie that Christopher Nolan’s most ardent supporters always hoped he would make: a massive, sweeping, thoughtful epic that hits grand themes as hard as it does awe-inspiring imagery and tear-loosening emotion. It’s also the movie his detractors feared he would make: too ambitions, visibly flawed and overly serious to the point of feeling silly. It’s certainly an impressive cinematic achievement on the biggest possible scale, just far from a perfect film.
You can’t help but think of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ while watching Nolan’s latest opus. The filmmaker openly draws comparison by mirroring many of Kubrick’s themes, images, ideas and even characters. This sci-fi blockbuster aims to make viewers’ heads explode. You’re supposed to be floored by the massive imagery, deeply moved by the human story, and have your brain busted by the complex space theory simultaneously. In a few magical sequences in the midst of the generous 169 minute running time, Nolan achieves those goals and the results are astounding. You’ll find yourself moved simultaneously by all ways that movies can affect audiences and feel like you’ll need to be scraped out of your seat after having congealed into a pile of goo from sheer cinematic force. Unfortunately, that stunning success arrives only in those few sequences. In between them, the film can feel muddled, confused, convoluted, and thanks to Nolan’s patented self-serious tone, unintentionally comedic.
Just like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, it’s a fault of ambition, but at least that’s an admirable fault. Nolan’s aim is to create something special and thoughtful out of popcorn fodder and just can’t quite pull all the pieces together. The movie has distracting plot holes, horribly stilted passages of expositional dialogue, cornball sentimentality and faux-profound moments not nearly as meaningful as intended. For some, the bad will outweigh the good and they’ll look past all the remarkable work that Nolan and his team accomplished to nitpick and sneer. Immediately after wandering out of the theater and gathered my bearings, all I could do was replay the flat moments in my head and lament that they existed.
A day later, however, I found myself looking back on the film and only remembering what worked. The astoundingly large and beautiful images of alien planets backed by physically affecting sound design enveloped me in the movie as deeply as ‘Gravity’. The richly emotional family story at the center moved me to tears through variations on themes I thought I’d seen too many times to fall for. The application of theoretical physics into action movie set-pieces had my brain racing as fast as my heart. And the breathless pacing, as well as the clever application of Nolan’s beloved non-chronological storytelling and cross-cutting, made the film feel like it was racing to the credits for every one of its 169 minutes. When ‘Interstellar’ works, it’s truly a remarkable achievement. Sadly, it doesn’t work all the time.
I’ve been careful to avoid plot details or even much description of the images in the movie, because somehow in this era of over-marketing, the core of this film has been kept a secret. What’s known so far is all you should know going in. Matthew McConaughey plays astronaut-turned-farmer in a vaguely distant future who’s asked to embark on a potentially deadly mission to save the planet. That summary barely covers the first act and even then holds back many secrets, as it should.
What Christopher Nolan has crafted is an experience as much as a narrative, and it’s worth taking the ride whether you like it or not. The flaws I’ve mention are well known to anyone who has loved or hated Nolan’s work to date. Performances are deliberately sedate, often to the detriment of the audience’s emotional involvement (even if that this is by far Nolan’s most moving movie to date, arguably his only one that tugs at heart strings). In an attempt to tie complicated space theories into the narrative, characters frequently ramble exposition endlessly and awkwardly to the audience. (At times, the over-explanation can feel mildly insulting, as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust us to understand what he’s going for.) The tone is also overwhelmingly serious in a way that betrays its ultimate popcorn-slinging nature and will generate snickers from audiences when bum lines of dialogue drop.
‘Interstellar’ is a far from a perfect movie, yet that should in no way deter you from seeing it or even getting excited about it. Just keep expectations at a reasonable level. The ways in which the movie fails are at least the result of a filmmaker attempting to stretch the boundaries of his genre and talents too far, and that’s far more appealing than a movie that sets its ambitions too low. If nothing else, the film deserves to be seen theatrically, and in IMAX if possible. Nolan’s gift for creating grand immersive imagery is extraordinary, and ‘Interstellar’ features some of his most awe-inspiring work to date.
When ‘Interstellar’ works, it’s like watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ on 1.5x speed with added emotion and action scenes (in all the good and bad ways that implies). When it fails, it’s like watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ on 1.5x speed with added emotion and action scenes while sitting next to a friend who doesn’t trust your intelligence is constantly over-explaining things and cracking bad jokes to break the tension. Sure, the film can be frustrating to watch, but it’s also absolutely amazing to watch when it’s cooking. Ultimate enjoyment comes down to how easily you can ignore the flaws. Either way, you’ll never feel like a dollar of your inflated ticket price was wasted.
Christopher Nolan has crafted a cinematic experience that will transport you to another world, there’s no denying that. Whether or not you like where he takes you or how he gets there is where things get tricky.