You’ll hear the term “overreaching” thrown around a lot when people discuss Christopher Nolan and his latest film, Interstellar. With a heavy hitting cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, the increasingly prominent Anne Hathaway, and the criminally underused Casey Affleck, Nolan reimagines the sci-fi epic, complete with environmental disaster, wormhole travel, exotic exoplanetary landscapes, and, yes, “hypersleep.”
Captured on costly, rapidly disappearing celluloid film, both 35 and 15/70 mm formats, and staged primarily using practical sets and exotic Earthly locations, the trailers promise human-scale drama against a backdrop of celestial spectacle. Pursuant to his love of analog techniques, Chris Nolan’s negotiations with Paramount dictated that movie be released nationwide for film screenings two days before the digitally projected weekend premieres. The look and color of the 35 mm print that I was fortunate enough to see was my favorite part of the experience, lending immediacy, warmth, and personality that breathed real life into the film. Interstellar’s problems turn out to lie not in its cosmic aspirations, but in its inability to connect with more terrestrial concerns. Nolan reaches far and grasps much in the great distances beyond our solar system, but the film’s emotional core slips disappointingly between his fingers.
It’s only after we’ve spent enough time on Earth to be thoroughly convinced of its impending demise that the camera wheels skyward. It’s around this point that some of the film’s more tenuous concessions start to come into play. Despite this, though, the second act remains strong. Any film that discusses quantum physics, relativity, and exoplanetary visitation with the general accuracy and zeal of Interstellar ought to be granted at least some license to play with what Einstein famously termed “spooky action at a distance,” and Nolan makes use of just such a concept. The weakest element of the second act involves throwing the word “they” around to describe the agency behind the mysterious forces that seem to be providing humanity a backdoor to the stars. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Nolan film if there weren’t ultimately “mind blowing” and ambiguous answers waiting behind the mysteries of the first and second acts. The audience’s enjoyment of these answers necessarily depends on their ability to invest emotionally in the characters of Cooper and his daughter Murph (for “Murphy’s Law,” a concept which certainly would be writ large for a test pilot like Cooper, and which should have been more so for Chris and Jonathan as they put together this script).
It’s this relationship which provides the film’s much-needed emotional center of gravity and there’s a wonderful story to be told about this father and daughter, but despite characteristically magnificent performances from McConaughey and Chastain, some key scenes between them fall flat. Nolan relies, wisely, on a small moment to justify the much bigger (literally and figuratively) decisions that frame the narrative. Unfortunately Chris Nolan’s preference to include expositive dialog during this moment becomes Interstellar’s fatal flaw. The scene is too crowded, literally and metaphorically, and consequently lacks the intimacy which might have produced some of the insights it’s obviously designed to contain. There’s a kind of real magic involved in contemplating the scale of our universe, and some of the more satisfying moments in the film put these concepts to great use, but when the entire film, not to mention humanity itself, is hanging in the balance, Nolan suffers from only partial success navigating the zoom-cut from the cosmic to the filial.
So with all this being said, why do I think the film is still worth watching? Thanks to Nolan’s use of practical visual effects and his laudable dedication to the process of shooting and presenting his movie on actual film, this is likely the most visually exciting exploration of the stars since its obvious comparison film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In order to depict the appearance of a wormhole in space, Nolan actually hired quantum physicist Kip Thorne (whose previous projects include working with Carl Sagan on Contact) to create a simulation based on cutting edge physics. The results speak for themselves: even if you end up being unhappy with the movie, you’re unlikely to be bored for any more than one or two of its one hundred sixty-nine minutes. It’s hard to take issue with Nolan as a technician; witnessing so many incredible sounds and images presented with such overwhelming force is, for many, worth the price of admission in and of itself, even if the philosophical payload turns out to be somewhat equivalent to witnessing a non-fictional rocket launch. It’s awe-inspiring and majestic, but you won’t walk away with any of the answers that have always seemed to be promised by the stars.
Furthermore, it sets out to answer a question which absolutely merits consideration. Given an even half-decent set of film going companions, you will have at least one excellent conversation with them after seeing Interstellar, likely several. Finally, there is much to be said for a film which makes realities about physics and engineering this exciting (Neil deGrasse Tyson had mostly [VERY SPOILERY] kind words for the film). I can only hope that it inspires a new generation to reach further into the heavens. Perhaps, also, it will inspire some viewers to revisit Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Sadly, where Kubrick was content to sacrifice accessibility for impact, Nolan fills the conspicuous and extraordinary silence of Odyssey’s third act with plot mechanics and exposition. There’s little room, once he’s done building his picture, for your own realizations and revelations to take place. Kubrick’s genius was always predicated on creating spaces for our own angels and demons to take shape on the screen, Nolan seems to prefer that you take a look at his, beautifully and meticulously arrayed.
There’s one final reason to go see Interstellar in theaters, and it has less to do with the film itself. Purchasing a ticket to see Interstellar, especially to see a celluloid print, constitutes a vote of confidence in the idea that such films ought to be made, even if they ultimately fall short of their potential. The financial success of an investment like Interstellar may well open the door to another director with similarly unlimited ambitions to make his or her delirious visions real for us all. That Interstellar succeeds or fails to achieve its elaborate and profound intentions is secondary in importance to the prominence of those aspirations. We can hardly be worse off with more films which attempt, as Nolan has done so here, to learn more about the threads which run within and between the many lives sheltered on our lonesome, dusty planet, between this world and the many glittering orbs which scatter the skies.
Johnson Hagood is an aimless millennial living in Southern California, where he did not grow up, despite being a long-hair and everything. You can follow him on instagram @ants_in_my_eyes where he quotes Kanye West and brags about how much money he wastes on expensive craft beer.