More than any other mainstream director, Christopher Nolan’s work is almost always centered around abstract concepts. His movies are as much treatises on ideas as they are narratives: memory, fear, obsession, hope, ideas themselves, have all been explored within Nolan’s films.
The fact that Nolan is able to make these conceptual explorations into entertaining, innovative, and hugely successful blockbusters is what makes him one of the most exciting directors in modern cinema. No one else could take a concept like chaos and craft it into a film as perfect as The Dark Knight. Of course, like most artists who base their work on such nebulous themes, the work can sometimes come off as cold or inhumane. After all, as with Interstellar‘s Lazarus Mission, the bigger picture is more important than the individuals trying to paint it.
As with Nolan’s films, great science fiction is typically built upon ideas first, sometimes to the detriment of character and even the humans it so exalts. Arthur C. Clarke, clearly one of Interstellar‘s inspirations for both his place as writer of 2001: A Space Odyssey and as one of true visionaries of literary science fiction, had truly amazing ideas (one of which made all of modern telecommunications possible and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize) but seldom did his characters successfully spring off the page. It’s only the very best science fiction which is able to blend the conceptual with the human without sacrificing one for the other.
While it isn’t perfect, Interstellar finds a way to balance the conceptual with the human to ends that may not always ring as emotionally satisfying but never allows its sense of humanity to pull too far away from its thematic exploration, simply because the two are as inseparably linked as a binary star.
Anyone following this film through reviews or word-of-mouth by now knows that Interstellar clocks in at 169-minutes. Oddly this is both too long and too short to complete the story, languishing at times, skipping completely at others. The result of this length is an easily discernible three-act structure moving, literally, through space and time.
The first hour, the one which is the least spectacular but the most essential, finds Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) accepting the destiny we all know he’s going to have, that of reaching from the little farm where he grows much needed corn to finding a new planet on which to grow an entire civilization. Those interested in ideas and messaging in media will find a lot to digest here, particularly in Cooper’s parent-teacher conference wherein we learn that the local school system has decided to change history and a scene later (*no spoilers*) which illustrates that often times the best, most beneficial programs are the least popular, two concepts that America is currently acting out. However, most importantly the first act establishes the connections and the theme that ties the entire story together as it prepares to blast into the cosmos. In more ways than one, Interstellar‘s first act is the Earth.
It’s once Interstellar reaches the stars that the narrative truly takes off (I’m sorry but that pun was unavoidable, it was like a black hole of phraseology). While it never quite reaches Inception‘s feat of imagination or Dark Knight‘s action, the space of Interstellar is still a place of beautiful and infinite possibilities. It may not be entirely accurate to real science, and I’m sure there will be plenty of knit-picking about the finer points of planetary colonization and certain gravitational structures (or even Neil deGrasse Tyson’s famous complaint about hair in zero gravity), but in a film that spans decades in minutes and reaches across immeasurable expanses, a little stretching is necessary. There’s a reason it’s science fiction and not documentary.
Nolan’s choice of filming his high tech, near future, speculative science fiction epic on 35mm and IMAX film rather than digital shows in the dusty, saturated quality of the images. The dust of course fitting with the Earth-bound sequences, but the grittier quality of film allows the computer images, of which there are far fewer than expected, to blend in better than they would with a super sharp picture where differences in lighting and texture are crystal clear. Nonetheless, the entire film is gorgeous, from the rustic farmhouse to the ice planet to, especially, everything in the transcendent closing hour.
Interstellar‘s final act isn’t unexpected, clearly placing its roots in the planetside introduction, but it’s where the entire film, including the equally predictable and at times somewhat unnecessary second hour, becomes a breathless, awe-inspiring epic. While it may be too convenient or logic-defying for some, the simultaneous actions are tense and exciting, akin to the multi-layered climax of Inception. Tension is as much the result of quiet moments as it is of loud ones, and Nolan again demonstrates his mastery of this concept. We may see it coming but when it’s played on screen the result is far greater than we imagined. While some science fiction films fall apart in the final act (Sunshine immediately springs to mind), Interstellar‘s climax is where the film reaches its highest point, turning from a solid, entertaining space opera, to one where the ideas and execution are so enthralling that we forgive almost anything.
Of course, as with hard literary science fiction where the prose itself is often unremarkable, the dialogue (cinema’s version of narration) isn’t the best. It’s not exactly flat, but perfunctory and both over and under explanatory. It’s surprising just how much hard science there is for a mainstream film, and personally I can’t help wondering how much of it the average viewer will comprehend (or even how much I comprehend, I hope all of it, but how can I know?).
Characters are well portrayed, especially McConaughey who continues his mid-career renaissance and the older version of his daughter played by Jessica Chastain, but generally one-note, and certain members of the crew are so obviously expendable they may as well wear red shirts. To avoid spoilers I won’t mention the film’s central theme but once it’s clear it’s played over and over again, bringing its own problems along. However, there are brilliantly subtle moments, such as one sequence where an entire portion of the narrative is told with the economy of great minimalism, the scientific details are great, and TARS is surprisingly wonderful in design and personality.
The fact is that epics, and Interstellar is definitely an epic, are going to have flaws. In fact some, such as Gangs of New York or 2046 are made better because of them. It’s the highs and the lows that offer the sense of movement essential to any journey. Interstellar is the type of sprawling, overloaded, challenging, flawed epic that spectacle cinema is often too afraid of presenting. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan creates films as heady and ambitious as they are entertaining and successful. As with Interstellar‘s exploration itself, Nolan reaches to the very edges of what is possible in mainstream film, hoping to come back with something we can all at least grasp if not carry home, wherever home may be.