Review: Interstellar (2014)

Just tagline the movie poster ‘The real Outer Space is Inner Space’ and save us the extraneous third hour.

I found the fifth dimension scene in Interstellar to be much more dreamlike (or nightmarish) than anything in Christopher Nolan‘s other movie that was actually about dreams, Inception, from the imagery and “landscape”, to the screaming-and-not-being-heard and desperately-hitting-with-little-impact. It’s not only sadly out of place in this movie, I feel like in a film featuring some spectacular visuals, it’s the most frustratingly whiz-bang-with-no-substance moment in Interstellar.

Nolan’s first attempt at sympathetic (or even vaguely human) characters.

There’s still his patented late-in-the-third-act “high-concept” twist which is supposed to function as the story’s emotional payoff, but within this character-driven film, it’s a mutant version of the classic Nolan move. In Interstellar, the “twist” boils down to the same cop-out conceit that seems to serve as the “resolution” in other recent sci-fi movies (Danny Boyle‘s Sunshine, I’m looking at you): after more than two hours of telling us how unfathomably huge the universe is, the film concludes that HUMANS ARE STILL THE CENTRE OF EVERYTHING (I mean really, just tagline the movie poster ‘The Real Outer Space Is Inner Space’ and save us three hours).

Of course, this film looks and sounds typically Nolamazing – and some geniunely entertaining space travel sequences are worth watching, if you shave 45 mins off the start and end the film (each, not altogether), or if you simply don’t care about story or people in general. (And that sequence on the water planet is genuinely thrilling.) Much of the character-driven nature of the movie is carried by Matthew McConaughey‘s charisma, and the fantastic casting of Mackenzie Foy and his young daughter, Murph.

The Core of Nolanism: That One Line (Which Means Nothing)

But, as is typical with each of Christopher Nolan’s films (even the ones I’ve personally enjoyed most), Interstellar is so preoccupied with its concepts and imagery that it forgets to actually resolve anything with its characters, their world(s), or any of the other various plates it’s spinning. And worst of all, Nolan usually does this for the sake of a laughably “poetic” line and/or visual coda that not only ignores all the events that led up to it, but also means nothing in itself. In The Dark Knight, it was that ridiculous “Not the hero Gotham wants, but the hero it needs” garbage (WHICH MEANS NOTHING); here, it’s the daughter vs fellow astronaut ending.

There’s something deeply irresponsible and callously unempathetic in the act of a storyteller with such grand resources deciding that, in order to tell an emotional human story, they need to use an oppressively grim, catastrophic existential threat to all humanity as an off-screen prop.

Beyond its technical craft, Interstellar offers nothing to enjoy, no grand ideas or even small moments which aren’t unrelentingly bleak.

And it speaks volumes to that irresponsibility that, though the entire emotional tether of this overlong epic is, supposedly, the connection between father and daughter, when father finally, FINALLY, FI. NA. LLY. reaches daughter, after less than a minute she simply sends him off to find Anne Hathaway, with whom he’d shared zero affection or even connection throughout the whole adventure. The point, now laid bare, isn’t the human story, but audience manipulation.

And meanwhile: the film’s most psychedelic visual sequence (the “fifth dimension” scene), which also doubles as its narrative moebius strip, and triples as the knot in its emotional tether (M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs meets Danny Boyle’s Sunshine once again), is perhaps the most Nolancriminal act in the entire film (and that’s saying a lot, given the string of things like, say, the whole fist-fight-in-space episode). The logic of the scene itself is explained in one crucial line (that it wasn’t aliens but humans who, somehow, in the future, developed the mind-boggling technology to make this single activity possible). The implications of this notion are massive, perhaps bigger than space itself (which, as the movie by this point has already taken considerable time and energy to show us, is really big) – and yet it’s never revisited or even addressed afterward, which is short shrift considering that it’s also the single development that allowed one man to save the entire human race and keep his promise to his little girl. (Wow, did I actually just write that sentence? That’s Nolan for ye). It’s a Nolanism en par with the Talia “twist” in The Dark Knight Rises: one line of dialogue intended to check emotional, narrative and conceptual boxes all at once, yet ultimately failing to satisfy any of them, and merely raising more questions.

Nolan missed the “show, don’t tell” day at film school – and then he copied someone’s notes badly, and got it the wrong way around.

I don’t derive much enjoyment from peanut gallery-ing a movie but, verging ever as his films do on edgelord nihilism, Nolan purports to be an intelligent, intellectual film-maker, serving up pretense in dry, sober aesthetics, tailored suits and unrelenting seriousness. He sets that bar, and it’s a lot to bear. So when he presents things which ultimately lack anything more than the mere appearance of intelligence or even any cohesive logic, when the goal and means of manipulation are laid bare, what other response is appropriate? We’re asked to engage with Nolan’s work on a cerebral level, and yet we’re met with obfuscation, as if that were the same as having our minds blown. We’re invited to play tennis; we get to the court, racquet-in-hand, only to find that the tennis balls are turning into basketballs, and then no balls at all. And did you notice how the court was never a court at all? The court is inside us all! Game. Set. Match. Nolan out.

I wasn’t as pissed off with Interstellar as I’d been led to believe I would be, but that could just be because I was led to believe I’d be more pissed off. Is that a black hole of logic? Must be Nolan rubbing off on us all. What a twist!

Further Viewing

This Guy Edits breaks down – literally, on his own editing timeline – the deceptively complex cross-cutting of Interstellar‘s climax:

This Guy Edits | Interstellar‘s Editing Is Out of This World’

Lessons from the Screenplay examines Christopher Nolan‘s use of cross-cutting – when it works, when it doesn’t, and why:

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