Christopher Nolan, that paramour of young mainstream cinema watchers around the world, doesn’t take half measures – everything in his movies is portentous and big, the IMAX prints, the deafening scores by Hans Zimmer and the inflated sense of self importance. Cannes isn’t the only place for cinema snobbery, going by the discussions that range along our common connective tissue as a society – the internet, it is also to be found at your local discount theatre, practiced amidst giant tubs of buttered pop-corn and buckets of diet cola.
The latest picture by Nolan, the most portentous and the longest of them all, accelerates outwards, towards the furthest reaches of our universe, the mere earth being unable to contain his story-telling ambition. It is a story of humanity’s plight sometime in the future with the vision of a dying world and mankind desperately trying to get off the earth and fulfill the promise of Stanley Kubrick’s 46-year-old masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – to become a space-faring species.
At the heart of this scenario, grafted by brother and co-writer Jonathan Nolan, is a story of a father and daughter (Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain respectively) which becomes the emotional thrust for the story driving its stakes. Nolan, perhaps unusually for him, loads his narrative to pivot on this emotional bond, something which can have a diminishing effect on the rest of the space exploration aspects of the story. It can feel like so much window dressing when you are repeatedly telling your audience that nothing else matters except LOVE (the caps and emphasis his, not mine).
After a first act that plays like a dramatized exposition manual, the film finally gets off the ground (literally) at the 45-minute mark as our protagonist Cooper (McConaughey) launches into space to try to find a habitable world with his crew (an unconvincing Anne Hathaway and under-used Wes Bentley and David Gyasi). There is an aimlessness to this section of the film as they visit a couple of alien worlds orbiting a black hole to try them out for human habitation. It’s here that you get the feeling that Nolan’s script is sloppily constructed and just filling in time to get to its epic length. No really relevant or insightful information is gained in these sections and character development is non-existent.
Characters usually sit around and trade half-baked theories of physics, reading off Wikipedia it often seems, the actors doing their best to seem like real scientists talking. Or exchange platitudes about how “love is the one force apart from gravity that can travel across dimensions” – again Nolan takes no half measures, when he goes corny, he makes sure he outdoes Mills and Boon.
It is not so much cynicism that leads you to snigger at such stilted dialogue as it is the absolute lack of a human … dimension to any of this chatter in the movie. The actors truly have it here, having to speak absolutely ridiculous lines and look like they really mean it – it unfavorably brought on memories of Sigourney Weaver explaining the alien plantation in Avatar (2009) with her monumental reveal, “There is something really interesting going on there biologically!”
The movie constantly stretches credibility with its poker-faced and, a penchant with Nolan, serious staging of such scenes. When a character straight-facedly says at a pregnant climactic moment, “…. It was BECAUSE the professor could not reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics in his equations!” you think about the sheer absurdity of the entire narrative. These kind of heightened scenarios that Nolan constructs for his movies, which are at heart cornball matinee dailies, don’t bear for seriousness or solemnity. You somehow get the unsettling feeling that his actors and crew were not in on the joke, staging such scenes and dialog with stultifying earnestness – requiring a truly enormous suspension of disbelief, which Nolan’s film-making style painstakingly tells you is not required.
There is something schizophrenic and almost avant-garde in Nolan’s favored movie-making aesthetic; the content and the form are at war with each other: the content – as flippant and ludicrous as they come, the form – smothering in its gravity. You somehow get the feeling that here is a film-maker who is deathly afraid of being thought to have made a fun, careless film. Its Nolan’s way of trying to establish his individuality, of asserting that he is different from all the other blockbuster directors out there, he’s desperately trying to build a mystique (and has been quite successful) that you don’t go to his films for entertainment but some kind of edification, witnessing something thoughtful on the screen communicating a patented worldview, and yet his movies have exactly the same budgets as other blockbusters, same polish, same marketing drives, even similar plots and content, only perhaps higher respect but less enjoyment.
Interstellar seems even less rewarding in this aspect; I don’t really see myself wanting to see it again, to tolerate its lugubriousness to enjoy the occasional wondrous image. The much promised visual awe was strictly limited; last year’s Gravity (2013) offered nearly 10 times the visual dazzle in half the run time. The space footage is perhaps lesser in quantity than you would have thought and filmed in a very unimaginative way – from the POV of a space-craft – for the most part, though one sequence of docking a ship with a revolving space station is moderately thrilling.
Another talking point about the film is perhaps its climactic act, which plunges into “out there” territory where again Nolan’s literalness catches up with him. Just like the dreams of Inception (2010) which were too neat and properly designed and just plain normal to even remotely represent the messy human sub-consciousness, the concluding trippy portions of the film also have Nolan explicitly defining the terms of and functions of the other-worldly agencies he presents, lest his audience miss a beat. For a director famed for not talking down to his audience, he surprisingly does so repeatedly; even his ambiguities are manufactured and don’t organically arise from the work. How about for once the ambiguity and suspense of what a human being truly feels rather than the ambiguity of a story point?
The human beings are all defined by their plot actions, though McConaughey acquits himself very well with a film-anchoring and engaging performance. He is a most credible protagonist and this film furthers his reputation as one of our best leading men today.
The technical aspects of the film are polished though I have to take grave exception with Nolan’s unyielding propensity for cross-cutting – it masks his failure to create tension in a scene by itself and is even more egregious here because he cross-cuts between events that are clearly not happening at the same time. Zimmer, perhaps relenting towards the audience, does his best to drown the dialog, but bad luck for us that on the entire musical spectrum, he can conjure up just two sonic constructs – loudness and softness.
So here it finally is, Christopher Nolan’s grand interstellar saga, his script accurately mirroring his rendering of the universe with its black-hole sized plot holes and logic gaps, and his view of humans as dysfunctional as the laws of physics at a cosmic singularity.