Thursday, July 14, 2016

Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
DP: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editor: Lee Smith
Score: Hans Zimmer
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Lynda Obst
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 49 min.

There's a scene in Interstellar in which Matt Damon says "you have literally raised me from the dead," and the film cuts to McConaughey who just says "Lazarus."

One scene is often not indicative of anything, and I don't even think it is here. This isn't a bad movie on the whole. I read people who combed the film over for details or described its thematic pursuits. I read the opinions of parents, who found value in the relationship between Coop and Murph, both in the film's efficient characterization and in the strength of McConaughey's and Chastain's performances. Looking at the movie itself, the parallel editing is more effective here than elsewhere in Nolan's filmography, and the sheer spectacle of the action sequences engenders wonder and fear for survival simultaneously. The characters' ability to support each other across generations preserves them into the distant future. There are good reasons to favor this film.

But I remain unconvinced. I don't appreciate how the film employs documentary-style interviews and setups and then lets it be subsumed into science fantasy - a realm it enters after spending interminable minutes explaining information we don't actually need to know. Yes, it's tired by this point to complain about the exposition in any Nolan film (and it's usually not that big of a problem anyway), but here it's used to lay claim to realism before descending into total fantasy. Maybe I wouldn't have a problem with this if love ever manifested in this movie as an actual emotion shared between people outside of that scene between Coop and the video messages from his family. Mostly, the film's notion of love manifests as magical realism. It sets love in opposition to Dr. Mann, who falsifies scientific data to attract Coop and his companions; scientific data turns out to be untrustworthy (though the characters had every reason to believe it was sound), while love validates sheer intuition. (That's just weird.) You'd think the wonder of magical realism would complement the premise of adventure, but not like this. Instead of deepening it, the mysticism declaws the unknown; you can only take self-aggrandizing optimism so far before it becomes a most uncomfortable kind of pessimism. Before you lose any sense of the unknown. There's really no fear or wonder here besides the immediate adrenaline of the action sequences.

I understand the affective potential of claiming cosmic, universal significance for familiar human problems, but Interstellar is all too literal. Interstellar is not just using metaphor or synecdoche, it's creating a universe whose physical laws insist on the significance of its characters while also pursuing realism and a sense of adventure or discovery. It's Manifest Destiny. (Consider also the depiction of "humanity" that it so inflates, which is built almost exclusively on images of Americana.) For me, the way it literally, tangibly claims human dominion over the deepest reaches of space doesn't engender an overwhelming magnitude of emotion. Rather, its universe feels awfully small with how it bends reality into a manageable, non-threatening facsimile; the pathos of distance between family members doesn't resonate.

I've also seen this film defended on the grounds of its passion and sincerity, but I should hope that any filmmaker approaches their film with such zeal. If anything, that's the bare minimum.

I don't think alternate, more generous takes on this film are invalid, because we don't watch films in a vacuum. But whatever my background and circumstances are, they don't allow me to see this as a successful film. But even as I'm equivocating here about my own subjectivity, I think it's hard to deny that this is a self-consciously "important" movie, which leaves an even worse taste in my mouth than it did before now that Nolan wants to crash an actual antique plane for his new movie (which is probably unfair to Nolan).


  1. You should review what is on the screen rather than trying to armchair analyze Nolan's intentions, less you wish to be a Ray Carney type critic.

    1. You're probably right that I attribute too many intentions to Nolan, though I'm mostly using the word "Nolan" as a shorthand for a less defined body of people who gave rise to this movie. That's probably unfair to him, and I guess I shouldn't do it.

      However, I believe I have reviewed what was on the screen, even if I also impugn Nolan himself too much. Maybe my language is at fault for failing to carry this across, but it's not really the filmmakers' intentions I have a problem with so much as the effect of their product. I don't know the intentions behind the dialogue, the mysticism, the way the movie visually implies the characters' sense of adventure, or the way it seems excessively schematic; but I do know that the overall effect of these things together doesn't work for me.