Reviewing movies may be the most fickle work in existence. Sometimes you see a movie and you immediately know how you feel about it; what works, what doesn’t, if it’s a success or a failure or somewhere in between. Most importantly, whether or not you liked it, if it connected and resonated with you. Other times it’s not so simple. Every once in a while you walk out of a film completely dumbfounded, unable to coherently put two thoughts together, unsure of what to make of what transpired in front of you for the past ninety plus minutes. No words seem to effectively convey your jumbled thoughts. Everything is lost in a chaotic mess of emotions, opinions and analysis, with no consistent reaction ever surfacing from the unending depths of your incoherence. You’re completely and utterly adrift.
If you hadn’t guessed already, “Interstellar” falls into the latter. In fact, “Interstellar” may be the most difficult film I’ve ever had to review in my past three plus years of writing reviews.
As a reviewer it’s your job to be critical of the films you watch. Not overly so, but typically more than the average viewer. You have to pay close attention to the intricacies of every aspect of the film – the writing, direction, performances, cinematography, design, everything. Every little part and every little moment needs to be taken into account before you can effectively determine your verdict or else you’re doing both yourself and the film a disservice. Most the time it’s pretty simple; if the majority of the different aspects of the film work then the film is considered successful. If said aspects don’t mesh well, the writing is lazy or the performances are lackluster, they typically drag down the film down, making it unsuccessful. While this is far from a fail-safe method of judging films, it doesn’t take into account personal preferences or bias, more oft that not it’s at least applicable with regards to judging the quality of a film. However, every once in a while, a film comes along where this method is so wildly irrelevant and inept that I forget how it’s ever worked in the past. “Interstellar” is such a film.
Based off my old model of criticism, “Interstellar” should be an obvious failure. Watching the movie I couldn’t help but notice the haphazard script filled with expository dialogue, one-note characters, and illogically narrative jumps. Pacing issues plague the film from beginning to end, not to mention some choppy editing here and there, and even a couple substandard performances. Most films at this point would unblinkingly be written off as a failure, as simplya bad film, but a funny thing happened with “Interstellar,” I kind of loved it. Despite all of it’s numerous issues, and I mean numerous, I found myself enthralled and captivated from the first frame, caught in Nolan’s web of grand ideas and lofty ambitions. For once in my life, the flaws didn’t really matter.
Now I’m not going to go into much of a plot description as this film’s been shrouded in secrecy since day one and who am I to ruin the experience of what exactly “Interstellar” actually is. That being said, it’s safe to say that “Interstellar” is sci-fi epic in the vein of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but nowhere near as inconceivably amazing. Earth is slowly but surely dying and corn is our last viable crop. Random dust storms plague the country, and billions have died from food shortages. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a failed astronaut now regulated to farming corn somewhere in Middle America with his son and daughter. Now I won’t go into too much detail, but thanks to a certain set of events, Cooper has to leave his family and go into space with a small squad of astronauts on a mission to find us a new habitable planet.
Just from reading that plot synopsis it should be obvious that “Interstellar” is crazy ambitious, but that synopsis represents just a fraction of the mind-boggling ambition on display in the film, and that’s all thanks to one man: Christopher Nolan. Nolan is the only man on the face of the earth who can walk into a studio empty-handed and walk out with a $200 million budget, and “Interstellar” shows why. Nolan’s brain doesn’t work like ours; his consciousness is on a whole other plane of thinking. While Nolan’s made ambitious films before, “Interstellar” is the first unfiltered representation of just how big of a thinker and dreamer Christopher Nolan truly is. The ideas, concepts, and science contained within “Interstellar” are staggering and easily the highlight of the film. Nolan’s direction and ambition are unmatched and it shows throughout the film, as he goes to places, both visually and conceptually, that are unheard of in cinema. It’s not that he’s doing anything narratively groundbreaking, far from it actually, it’s that he’s taking his ideas and concepts so much farther than anyone before him. It’s unheard of for a director to have the amount of creative control that Nolan does on a blockbuster like this, but here we are, and it’s because of this freedom that “Interstellar” is able to go to the weird, metaphysical places it goes. That being said, full creative control can be a double-edged sword, and that’s never been more apparent than in “Interstellar.”
The only comparable example I can think of is with George Lucas and the “Star Wars” prequel. Like with Nolan and “Interstellar,” and even “The Dark Knight Rises” before it, Lucas returned to the “Star Wars” franchise as its sole curator. Being George Lucas, the rest of the cast and crew involved with the film never questioned any of the creative decisions Lucas was making, resulting in over-indulgent, silly movies that were nothing but CGI-shells of the former films. Thankfully, “Interstellar” is nowhere near the train wreck of any of the “Star Wars” prequels, but the same principles apply. Because Nolan has become such a prevalent figure unto himself, there are few people who are capable of challenging him in terms of creative decisions and “Interstellar” suffers because of it, particularly in the script department.
The script is so overstuffed with big ideas and metaphysical science that there’s no room for more than one or two developed characters. Everyone that isn’t Cooper and his daughter Murph are nothing more than walking, talking plot devices. McConaughey gives one hell of a performance, further cementing his resurgence, but he’s pretty much the only strong performance in a film filled with great actors. The blame is less on the actors themselves or even Nolan’s direction, but the unsubstantial script. Anne Hathaway tries her best, but the cripplingly sentimental dialogue gives her nothing to work with, so her big acting moment falls flat because it’s just so damn cheesy. Similarly, unlike Kubrick, who forced his viewers to connect the many unexplained dots in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan, feel the need to explain every single thing happening over the course of the nearly three hour film. It gets to the point where I think the majority of the dialogue in the film is exposition in one form or another.
Now, if this had been a script written by any one other than the Nolans, there’s no way it would’ve made it to the screen in the form it is, but that goes to show you the unbelievable amount of power Nolan has these days. As mentioned before, complete creative freedom is both a boon and a detriment, and in terms of Nolan it’s made him a much stronger director and filmmaker, but if “Interstellar” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are any representation, it’s also forced him to compromise the narrative ingenuity so prevalent in his first few films. There’s always a trade-off and “Interstellar” is that concession incarnate.
Despite all this, I couldn’t help but find myself enamored with the film, getting caught up in the myriad of emotions and ideas so prevalent throughout the film. It may not be the masterpiece many hoped and prayed for, but it’s ambition and aspirations more than make up for it’s myriad problems. There’s so much to “Interstellar” that it’s impossible to encapsulate it in a single viewing or a single review. It’s a strange film, one that may not stand the test of repeated viewings or detailed analysis, but it’s one damn fine achievement, and a fantastic representation of the staggering possibilities contained in blockbuster filmmaking. That being said, I’d love to see Nolan return to smaller-scale filmmaking akin to “Memento” and “The Prestige,” because while “Interstellar” is an incredible directorial achievement of itself, it’s another worrisome step in terms of Nolan as a storyteller. Now that he’s proven his ambition and ideas are unparalleled, I want him to remind the world how great of a storyteller he’s capable of being, because this is the second film in a row where his ideas and ambitions outweigh the actual story. It may work with a grand science-fiction film like “Interstellar” but not much else. If his earlier work is any proof, it’s that he’s capable of finding the balance between story and ambition, but his freedom is stifling him.
By James Hausman