If you love art and science, and in particular if you love astrophysics, space travel and movies about them, it will be hard not to love Interstellar. By this I mean not that you will be bound to love it, but that you will take it hard if you don’t. A film like Interstellar is a rare event, and if such a film falls short, it stings in a way that the day-to-day failures of conventional Hollywood fare don’t.
Christopher Nolan is one of a very few A-list Hollywood directors these days with the interest and ability to make audacious, ambitious blockbusters that challenge audiences rather than pandering to them. In an era in which nearly all the top-performing films are franchise pictures or cartoons, it almost seems a wonder that movies like Inception or Interstellar get made at all. In part, of course, Nolan has the cred to get these projects made because of his Dark Knight films — but even those stand apart from more conventional comic-book fare.
Interstellar is easily his most ambitious film to date, a sprawling opus with overt echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Close Encounters, Contact and Signs, among many others. Where Inception turned inward to landscapes of imagination and dreams, Interstellar turns outward, to distant galaxies, higher dimensions, the relativity of time and space and the mysteries of black holes and quantum gravity.
Interstellar also ponders the mysteries of the human heart and asks whether love is of merely subjective, terrestrial significance or whether it might in some way be a cosmic force unlimited in scope — like gravity. “My love is my weight,” wrote St. Augustine, whose name is familiar to many physicists today due to his remarkable insight, centuries before Einstein, that time is inseparable from matter and space, and thus there was no time “before” the moment of creation. I would like to think that, had Nolan been aware of that quotation from Augustine, it might have found its way into the film.
It is hard for me to imagine a précis for a film I would more want to love than the film I have just described. For such a film, I would allow much and excuse much. After all, critical complaints are often just reflections of the critic’s tastes and prejudices.
If Nolan has often been criticized as a chilly filmmaker whose films lack emotional authenticity, well, no one ever accused 2001 of being a touchy-feely epiphany either. Conversely, Interstellar has been accused of flip-flopping into corny sentimentality, but, too, that isn’t necessarily a damning fault. As Chesterton reminded us, “It is as healthy to enjoy sentiment as to enjoy jam.”
Is the film overlong, over-plotted and over-explained? Is there too much abstruse technobabble? “Too many notes,” Emperor Joseph II is said to have complained of Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio. Pay your money and choose your poison.
For at least two hours, I was more or less with Interstellar, which opens in an unspecified near future with the Earth blighted by an unnamed environmental disaster. Between crop-killing blights and apocalyptic dust storms, mankind is struggling to eke out a sustenance-level existence, so raising corn and children are existential priorities; science and technological advancement, not so much.
Shrewdly, Nolan casts anti-science attitudes in a light that will have nearly all viewers empathizing with Matthew McConaughey’s protagonist Coop, once a pilot in the space program and now a good agrarian citizen working a farm. In a meeting with local school authorities, Coop learns that his brainy daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who grows up to be Jessica Chastain) has been fighting and run afoul of teachers for insisting that the Apollo program was real, and not, as currently sanctioned materials would have it, a propaganda hoax mounted to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
“We used to look up and wonder at our place in the stars,” says Coop in one of those neat lines Nolan (and his writing partner and brother Jonathan) excel at. “Now, we look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Interstellar doesn’t quite contemn agrarianism or laboring in the dirt, but it might be fair to say it’s ambivalent about the exigencies of life on our big blue planet. Earth’s atmosphere, we are reminded, is mostly nitrogen — an element we don’t metabolize, though the crop-killing blight does. The implication is that this world isn’t necessarily as friendly to us as we might like to think. Here comes another one of those lines: “Mankind was born on Earth … but we were never meant to die here.”
Talk of “our place among the stars” and not being “meant to die” on Earth suggests a higher purpose to it all. Interstellar hints at such a purpose in a mysterious phenomenon in Murph’s bedroom: strange disturbances in which Murph and then Coop detect meaningful patterns: patterns that lead them — has Coop been chosen? — to a secret government project to ensure mankind’s survival in the universe.
A wormhole has appeared in the orbit of Saturn, opening a door to a region in another galaxy where there seem to be inhabitable planets. Wormholes are not naturally occurring phenomena; this open door may be an invitation from benign forces, the same forces, perhaps, responsible for the phenomena in Murph’s bedroom leading Coop to the space program, where he joins Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi on a mission that will literally take him to infinity and beyond. Meanwhile, Michael Caine remains behind at NASA to work on the problem of moving the human race off the planet.
Are extradimensional aliens, capable of folding spacetime and tweaking gravity, looking out for mankind? At one point, the word “supernatural” is dropped (and quickly glossed over), though no one ever mentions angels, religion or the divine. There’s some talk about making a “leap of faith” in the power of love as some sort of cosmic constant, but not a hint of God talk.
Alas, at the big, mind-blowing climax, the film wraps around on itself in a curious, Mobius-like way that is touching with respect to the character drama and possibly provocative with respect to normal assumptions about causality (can the effect precede the cause?) but which I find to undermine any suggestion of cosmic mystery and meaning. Consider this a vague spoiler warning: The pattern that looked like a face was only a reflection; the footsteps we were following turned out to be our own. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
The climax confirms Nolan’s status as a puzzle-maker rather than a poet, a technocrat rather than a visionary. He can’t resist the impulse to explain the trick, to reveal the identity of the man behind the curtain, which, of course, dissolves the aura of mystery and awe around Oz the Great and Powerful. The monoliths in 2001 are loci of mystery and awe because they are never explained; the more closely we inspect them, the more inexplicable they become. In Interstellar, there’s an equation for everything.
And then comes the denouement, where it finally feels like Nolan has lost his nerve. Here, at last, he seems to be pandering, offering the comforting closure viewers want rather than the bracing inevitability the story needs. Another spoiler warning: You don’t get to be the Star Child or abandon your family to fly away in the mother ship and get to go home again. It doesn’t work that way.
It’s this artistic lumpiness that makes me want to trash the film’s worst science howlers. The filmmakers consulted with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on what wormholes and black holes would look like, with visually stunning results; there are also some memorably realized alien landscapes. And while the attempts to visualize the multidimensional higher reality beyond normal spacetime reminded me of nothing so much as the closet-door warehouse in the climax of Monsters, Inc., I give filmmakers a lot of leeway when it comes to the unknown. It’s when key plot points make an obvious hash of well-known science that I feel myself slipping into geek-cop mode.
To pick just one example: At one point, Coop and Hathaway’s character visit a planet orbiting a black hole where the relativistic effects of gravity are supposedly so strong that one hour on the surface is equivalent to seven years on Earth. Give me a break. Sure, with increased gravity (as with increased velocity, acceleration and gravity are equivalent in their effects) comes a slowing of time — but a gravitational field powerful enough to slow time by a factor of tens of thousands would be far too great for humans to withstand; it would be too great for a planet to exist at all. Obviously, any planet you can walk around on is going to have a time frame only slightly different from time on Earth or even in deep space.
As a counterpoint, last year’s Gravity was absurd on many levels, but at any given point, it offered a fairly persuasive portrait of what things would be like if they could happen at all. More importantly, it had a structural and thematic coherence; it resolved the problems it set itself on their own terms. And Cuarón’s poetic camerawork made the low-orbit story not just impressive, but wondrous; somehow, the Earth in Gravity becomes a more transcendent visual presence than Nolan’s wormholes and black holes. As emphatically as Nolan writes PROSE PROSE PROSE PROSE PROSE, in the largest possible font, it never verges into poetry.
Caveat Spectator: Some violence and peril; limited profanity and some crude language. Teens and up.