There are so many moments where it’s clear Interstellar wants to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the 21st century. But screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan never have the guts to leave the audience perplexed. Stanley Kubrick’s arthouse science fiction classic is mostly notable for lengthy, wordless sequences, many of which leave the audience gasping for some understanding of what is happening.
In contrast, Interstellar is filled with sequence after sequence of in-depth explanations of astronomical phenomena and every detail of the mission. It confuses complexity in the details with intelligence. The obsession with details results is an unnecessarily complex plot that Nolan has to explain ad nauseam. It’s the same problem Inception has, a plot with so many layers that a large chunk of the movie is explaining the layers.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer in a bleak future where Earth is slowly dying. When a scientific anomaly starts communicating with his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), it leads him to the hidden remnants of NASA who work in secret to save humanity. Before Earth declined, Cooper was part of a failed NASA mission and remains the only human on Earth to have been in space before.
NASA sent 12 ships through a wormhole near Venus to another side of the universe to find a habitable planet. Problem is they need someone on the other side of the wormhole to find which planet will work, either (a) come back and take a human remnant to that planet or (b) start the process of growing human embryos on the planet to breed a new home for humanity. And they decide Cooper should be a part of the mission.
There are so many details along the way, the need to explain every last move and step of the mission, details one would think NASA would go over with everyone before they launch the mission, but since this is a Hollywood film, Nolan strings along the audience and spoon-feeds Cooper the mission details over an hour and a half second act.
And there are so many little nagging details along the way that start putting stress on the complex house of cards. Why did Cooper become a farmer and why didn’t NASA keep track of him if he was the best they had? How come NASA is so far inland and coincidentally so close to where Cooper ended up farming? Why doesn’t their advanced robot TARS go down to the planets and deal with all the dangerous situations solo since it seems the humans are just the things he has to save when the situation gets risky.
At some point, one has to decide to either look at all the flaws in the trees or just enjoy the forest. And there’s surprisingly a lot that still works with so many flawed trees. The emotional beats are consistently good and the main players all come across as people longing for connection but driven away from those they love by the drive to survive and keep the human race going.
And as a hard-science piece of sci-fi, it explores interesting concepts of how time becomes this enemy when doing space exploration. It’s one thing to explain it intellectually, but there’s an emotional impact and weight to it that makes the harsh realities of it feel a lot more human. It makes sense to tell a story that pivots on the relativity of time in the medium of film where time can be expanded and condensed through editing.
The exploration of space allows for great visual moments, particularly the wormhole and black hole sequences. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is gorgeous to behold and he captures a lot of that magical wonder that the best films about space are able to convey. It’s just a shame so many of his visuals have to be explained instead of absorbed. Once again, this film lives in the monolithic statue of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s refreshing for a science fiction film to be about the science and practicality of space in an era where space is mostly a background for action (Rogue One, Fury Road) or high-concept, low-budget thought pieces (Midnight Special, Snowpiercer). It exists in this middle ground that vanished in the 21st century where everything had to be a big, dumb action blockbuster or a small, intimate Oscar contender or indie flick.
Interstellar would be quickly followed up by The Martian, a film with less ambitions, but a similar hard science sensibility and a much better execution. It too also has a lot of explanation, but frames it as scientific work instead of explaining to the new crewmember all the things he should have taken note of during the briefings.
There’s a wonder to this films existence, but there are many moments where it becomes clear that it could have been a much better film. Less exposition and more mystery would have gone a long way to making for a much more thoughtful film. Instead, Interstellar comes across as a compromise, a film that wants enough smart moments to get hardcore sci-fi fans, but enough explanation to make sure the average moviegoer won’t leave the film too confused or perplexed. The film’s boldness is executed to be safe and profitable, hampered by its desire to appease instead of having the boldness to challenge and confuse.
© James Blake Ewing 2017