There was a time when Christopher Nolan was cinema’s golden boy. After the success of his early films, and especially after legitimizing the comic book film (with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) as a serious art form, it appeared that the director could do no wrong.
Yet, in the interim between 2008 and 2012 it seemed that the director’s ambition was starting to eclipse his abilities. From the tiresome dream within a dream within a dream structure of Inception, to the questionable staging of The Dark Knight Rises’ sprawling battle sequences, it felt like Nolan had lost a step, or that maybe the dream was collapsing all together.
This trend reverses itself somewhat in Nolan’s most recent effort, the celestial drama Interstellar. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ann Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and of course Michael Caine, Interstellar is prime Nolan, featuring a large ensemble and swinging (thematically) for the fences.
However, despite the film’s good intentions, and despite it being enormously effective in certain arenas, Interstellar suffers from issues that have plagued Nolan’s other blockbusters. Not only is there an insane amount of expository dialogue, but the film’s thematic structure is generally muddy. There are also too many times where you feel the immense weight of the production, and you begin to wonder if it’s all worth it.
Still, Interstellar is a progressive film for the director. Not only are there recognizable human figures in this massive tale – at least when compared to billionaire crime fighters and suave dream thieves – but one feels a connection to their plights.
Interstellar presents a not-so-distant-future, where due to the avarice of humanity the planet has become engulfed in crop-killing dust storms. In traditional Nolan fashion, the plot follows the trials of one very damaged (and very masculine) soul, embodied by Matthew McConaughey’s pilot/engineer turned farmer Cooper. Despite possessing many similarities to Nolan’s other protagonists, Cooper is a departure for Nolan due to him being not just a noir archetype. Instead, Cooper is a family man, whose bond with his children is rendered with surprising sensitivity and feeling.
Cooper’s bond with his young daughter Murph (portrayed by Mackenzie Foy as a ten year old and Jessica Chastain as an adult) is particularly integral to the story. Their relationship is one of intense fondness, which grows in complexity once Cooper is recruited by the remnants of NASA for a mission to save the world.
Now, the intricacies of this mission are far too numerous to detail here. However, a brief summary would be that NASA has discovered a wormhole nestled in the vicinity of Saturn. Who placed it there and for what purpose remains vague at best. However, this doesn’t stop Nolan’s band of intrepid explorers, who blast off from the mother planet in the hopes of finding a new home.
The scenes detailing Cooper’s journey from hayseed to spaceman function largely as pure exposition. There is a lot said, often times in rosy mini-monologues that were also found in the film’s many trailers. And one gets the sense that Nolan kind of knows what themes he would like to parse, although eventually they do turn out to be incompatible. On one hand Interstellar is an apologetic paean, lying prostrate before the idea that humanity’s insatiable consumerism has damned it. However, Nolan also contends that the human need to expand and explore is an admirable one. This is conveyed in a intriguing early scene, where Cooper attends Murph’s parent/teacher conference and learns that the school is now teaching that the Apollo missions were hoaxes. Both of these themes are certainly worthy of being examined. However, Nolan ignores the fact that they have a connection, and that one is simply the extension of the other.
Perhaps the most cohesive theme is the relationship between parents and children. This takes on a new dimension here, especially when Cooper begins to experience the relative nature of the universe, where time functions far slower in certain parts of the cosmos than it does on Earth. Nolan is able to draw great drama out of this premise, particularly a scene where Cooper – after being down on an alien planet where every hour equals seven Earth years – returns to his ship to find nearly 23 years worth of messages from his two children, who have grown up without him.
In this and many other scenes Matthew McConaughey’s powerful performance drives the action. He is perfectly believable as either the doting father figure or as Spaceman Spiff. He even manages to sell Nolan’s unconvincing dialogue, conveying effortlessly how mankind used to “look up and wonder” at its place in the stars. Less convincing however is Ann Hathaway as Dr. Brand, who is saddled with equally onerous dialogue and a less compelling character.
As one of the crack scientists who accompany Cooper on his interstellar mission, Brand spends a lot of time debating Cooper over strategy, and waxing about how love “transcends time and space.” These are certainly nice sentiments. However, similar to Nolan’s characters from Inception (minus Leo), Hathaway’s Brand is missing key ingredients. We know very little about her, aside from the fact that her father (also named Dr. Brand and played by Michael Caine) may hold the key to helping humanity follow Cooper and the gang if a habitable planet is found.
Therefore, its difficult to know how to feel about her and the other astronauts (which include Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) once Nolan’s story thrusts them into various alien environments. More than likely the absorbing nature of the action set-pieces (such as a ocean planet with 1000 foot waves) can be attributed to the film’s aesthetics instead of its characters. The same can be said of those left on Earth. This includes Chastain’s Murph and Cooper’s son Tom (played by a bearded and wasted Casey Affleck), who face down increasingly dire ecological circumstances.
On a aesthetic level though the film is a triumph, with the fatalistic and organ-heavy score of Hans Zimmer expanding the film’s scope past the story’s already gargantuan perimeters. These musical themes, especially when paired with the film’s richly evocative photography, give much of Interstellar and intense, pulsating urgency. Notice should also be given to production designer Nathan Crowley, whose work is equally effective in establishing the weathered nature of Cooper’s farmhouse, as it is with conveying the film’s near-future trappings of starships and robots.
However, if one tables these intergalactic set-pieces, and sifts through the nebulous script (which often sounds like white-noise jibber-jabber), one may determine that Interstellar’s themes don’t justify the cinematic apparatuses that were necessary to execute it. Nolan’s film comes across as a perverse hybrid of Spielberg and Kubrick, coating layer after layer of hard sci-fi onto a story that is mainly about a man’s love for his daughter. Thus, when the film gets to its metaphysical climax, and begins to wear its sentimentalist heart on its sleeve, one understands that all the talk of fifth dimensions and “quantum data” was superfluous. Nolan may have had a desire to take us into the heavens, but Interstellar’s stars turn out to be little more than astral window-dressings.