The many dimensions of Interstellar
Interstellar is far from being Christopher Nolan’s best movie, but it has stuck with me to an extent that I need to write something about it. I just didn’t know quite how to approach that task. It’s a big, at times glorious mess of a movie, and I admit that figuring out how to write about it in one piece was sort of daunting for me.
So instead, I’m going to write about it in pieces.
After seeing Interstellar, I wrote on Facebook that it felt like a film adapted from a first draft of a script. Weeks later, I still feel that way. Interstellar feels like multiple movies on stage at once, each taking hold of the mic for a moment before ceding the floor, with varying degrees of willingness.
So in lieu of a simple review, here’s my take on the different faces of Interstellar.
1. Just a bit of an Apocalypse
For a big-budget, special-effects driven spectacle, Interstellar takes a surprisingly low-fi look at the apocalypse unfolding on Earth. At no point does the film ever depict Earth beyond its unspecified American Midwestern setting. Hell, the headquarters for NASA are even conveniently located within driving distance from Cooper’s (the protagonist) house, albeit in a secret bunker. It doesn’t show much of this area beyond Cooper’s family and home. At one point he visits his daughter Murphy’s school, and is distraught to learn that in this society they teach that the moon landings were a hoax. Cooper and his daughter Murphy go to a baseball game, where the New York Yankees are barnstorming against local scrubs.
It’s an odd way to depict an apocalypse. It’s effective at getting across how things have changed for this one part of the world, but as “show don’t tell” goes, it shows us a small portion and tells us to take its word that the rest of the world is the same way. Children of Men (my favorite apocalyptic film) never ventures out of England, but in its opening sequence accomplishes more (showing the scope of the collapse of civilization, the culture that is evolving out of it, and the draconian government that has risen to control that culture) in significantly less time.
Ultimately, Interstellar‘s apocalypse is on the scale it needs to be for the movie to function. And that is fine. But as the dust continued to gather over the film’s Earthly anchor, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on beyond the farmhouse and down the road a ways.
2. Lost in Space
The vastness of space provides endless narrative possibility. Alien told us that no one could hear us scream. 2001:A Space Odyssey turned space into a nearly religious experience, a stage for the unfolding of life in a manner completely foreign to that on earth. Gravity might well have scared off a generation of potential astronauts with this shot alone.
But all too often space is shorthand for “action-adventure set in the future”: the setting is less significant than the plot. And that’s a shame. Few locations so easily evoke awe as space.
Interstellar often aims for- and achieves- reverie. The vastness of the mission is characters are going on- exploring new planets, studying black holes- is never shortchanged. Space is never Nolan’s MacGuffin, a convenient excuse to move the plot.
As much as I enjoyed the film’s take on exploring wormholes and black holes and 3-D representations of 5-D, it was actually the scene on the planet that seemed to consist entirely of tsunamis that inspired the most awe in me. Space is vast, yes, but it is also filled with extraordinary locations that are so rarely given their due in science fiction. There are too many Earth 2’s in science fiction. I love that Nolan took a familiar concept (an ocean planet) and then turned it on its head, making it incomprehensibly terrifying and foreign. Subtle alterations to things with which we are already familiar can make them deeply sinister.
After the escapade on Planet Tsunami, I wondered if Interstellar might bring to life that aspect of Mass Effect that I enjoyed: planetary exploration, with the vast possibilities of actual space as the only limits.
That turned out not to be the case: the movie features one more planetary escapade that ends up focusing more on fisticuffs than fearsome terrain. That’s not inherently criticism, but it is an example of perhaps my biggest problem with Interstellar: it has big dreams, but it lacks commitment. That can be a passing annoyance when the movie suggests that it will be Around the Worlds in 80 Minutes/26 Years. But when it tries to inject something deeper into the story and then backs off, it is significantly more disappointing.
3. Voices through a Distant Wormhole
I keep telling you about 5 Centimeters Per Second, the exquisite anime by Makoto Shinkai. However, I don’t believe I have ever mentioned his first work, a 25-minute film called Voices of a Distant Star. Its plot is simple enough: in 2047, a teenage girl is recruited to fight in a war against an invading alien race. The war will take her deep into space, separating her from her boyfriend. She sends him messages regularly, but thanks to the (for this person with an English degree) mind-boggling relationship between space and time, the messages arrive days, then months, then years apart. By the end of the film, he is an adult, still getting messages his girlfriend sent him when they were both 16.
It’s an effective enough story. It’s not as polished or perceptive as 5 Centimeters Per Second. It rests on its plot, rather than mining the characters the way 5 CM does. But the simple power of its narrative makes Voices of a Distant Star memorable. I’ve been waiting for a filmmaker this angle; the way space travel would wipe out the modern Earthly comfort of instant communication wherever you are; and really explore it.
Interstellar announces the daunting relationship between time and relativity in a Chekov’s Gun moment; as soon as Cooper descends onto Planet Tsunami, we know that Murphy will soon be played by Jessica Chastain.
Nolan grants these scenes their due significance… in parts. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant during a scene where Cooper returns from a mission that has taken just a few hours to watch 26 years of increasingly despairing messages from his children. The scene is one of the film’s best, thanks largely to Nolan’s trust in McConaughey to carry it.
But Interstellar’s time games raised a minor pet peeve of mine: when the edges of a story are more interesting than the center, and the storyteller doesn’t seem to recognize it. The narrative potential of the relationship between time and relativity is immense, but in the film it never becomes more than a plot device. As the movie’s plot unfolds, it serves its purpose and then steps aside.
Again: this isn’t necessarily a problem, but bear with me. The fourth member of the film’s planetary exploration team is named Romilly, played by David Gyasi. He stays behind on the ship while the other three members of the team head down to a planet that, thanks to its proximity to a black hole, will experience accelerated time. In other words, Romilly will age with the rest of the galaxy. He will wait for 26 years. When he greets the team with the news that so many years have passed upon their return to the ship, I was rightly astonished. That’s one hell of a narrative bomb to drop into the movie. And I wanted to know more about him. What was it like to wait in isolation for 26 years? How did he cope? What is is like for a person to go through that? And to my great disappointment, Nolan showed little interest in exploring this narrative thread. Romilly had a purpose to serve: to announce that lots of time has passed, which effects Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Brand emotionally because they have family on Earth. Romilly’s tale is just a means to an end.
And that aggravated me. Nolan is excellent at coming up with interesting material, but he struggles on occasion to form it into the most interesting possible narrative. Interstellar didn’t necessarily have to follow every narrative thread to its end, but for a film that rarely seemed to know what its primary narrative purpose was, I would have liked for its peaks to be its most interesting aspects.
4. Boldly Go Where Many Have Gone Before
It’s been a while since this movie came out, so I feel comfortable speaking freely about Matt Damon’s surprise cameo. Damon plays Dr. Mann, a legendary scientist who led a mission to explore one of the planets NASA targeted as a potential target for colonization. The mission went awry, and Mann was forced into an emergency hibernation, hoping that someday someone would find him.
The Dr. Mann sequence of the film begins as the film’s most surprising turn and evolves into its most familiar one. Once the shock of Damon’s cameo wears off, we begin to appreciate his performance. Dr. Mann is lonely, desperate, and we sense he’s no longer all there. There’s a sinister undertone to the scenes that pay off in a strange fashion. I wasn’t upset when Mann and Cooper were suddenly grappling with one another as Dr. Mann tried to maintain a significant cover-up. At the same time, as the camera pulled back and showed two pinpricks of actors wrestling on rocky terrain, I wracked my brain to try to figure out how the hell a movie so in awe of the possibilities of the galaxy had gotten to a point where two of our biggest movie stars were wrestling in space suits.
5. Plucking the Chords of Time
The greatest pleasures of Interstellar all involve some willingness to risk coming off as silly for the sake of taking a big leap. Let’s travel right into a wormhole! Hell, let’s throw ourselves right into a black hole! Let’s make the black hole a 5th dimension that has a 3D aspect to it that turns our lifetimes into little strings of light that you can peer into an manipulate!
Good science fiction should be bold and silly, in great measures. My favorite sci-fi film is Atom Egoyan’s Dark City, in which alien worms move around in trenchcoat-wearing human cadavers and psychic powers take the form of animated beams eminating from the forehead. There comes a point in sci-fi when you inevitably venture into unknown territory. It’s fun when storytellers use this territory as a playground for their imaginations. Yes, the visual of Matthew McConaughey floating around the gigantic loom of his own life was a bit goofy and on the nose, but you know what? I appreciated that the movie didn’t back down from the challenge of its own ending. The plot raises countless questions and the ending attempts valiantly to answer them. That it does so with narrative and visual audacity should be applauded.
Interstellar didn’t leave me thrilled to my core, but there was a zeal under its surface that consistently shone through its larger shortcomings. Every once in a while, that zeal burst through. The trip through the wormhole, for example, or the tsunami sequence, or when we finally venture in to the center of a black hole. Truth be told, I don’t know of Christoper Nolan could have made a great film with this material. It was all so unwieldy. There was no underlying structure like the caper movie format for Inception, or the pre-existing comic book templates of Batman to provide support for his many ideas. Interstellar could have used that sort of backbone. It is a beautiful journey that never quite figures out where it wants to go, or how it’s going to get there.