The following contains spoilers for Interstellar. You have been warned.
Well…in the early running, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has been nothing if not polarizing. Although The Dark Knight Rises received its fair share of criticism, I think it’s safe to say that Interstellar has been the acclaimed director’s most divisive film to date. Why? James Tisch and I spent some time trying to puzzle it out.
Tim: Ok, well to get this discussion underway, I think we need to start here: Interstellar is currently rating 73% on Rotten Tomatoes. It seems to be one of the most critically divisive major films of the year. I’m among those who did not have a positive reaction to the movie overall. So before we go anywhere, I want to know: are you in the thumbs up or thumbs down camp?
James: If pushed into a corner, I’m a thumbs down. I had a lot of problems with Interstellar though I’m a little at odds with myself over them. On one hand, I appreciate and admire Christopher Nolan because he’s a filmmaker who has the power and clout to make expensive, highly ambitious and original movies. That alone almost makes me want to see the movie again in the hopes that maybe I missed something on first viewing. Only almost, because well, as a whole I was not a fan.
Tim: And that’s part of what’s coloring this whole public discussion, isn’t it? Christopher Nolan is the populist high-concept filmmaker working today. I’m a huge fan of his, too. But to begin to get into my biggest problems with the movie, Interstellar finally feels like he went too high concept. There’s way more that this movie is trying to do than Nolan ever has the time to deliver on. I said it in my review, but it feels like the complete script for this movie would have produced about a five hour feature.
James: That’s probably why everything feels so underdeveloped – a bad thing for movie nearly three hours long!! I appreciate that Nolan goes high-minded in his movies (I even like how his Batman films have a sense of reality and social responsibility to them), but nothing in Interstellar feels completely worked out, none of the characters feel flesh and blood and none of the ideas feel developed enough to work on either an intellectual or emotional level.
Tim: There’s a lot there that I really want to get to, but let’s try to dig into a few of the things that were really disorienting. It starts with a couple of the key elements of the setup, for me, the first of which is the mysterious “blight.” This was far from a hangup for me, but I did find it really curious that this is tossed off so casually as the reason that Earth is no longer suitable for life. In this near future that can support interstellar travel, can’t they make some genetically modified crops that are resistant to whatever “blight” is?
James: I think there could have been an interesting way for Nolan to describe what may have happened to Earth without resorting to easy deductions and keeping a level of ambiguous mystery to it. I like the idea that food has become scarce and I liked the small scene in the beginning where Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is at the parent-teacher conference (the exchange about the moon landing being faked was the biggest laugh in the whole movie), but I never felt the ideas were developed enough. Which is odd because Nolan in the past has always been so good at world-building.
Tim: Yeah, that detail in particular was so informative, such a great world building tidbit – but about a world we never saw. It was completely extraneous to the plot. What wasn’t so extraneous was the mysterious conception of gravity the entire movie exhibits. If Alfonso Cuaron hadn’t made a movie called Gravity last year, I’m convinced that’s what this movie would have been titled. Early on there are these clearly paranormal phenomena occurring in Murph’s room, but the scientifically trained Coop writes them off as “gravity,” and there’s some idea of gravitational anomalies being carried through the movie, like the idea of magnetic hot spots, but applied to gravitation.
James: It was a little jarring at first when it seemed early on that Nolan was putting in a bit of a supernatural element with Murph’s “paranormal phenomena.” I, for one, didn’t buy that for a second and it was the first plot thread that took me out of the movie.
Tim: Was it something you eventually accepted? Because to argue on the movie’s behalf, it doesn’t concede; the quasi-supernatural is always linked to its pseudoscience, and it continues with those ideas throughout the movie. It wants us to buy in.
James: I wasn’t surprised at how it figured in, but once we got there I wasn’t particularly excited about it.
Tim: “At how it figured in” – are you saying you anticipated the extradimensional climax?
James: I expected to find either some future or some past iteration of Cooper. However, by the time we got there – and I do think that moment is supposed to be the emotional pivot of the film – I had already felt so removed from the film that it didn’t register much meaning to me. Yet, I knew from the start that Nolan wouldn’t put a ghost or something like that in there.
Tim: Isn’t that what he’s effectively done, though? The ending to this movie is fairly nonsensical to me. I keep trying to figure out the sequence of events that led to humanity surviving Earth without another planet to go to, and I’m having trouble. To be honest, part of me tuned out a little bit with that behind-the-bookshelf bit. I wasn’t the only one in my theater chuckling at the sheer absurdity of it – or especially at the rational explanation TARS tries to give after reconnecting radio contact with Coop. “They’re making the fifth dimension look like a spacial dimension,” or some such nonsense that nearly the whole theater laughed at.
James: It’s usually a bad thing when the majority of the dialogue is exposition. That’s true here (and it’s mostly abysmal) and I found myself not caring often. Was the faux-supernatural thread effectively done? Perhaps at first, but once it landed, it seemed to tank quite quickly – I didn’t even think the bookshelf sequence had a much visual inventiveness, something we can usually expect in a Nolan film.
Tim: I definitely agree with that. But let’s move towards one of the more grounded parts of the movie I also had some trouble fully comprehending – the mysterious motivations of Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann. What was that guy up to? I was left assuming he just got mentally fried from too long in isolation, but still, I’m not sure what he thought his goal was (and I think that problem comes through in Damon’s performance, too).
James: That was a major problem for me as well. I feel that whole sequence could have been lifted – it felt like something that might have sounded like a clever idea in the early stages but probably should have been scrapped. Dr. Mann’s motivation is boggling. Why pick a fight with a man who can save your life? I don’t think it can just be explained away that he’s crazy – he’s also supposed to be incredibly intelligent. As a result the performance is strange, too, and since he shows up well into the movie, more than a little distracting.
Tim: Contributing to the cloudiness, the movie seems to be setting up a false decision between returning to Earth and establishing a colony with the embryos on board. As I understood it, the various pods on the ring of the Endurance (their ship) would detach and go down to the planet, but the lander/shuttle vehicles seemed to be providing the thrust. So why couldn’t they establish a colony, leave a couple astronauts behind to maintain it, and send one or two people back home with the good news?
James: Because that would take away the (supposed) emotional thrust of the movie between Cooper and Murph (Jessica Chastain). I honestly think Nolan is trying to root Interstellar more as an emotional ride than an intellectual one – or at the very least is trying to have it both ways, be Spielberg and Kubrick at the same time. It just doesn’t quite fit here.
Tim: And again, that’s what I normally love about Christopher Nolan – he’s able to do multiple things at once and tie it back together. While obviously on a much smaller scale, I go back to something like Memento, where you have a highly intellectual approach paired with a highly emotional motivation. And both factor into the denouement of the film.
James: Memento, and even Inception, felt more lithe and free-floating, I guess, if that makes any sense. With Interstellar, the whole thing just feels kind of slog-ish. I like some of the grander themes, or I wanted to like them, but there needed to be, I felt, something a little bit lighter (or maybe playful) going on either in terms of character or in the visuals.
Tim: And we’ve arrived, I think, at the other major thrust the film tries to make thematically – the power of love. As you said, the movie is trying to be about the emotional relationship between Murph and Coop. Or I think it is, anyways. And of course, there’s Amelia’s (Anne Hathaway) speech. What did you make of all that?
James: We learn at some point that Amelia has her own agenda. She was in love with an astronaut sent to another planet. That could have been used as an interesting set-up, I suppose, but again felt underdeveloped. I liked the idea of visiting planets in the movie – the water planet was the biggest visual AHA! moment for me – but Nolan didn’t seem interested in going in that direction. And we’re left with the idea of love conquering all, something that feels maddeningly simple for a movie that’s literally supposed to be taking us out of this world. The whole thing seems to have a resolution out of a Hallmark card.
Tim: The water planet, with its massive tidal waves and extreme time dilation, was easily the most interesting part of the movie from a conceptual standpoint. As for the love angle, I think you’re right that the message is, in the end, love conquers all, but it’s so hard for me to accept that, and I think that’s because it’s supposed to be connected with this amorphous idea of gravity and the idea of “Them,” these extra-dimensional watchers that are supposed to be directing human activity. (And end up being Coop in the past/future?)
James: The water planet was really incredible, as was the immediate scene afterwards telling us how much time they really spent there.
Tim: “Really” being a relative description. Hehe.
James: Ha! What did you think of the performances in the film? I didn’t exactly think anyone in the cast was bad, per se (although maybe Damon), but I never really felt like any of the actors came together to create a unifying whole if that makes any sense.
Tim: It does, and I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms before. But that jives with my impression, that (as I alluded to when we talked about Matt Damon’s character earlier) none of the actors seemed quite sure of who their characters were or what they were supposed to be doing. I hit this pretty hard in my review, but I think it’s telling that a bunch of actors we know can embody a different character end up relying on their go-to character types and acting habits.
James: A lot of that has been the fault of the dialogue which is so expositional-heavy. It perhaps may have made more sense for Interstellar to have a more formal “audience surrogate,” like Ellen Page’s character in Inception. What surprised me in the film was how disinterested I was in the overall look of the movie. Outside of the water planet, there wasn’t many visual set-pieces that stayed in the my brain after exiting the theater. What are your thoughts on that?
Tim: I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, because as big a release as this is, there are posters and billboards all over the place right now, and many of them are quite striking. My favorites have the ship against a starry-black background, usually with a little nebulous color splashed in. It’s gorgeous and the ship design, with the ring, is just unique enough to be eyecatching. But that’s never, nor should it be, a focus of the movie itself. You want the spaceship to be an icon, you open with something like the Star Destroyer flyover in the original Star Wars. I think the near-future angle the movie takes would have been more remarkable, more poignant, had the movie it supports been better. Oh, and there was TARS. I liked TARS.
James: TARS had moments. It’s not at all that I felt Interstellar looked bad, but there was little for me to luxuriate on. There seemed a lack of “magic” on display. For instance, I will never forget the Paris bending sequence in Inception. Considering, the movie didn’t quite do it for me emotionally or intellectually, there wasn’t a lot visually for me to latch on to. Marking a very long three-hour sit.