Interstellar (2014)


It’s been several days since I saw Interstellar, and I’m still not sure how I’m going to write about it.

There are certain films, you see, whose impact is so overwhelming that giving them a proper formal assessment becomes all but beside the point; you can’t dissect any piece of art without killing some of its raw strength, and, me being a moviegoer before anything else, I have little interest in sidestepping the personal effect of a movie that manages to truly, unfailingly get to me in order to write a few paragraphs about the quality of its actors and dramatic structure. As of my first viewing, Interstellar firmly appears to be one such movie, and, certain as I am that it’s going to be targeted by any number of ferocious dissidents in the coming weeks, months, years, what have you, I don’t really see a point in distancing myself from it just to add in my two cents. Film criticism is often bitter work in that regard. But I still want to write about this film, because I found it so great and it moved me to such a degree that I feel compelled to acknowledge it in some way — it’s a special thing, one that must not be overlooked, for a movie to elicit such a response from anyone. Be advised, then, that this text is not exactly a film review so much as a film response.

And oh, what a vigorous response does a movie like this merit! I expected as much, really. Christopher Nolan is fairly liable to many of the same qualms as other successful Hollywood artists — he’s got trouble capturing humanity in its distilled form, he’s not quite as smart as he seems to think, he relies heavily on frequently unreliable instincts, he almost never writes women well — but I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him a visionary, and the way he always always always goes big has produced an assortment of what one might call “flawed masterpieces.” Yet Interstellar, in its easy-to-summarize tale of a group of astronauts leaving Earth for an unpredictable amount of time to find a new habitable planet after our own is plagued by environmental disaster, distinguishes itself from past juggernauts like Inception or the Dark Knight trilogy because, while those were feasts to the mind and eyes that used human feeling as their backbone, this ultra-long, ultra-costly space opera is first and foremost a film of emotions, where the tech and the puzzles are, all the way, second to the people on screen. That isn’t surprising of Nolan; if anything, it’s a formidable confirmation of something everyone who’s been following him for a while already saw coming. He was never a heartless director, and now, lo and behold, he is wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Which is why this is going to be his most divisive film yet. I can’t lie to anybody — Interstellar is just as ambitious, strange, confounding and weepy as you’d expect from the premise “Christopher Nolan does hard sci-fi,” and the result will be awe-inspiring to some and insufferable to others. To me, every last minute of it is awe-inspiring, every existential back-and-forth, every unexpected time lapse, every overbearing shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema. This is the modern space flick I and many others have been yearning for since it became clear that we could already portray space in film however we wanted; it’s intelligent, it’s lyrical, it’s philosophical, it’s not afraid to go out on a limb, and, by God, is it good-looking. It makes me even a little sad for Wally Pfister that he declined to work on this to go make Transcendence, because this is the sort of gig that can turn any D.P. into a living legend — something I honestly hope happens to Hoytema, who is overdue for recognition and does sensational work here.

That adjective is somewhat redundant, of course, with respect to Interstellar‘s technical crew. Everybody’s work is sensational; those who wished Gravity would have taken its technical prowess a bit further into space last year will be happy to find in this film set pieces that no one has ever attempted or been able to attempt before, from the inside of a black hole to waves the size of mountain ranges. In the haunting enormity of the unexplored cosmos, Nolan has found the ideal vessel for his obsession with scale — this is, therefore, a picture that must be seen on a large screen, with a theatrical sound system blasting left and right, in order to be duly experienced, which makes it fitting that it’s getting the widest IMAX release of all time. But of course, there were many movies in the past which were technical spectacles, so it would not be fair of me to give this one’s craftsmanship the spotlight when there is so much else going on in it.

This is, after all, a story about mankind. That’s really the whole, explicit, clearly-defined point of this film, and that’s one thing that makes it engrossing from the start — it’s a story about mankind, about its constant struggle to overcome insurmountable obstacles, about its way of forgoing rational thought, about its defining desire to “not go gentle into that good night” (that line from the famous Dylan Thomas villanelle, repeated throughout the film, was originally intended as a clamor against the mortality of one individual, but here it becomes a kind of survivalist motto for the whole of humanity). It’s rare for any big-budget pop extravaganza to have such a firm sense of purpose, and, in Interstellar‘s case, that thematic confidence helps the film carry on through even the most befuddling narrative developments, of which there are many. That’s one major reason why I believe this is poised to stand the test of time and eventually be regarded as the masterpiece it is, even with detractors so very keen on pointing out its rough edges, its inconsistencies, its plot holes: Nolan has aimed high, and I mean high, in the making of this film, both in terms of imagery and ideas, and, although he may not yet possess the formal mastery of cinematic language required to turn such a pharaonic project into a transcendental affair in the mold of 2001, he is still an exceptionally skilled, exceptionally intelligent director, and so Interstellar comes very close to inhabiting the same stratum as Kubrick’s masterwork — and even if they fall short of clearing that absurd bar, Nolan and his team’s efforts are more than enough to lift this movie above the vast majority of its kind, of any kind.

I could go on and on, really, but I guess it would become redundant, after a while, to praise Interstellar‘s visual accomplishment, its commitment to science as a narrative driving force, its courage to prize imagination over knowledge when it’s called for (the third act is so earnestly bonkers it will be the best thing about the movie to some and the worst to others). I could write entire paragraphs, maybe entire pieces, on scenes like the intertwined launch of the spacecraft/final goodbye between a daughter and her father, or the breakdown of a supporting character upon seeing another human being for the first time in years; I could try, and almost inevitably fail, to poke at the film’s metaphysical postulates in a way that did justice to their depth and complexity. But there’s no real reason for me to do any of that when, like I said before, it would probably just diminish the resounding impact of the whole thing. I understand that many people are seeing this movie for the actors, which is why I feel I should mention that they are all excellent, with Chastain and Hathaway as the unexpected standouts for a director whose female characters were never his strong suit, and a wonderful uncredited cameo around the midpoint. (You probably already know who it is by now, but I’m not gonna be the one to ruin anyone’s surprise.) Other than that, well, I think I’ve already complimented it plenty.

Truth be told, Interstellar isn’t immaculate, and it’s relatively easy to take issue with certain things in it. There are some scenes taking place on Earth toward the climax that feel rather superfluous, the inside of the spaceships where a great deal of the action takes place is visually bureaucratic, the cast is way too white for a film with such universal themes, the ending evokes an uncanny feeling of sequel hook, some of the dialogue is pretty clunky, and I’d be lying if I said there aren’t any muddy areas in the plot’s grand structure — one is likely to spend a good deal of the third act trying to make sense of what’s even going on. To put it briefly, it’s the sort of unselfconscious endeavor that our relentlessly ironic contemporary culture so readily ravages these days, because how dare a work of art have faith in its own worth, etc.. What’s more, I’d say the majority of the film’s malfunctioning parts could have been fixed pretty easily if the filmmakers were up for it. But I think Nolan has made the right call to release this movie exactly as it is, because, in its current state, Interstellar looks and feels like something distinctly personal, distinctly his, and that has to be more artistically significant than the ability to cater to this or that audience’s preexisting dramatic sensibilities. I think, for example, that, though the film would still be great without Anne Hathaway’s much-ridiculed “Love is the only thing that transcends time and space” line, that bit of dialogue is irreproachable and should stay right where it is; it’s an easy line to mock, but it contains deeper truths about the nature and significance of human subjectivity that those eager to apply a detached cynic’s eye to the film’s workings may find themselves overlooking.

The same goes for much of this unabashedly sentimental film; honestly, you have to be really finicky to complain about, say, the amount of onscreen crying while ignoring what a miracle it is that such a huge production has even dared to be so emotionally charged in the first place. And you have to be really finicky to dismiss Interstellar over plot issue x or overwritten conversation y when it is such a massive cinematic accomplishment on so many other levels. In the end, I think it’s a classic: it takes a risk, and does it with style. And substance, for that matter.