Ambition is a trait that defines some filmmakers. How big, how bold can a film be. Ambitious is the best way to describe Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. I applaud the balls on the man. Interstellar certainly has its flaws, but it also tells a story and conveys an idea that not usually seen in the movies. It’s not everyday that a film incorporates the the relativity of time as an plot device and the fifth deminision is far from a mainstream film staple. It is ideas like those that stuck with me most after the viewing.
The fact the film’s exact time period is unknown makes for an usual viewing, as we have to guess exactly when these events are happening. And the fact that the main action for everything is a dying earth, knowing when this is happening would make for a more comfortable viewing. However, this is the point. The uneasiness of the dying earth triggers our emotions, or at least it is supposed to. Nolan understands that we are heading towards a murky future with global warming and we need to find a way to stop it. In Interstellar, however, we are in this dying future. We already failed, and now we need to get off the planet.
This concept is one that I grapple with often. The idea that we let our planet die and there is no turning back should be one that strikes people, but I get the sense that many are too naive to understand how big of an issue this is. Nolan throws us into a time period where we already failed. Where we neglected our earth and now we are paying the ultimate price. Earth is unsalvageable and we must leave. It is a giant and disturbing message for what is on the surface to be a regular popcorn flick filled with astounding visuals.
This is where I run into problems though. Nolan’s directing is entirely in your face for all the wrong reasons and essentially leaves these giant ideas as fodder for the characters to debate. An older Murph, played by Jessica Chastain, and her brother Tom (Casey Affleck) argue with each other about the safety of living in their childhood home. It plays as the classic debate scenario where the ignorant person decides to throw a punch in his anger about the misreading of the entire situation. No, Tom does not hit his sister, but he does wallop Getty (Topher Grace) for trying to help Lois and Coop, Tom’s wife and son. He is angry at the accusations that they have to leave and fights to defend this freedom he is displaying, no matter how stupid it makes him. Tom is set in his ways and nothing will change his mind. Sound familiar?
And this ignorance in storytelling possibly undermines much of the message Nolan is attempting to convey. He fills his film with overly dramatic music and storytelling. We are constantly bombarded with a soundtrack that is trying to set a mood and fails and some characters who are so stubborn it is hard to watch. Nothing about this film is subtle, which sort of runs its course for the 170 minutes of screen time. And by making some points so obvious and so in your face, the more causal viewer is liable to miss on some of the bigger and more important messages than that some people are assholes (I’m looking at you, Michael Caine).
Enough bashing though, because this film gets a lot right. Nolan’s idea of space travel and the relativity of time is spot on. If there was one flaw to last year’s superb film in space, Gravity, it was that sometimes director Alfonso Cuarón skewed the science to fit his film, which I instantly forgave for a plethora of reasons, but Nolan embraced the hard science like you rarely see and it is what works best in the film.
Einstein’s theory of relativity and curvature of space are front and center in Interstellar, which is definitely not common for Hollywood. These are big ideas for humans to grapple and Nolan’s portrayal of how time passes near a black hole, not to mention the surface of planets near a black hole, makes for some of the most compelling science you’ll ever see in film. These are not ideas seen in blockbuster movies, but they are ideas Nolan fuses into the film.
And the explanation of some of these ideas are as simple as Neil deGrasse Tyson makes them. In particular, Romilly’s lesson on the wormhole, where he folds a piece of paper and sticks a pencil through it to get the message across on how a wormhole works, stood out most for me. I will use that as a way to explain a wormhole for the rest of my life.
Also working well was the sheer imagery of the film. Nolan made it a point to craft hand-made sets and it shows. The scenes inside the spaceships are gripping and the whole film has a real texture to it. Visually, it hits a home run.
Surprisingly though, I did not think anyone in particular stood out performance wise. Jessica Chastain is solid and Matthew McConaughey is his usual, ultra cool and über suave self, but neither jump off the screen and control the action, like you’d expect them to. This, in part, is due to the how the film is edited for sound. I did not think the soundtrack was used particularly well, which I mentioned earlier. It never gives the actors an opportunity to set the mood. Instead, the music desperately tries to tell us instead. Perhaps if it is used a little more sparingly, the gravity of the situation could have been inflected by the performers on the screen, then the performances could have breathed a bit and not be swallowed by the sound.
If anyone stands out though, it is Anne Hathaway. She is able to portray through the clutter expressions of elation and sadness with those beautiful eyes of hers. You feel her sadness and exasperation at the loss of time and the pure joy of being reunited with Dr. Mann (played by the out of place Matt Damon. Honestly, that whole sequence with him on the planet did not work. A fist fight in space suits? C’mon). Also, shout out to young Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy. She has some heavy scenes and holds her own nicely.
In the end, what I’m trying to say is that Christopher Nolan had his hands full here. By trying to fit these gigantic ideas into one film, Nolan fails to make compelling characters. Instead, he creates weak characters in order to get his message across, which is muddled by the fact that he has multiple messages, with the overriding message of love conquers all, which seems strange for a film with as much hard science fiction you’ll ever see in a blockbuster. But that is sort of the point, right? I mean, we as a country are failing to recognize a whole array of problems with our environment and this clutter makes us tune out everything. If we put our focus on a few issues, say global warming, and gain some sort of qualifying love for our earth and the well-being of others, then perhaps some progress could be made. Either way, Nolan’s grasping of hard science fiction elements is the defining quality to this film. Sometimes to reach for the stars, you have to fail first, but it is the action that stands out most.