Christopher Nolan’s latest epic is a captivating, spectacular and often moving piece of film-making, but its great strengths serve to accentuate its weaknesses, and it is because of these that Interstellar remains some distance from the classic it should have been.
In his fifteen-year career, Nolan has developed a well-earned reputation for not being able to write women, and despite his best efforts, Interstellar proves to be no exception. The film does feature two ostensibly strong women: Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain), who is left on earth to hold an excessive grudge against her father for her abandonment, and Brand (Anne Hathaway), whose inconsistent and unconvincing character traits amount to an archetype of bad female writing. Initially, Hathaway’s character is presented as cool-headed, slightly aloof, and naturally intelligent, but before long (no spoiler) it emerges that in the quest to save all of humanity her top priority is chasing a man – on whom she had a crush ten years before – to the other side of the universe. This this the reason why, seemingly out of nowhere, Hathaway suggests that in order to achieve Mankind’s salvation the brave astronomers should shift their focus from scientific theory to love, as it is “the one thing that transcends time and space” (as well as clunky writing, supposedly).
Perhaps the most tangible problem with Interstellar is its inconsistent script, which somehow manages to walk the fine line of lacking subtlety, whilst seldom conveying itself clearly. Some devices used are so unsubtle and repetitive, and details that will later be important are so overemphasised that the whole film is oddly predictable – if only retrospectively: it is really just because Interstellar is so excessively complex and confusing that the whole narrative arc is not completely transparent.
Nolan’s problem is that he wants to cram the film so full of compelling existential questions that the characters themselves have very little space to breathe: the narrative is not driven by the characters, but the plot and the concepts, and this means that most characters are broadly unengaging, because they are merely pawns in Nolan’s epic game – vessels for his ideas. So instead of becoming immersed in the existential journey of these space-voyagers responsible for the fate of all humanity, we are left to admire the mechanics of Nolan’s work, observing his actors emotively relaying his ideas, whilst seldom actually engaging with them. In contrast, recent space-drama, Gravity, was burdened with almost no story or dialogue, and this allowed us to identify with the core ideas of the film without having them dictated to us. Interstellar, on the other hand, has its characters constantly pontificating on such ideas as “you have to think bigger than your family”, or that ‘evolution hasn’t transcended our ability to care for others’ (not to mention the aforementioned ‘love monologue’). The fact is that, in reality, people don’t speak like this, but the dialogue is packed full of these portentous platitudes mainly because of Nolan’s unwillingness to edit his own ideas.
This is the essential problem with Interstellar – it is too ambitious for its medium to do it justice. While the film is long, its subject matter and sheer ambition do not fit well into the confines of the cinematic format. Perhaps if Nolan had made Interstellar into a TV series his ideas would have been able to flourish, but within the space of a 169 minute film, much of the subtlety and humanity in Nolan’s vision is compromised, and often comes over as contrived.
An increasingly noticeable pitfall of Nolan’s films is his tendency to overcomplicate his work with multi-layered narratives and convoluted internal logic (as exemplified by Inception, which, while brilliantly imaginative, seemed almost to fetishize complexity), and Interstellar essentially brings this to a whole intergalactic level. The film is so bent on entertaining through its high-level concepts that it all-too-often overlooks the fundamental human story. While a genuine effort is put into establishing a powerful relationship between protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter (but not so much his son for some reason), much of this is drowned out by the immensity of Nolan’s ideas.
This brings in another issue: Interstellar is evidently inspired by the reality of theoretical astrophysics, and zealously explores the surreal, fantastical nature of real astrophysical phenomena (Nolan took the science in Interstellar so seriously that he appointed Kip Thorne, a top theoretical physicist: this marriage between cinema and science resulted in the Thorne-approved CGI black hole creating an actual scientific discovery): the problem with using such far-flung, inconceivable concepts is that they are so outlandish they make the least scientific parts of Inception or The Dark Knight seem believable. Furthermore, with no sense of the limitations of theoretical possibility, the audience’s sense of reality is all at sea (at space?). How can we have any grasp of the film’s internal logic when it is based on the external logic of real theoretical astrophysics, with which most physics graduates would struggle? In any film such as this, the audience needs clear parameters established to guide them through the narrative: when these parameters are limited only by the preposterous boundaries of theoretical astrophysics, a film which seeks to be grounded in reality seems more outlandish than even a film as far-fetched as Inception.
Despite all this, everything great about Nolan’s work is still present here: his deft ability to merge fantasy with realism; the enthralling cinematography; his tendency to entertain without patronising the audience, and of course, the inevitably-stirring Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Nolan’s furious determination to create a modern classic is palpable: the manner with which he revisits the old spirit of the sci-fi genre imbues the film with a nostalgic sense of wonder, whilst still remaining fresh and modern. Interstellar’s ambition is commendable, but it is also his downfall. In a way, the story parallels the film itself – like McConaughey’s character, Nolan is revisiting trodden ground, and trying to take it somewhere further, where filmmakers of the past could only dream of going. However, the maelstrom of lofty ideas Nolan imposes upon Interstellar ultimately serves against it: first burning like the fires of a supernova, then collapsing under its own weight into a perplexing abyss.