Interstellar Is A Messy Journey Through Love And Space

o-INTERSTELLAR-TV-SPOTS-facebookI saw Interstellar all the way back on Tuesday night, at what was probably one of the first public showings in the country. In the interim, I’ve seen two other films, one of which I’ve already reviewed, and two standup comedy shows. Suffice it to say that I’ve had some trouble organizing my thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s latest, which has never been a major problem for me. Nolan has always consistently entertained me with each of his films, and I’ve never come out of a Nolan movie without being thoroughly entertained and engaged. When it comes to Interstellar, it’s not that the film failed to excite me or move me or provide gorgeous imagery or compelling performances; indeed it accomplished all of those things. But even so, I felt a little detached from the experience in the end, which makes me wonder: was Interstellar just a less-than-perfect effort from Christopher Nolan, or have I begun to drift away from a filmmaker who has been among my favorites in the medium for the past decade?

(Spoilers after the jump!)

To completely undercut any dramatic tension this post might have, I rewatched The Prestige to discover that Nolan’s brand of filmmaking is still compelling to me overall. Having not watched The Prestige in some time, I found myself just as riveted by the twists, turns and parallel plotlines as I was in the past when I watched it much more frequently. And the finale gave me the same sort of rush and goosebumps as it always has. It’s a tightly-constructed film, with plot, theme and presentation all working in harmony to craft a terrific narrative experience. Clearly Nolan’s voice still works for me, so what was it about Interstellar that kept me at arms’ length?

Perhaps the best summation of Interstellar overall is one of the central sequences of the story. Late in the film, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his team (Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi) cross paths with one of their predecessors through the wormhole, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), who was one of the early leaders of the program. While Mann has previously been described by everyone as a hero and pioneer, he reveals himself to be a selfish coward, who lured the Endurance mission to his barren rock of a world just so that he could escape. When Cooper discovers the truth, Mann attempts to kill him and the two of them fight amidst the harsh alien landscape… but that’s only half of the moment. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Cooper’s now-grown daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) attempts to rescue her ailing sister-in-law and nephew from her bitter older brother Tom, and investigate her old room for further clues to solving the gravity problem at the heart of mankind’s salvation.

This sequence represents the sort of parallel action that Nolan usually does so well. The key ingredient to the success of this moment comes from the unity of thematic purpose. In the Cooper part of the sequence, there is a contrast between Cooper, who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save mankind because it would benefit his children, and Mann, who has no family and so has no personal stake in the rescue of the human race. With that sequence alone, the film makes a clear statement that love is a key factor in mankind’s continued existence, and that without it there is only so far we can go. The necessity of love is further driven home by the Murph part of the sequence. At this point in the story, Murph has already had her confidence in mankind’s future shaken, and the spectre of nihilism is further strengthened by her brother’s close-minded rejection of her efforts to even save his family, much less the rest of the species. And yet Murph still makes the extra effort to do the right thing and help save people, driven by her love for her family and her faith that her father is doing everything he can as well. The two parallel scenes both tie back to the driving thematic focus of the film, which not only unifies them into one contiguous sequence but also strengthens their significance in relation to the whole story.

o-JESSICA-CHASTAIN-INTERSTELLAR-facebookBut just as this sequence represents what Interstellar gets right (and where Nolan’s strength typically lies), the aftermath represents how it never fully comes together. After a certain point, the Murph-on-Earth portion of the story is dropped for an extended period to focus exclusively on Cooper and Brand’s race to get to the Endurance before Mann. While the ensuing setpiece (of Cooper trying to dock the lander with a spinning-out-of-control Endurance) is intense and thrilling, it also dominates the film for an extended period, which throws off the careful rhythm that the previous sequence established. This doesn’t ruin the narrative in any pronounced way, nor does it completely rob the film of forward momentum, but it does make things feel disjointed and uneven. Compare this to the parallel action that Nolan accomplished in Inception, where each level felt equally involving and they all built off of each other so that each cut actually added to the momentum, rather than undermining it. And there are similar moments throughout where a scene is misplaced, or a motivation is left murky. Overall the story lacks the usual tight structure that makes Nolan’s previous films work so well.

Even with missteps and miscalculations such as this, Interstellar still worked for me, and in an area that is not Nolan’s usual strength: the heart. While all of Nolan’s films still supply the appropriate moments of character conflict and resolution, very rarely have those moments really accomplished any deeper pathos for the audience. But in the case of Interstellar, Nolan does land his emotional punches better than ever, and it might actually be the result of the very narrative looseness that is so problematic. In particular, the scene where Cooper returns to Endurance out of a time dilation, only to discover that over 20 years have passed and that he has years’ worth of messages from his family waiting, is a heartbreaker. Seeing Cooper as he helplessly watches his family endure triumph and tragedy without his support cuts deep, and only really works because of the loosely-structured time spent on Earth earlier in the movie.

I suspect that the reason the film was able to maintain momentum in spite of the uneven rhythm comes from the emotional investment that I had with Cooper and Murph, maybe moreso than with almost any other Nolan protagonists before. I was still tensed-up and invested throughout the story, even during its most off-putting developments in the third act, precisely because of the emotional core that runs through the whole narrative. It’s new ground for Nolan, and it will be interesting to see going forward if he can find a balance between the precision structure of his best work and the raw emotionality of this film.

Interstellar is far from Nolan’s best work, or my favorite of his filmography, it also represents a step forward of sorts. It’s imperfect, but there is a strong undercurrent of love and aspiration that runs throughout the whole film, running very counter to the “grim ‘n gritty” atmospherics that he tends to be associated with nowadays. Interstellar, similar to movies like Cloud Atlas, has its fair share of flaws but ends up being greater than the sum of its parts because what it lacks in structure or consistency it makes up for in thematic and emotional focus. Christopher Nolan seems to be on the cusp of a very interesting new chapter in his career, and hopefully the movies he makes now, such as Interstellar, provide as much influence on the cinematic landscape as his past blockbuster efforts. As good as those films were, we need films like Interstellar more, both from Nolan and his peers. Fingers crossed that we get them.

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