I tried. I honestly tried. I never meant to see Interstellar, because I already knew that I would hate it – and, more to the point, I already knew why I would hate it. That said, it’s comparatively lukewarm reception does indicate something of a turning point in Christopher Nolan’s career, and perhaps makes this a good moment to recap my reasoning.
Part of the film’s fundamental awkwardness may be down to the fact that it was originally intended as a Stephen Spielberg movie, broken fragments of which are still visible. John Lithgow is awkwardly cast as a stock Spielberg type – a salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar love-bundle. Good old, grouchy-yet-lovable gramps is supposed to project a homely warmth, serving as a stable, loving core for Murphy’s family, but this is totally at odds with Lithgow’s signature style of effete, uppity aloofness. “It’s unnatural to eat popcorn at a ballgame. I wanna hotdog,” he grouches at one point, sounding for all the world like a man who’s never tasted either.
More broadly, that kind of warmth has no place in a world created by Christopher Nolan. McConaughey is an even more familiar Spielberg character, the well-meaning but dysfunctional father who is just trying to do right by his kids – but there’s very little life in the relationship he supposedly has with them. In one scene, McConaughey and Anne Hathaway hold an impromptu debate about the nature and value of love. It is analysed as an abstract concept from every angle, in terms of social utility, a personal bond, or even “the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions”. The one thing the scene, and the film as a whole, never does is spend even a moment convincing us that Hathaway’s character is actually in love – with anyone. Love, like most of the emotions and concepts in Interstellar, is a purely theoretical concept, which Nolan feels can be best illustrated through a debate between two seated parties, filmed in a simple shot-reverse-shot setup. Preferably with the aid of a whiteboard.
The same can be said of Interstellar’s fictional world more generally – the whole premise of the film is that mankind must escape an apocalyptic collapse on earth, but we are barely see anything of the societal breakdown which supposedly drives the whole plot. One of the nice little “big” ideas the film wants you to be aware of is that it’s famine-based apocalypse is a parallel of the American dustbowl in the Great Depression in the early 20th century. In fact, it wants you to know this so badly that it inserts segments of interviews from an actual documentary about the American dustbowl in the Great Depression directly into the film – first as talking head cutaways, and then as literal talking heads projected from video screens.
Like the way that The Dark Knight Rises told us it was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities by having one of its characters hold up a copy of the book A Tale of Two Cities and read passages directly from it, these talking heads are a clear, crude statement of the filmmaker’s lopsided approach to subtext: as in, he doesn’t have one. The film seems to wear its meaning on its sleeve, driven by the belief that it’s more important to make sure the audience knows how lofty your ideas are than it is to weave them into the story you’re telling.
This mortifying absence of subtlety carries through from concept to execution, and instead of portraying an apocalypse which resembles the American dustbowl in the Great Depression, Interstellar overshoots and veers into just depicting the American dustbowl in the Great Depression. Even in the later scenes set on earth, as the supposed apocalypse gets nearer, we don’t see any evidence that what’s happening around the globe amounts to anything worse than a few dusty plates and some withered corn.
Another flaw Interstellar certainly exhibits in common with Nolan’s last few films, but here taken to a whole new extreme, is a chronic lack of discipline at the scriptwriting stage. You get the sense here and there that the film we are watching on the screen represents fragments from several versions of the same script, which were ultimately mashed together haphazardly rather than rewritten into a cohesive whole. Early in the film, Cooper and Gramps sit on their porch having a vague, abstract conversation about the course of human destiny. Gramps laments that humanity engineered its own downfall by “trying to have it all,” while musing that Cooper “doesn’t belong” on earth – “born forty years too late…or too early”. Cooper, in turn, muses that we have “forgotten who we are,” lamenting that “we used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars”.
It’s a tedious enough scene to sit through the first time around, but it really starts to drag when, around ten minutes later, we cut to Cooper and Gramps sitting on their porch – this time at night – having a vague, abstract conversation about the course of human destiny. Gramps muses that “this world was never enough” for Cooper, while lamenting that he should never “trust the right thing done for the wrong reason”. Cooper, in turn, laments that “this world’s a treasure…but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now,” while musing that “mankind was born on earth, but it was never meant to die here”.
The second scene is not referring back to the first. It doesn’t comment on it, or add anything more to our understanding of the characters and their relationship. There are simply two versions of the same scene, left in because the Nolans couldn’t decide where they wanted to place it and, ultimately, didn’t have to.
The most interesting part of the film is the bizarre, nonsensical, and totally unnecessary encounter with Dr Mann, which marks the point where Christopher Nolan’s film diverts completely from his brother Jonathan’s original script. Matt Damon’s role as the obviously but incomprehensibly evil explorer was a late addition, bolted onto the story to pad out its final act – and it really shows.
The presence of Dr Mann, a respected but mysterious hero who turns out to have feet of clay, is another attempt to invite flattering parallels – this time to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. You’ll have to take my word for it that I realised this before the scene where one of the characters looks at a black-hole and solemnly describes it as “a literal HEART OF DARKNESS.” Damon, when de-shrouded, is as competent an actor as ever, and would have been more than capable of playing any of the various versions of Dr Mann the film toys with, having played most of them already: the psychologically scarred rogue agent; the misguided fallen champion; the pompous, grandstanding hypocrite; the dangerous, narcissistic psychopath.
Unfortunately Interstellar never quite makes up its mind which of these roles it is asking him to fill, which makes it a very confusing half-hour of screen-time for actor and audience alike. It’s as if, during the finale of Apocalpyse Now, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz and Dennis Hopper’s manic photographer were fused into one character, randomly alternating between existential gravitas and laughable lunacy. It’s impressive that he still ends up giving a fairly competent, entertaining performance, despite not actually having a character to play. We may never have the faintest idea just what Dr Mann is thinking, but Damon at least makes clear that he’s thinking it very hard indeed.
A good chunk of the last act devoted to a character with no coherent motivation, whose frantic entrance and swift exit make no discernible difference to anything else in the film.
Part of the reason Nolan’s fans have seized on him so fiercely may be the lack of other obvious contenders for interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood at the moment. If so, an increasingly persuasive alternative would seem to be James Gunn. Just like his Super managed to give us a jarring, “realistic” take on the superhero formula far more powerful than anything in The Dark Knight – and on approximately one 74th of its budget – his Guardians of the Galaxy also provides a strange and damning parallel to Nolan’s latest.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a churlish and egotistical hotshot pilot has left earth behind to explore the far reaches of space. Fearing that he may have forever lost his home and those who cared for him, he discovers along the way that the human capacity for love – the need for a “family,” in the broadest sense – is truly the most powerful force in the universe. The difference being that, in Gunn’s film, that sentimental premise is a living, breathing thing of flesh and blood.
On the surface of course, the ideas and sources of inspiration behind it may seem relatively trivial, without a Dickens novel in sight – but even within the constraints of the Marvel movie franchise, Gunn manages to gives his film a far more real and rich emotional life. Peter Quill’s grief over his mother is something we’re never told about – in fact, she is hardly mentioned by any of the characters in the film. Instead, aside from the brief scenes in which she appears, we are made to feel her presence and their connection through the film’s soundtrack. Her love for her son spills messily across the whole film in the form of her favourite songs, becoming part of its warm, welcoming atmosphere.
Interstellar, by contrast, shows us the relationship between parent and child in a way which sums up Nolan’s approach to emotion in general. In a key scene, Cooper comes to terms with the sudden adulthood of his son and daughter by watching video diaries they have recorded on a computer screen. His kids bluntly inform him that they now have abandonment issues, and that they feel he has let them down as a father, in the form of cold, matter-of-fact monologues. The scene is, of course, supposedto register as tragic – Cooper even sheds a tear – but it is tragedy in a distinctly contained, sanitised format.
Anyway, seeking out such niceties isn’t really necessary. The essential importance of Interstellar, as a milestone in Nolan’s career, is just how unimportant it seems even while you’re watching it. The difference between Interstellar and the films it mimics – like, as if it needs to be said, 2001: A Space Odyssey – is that in 50 years’ time nobody is going to give a shit about Interstellar.
The affectations of Nolan’s films may impress in the moment, but they seem to have very short shelf-lives in the imagination – perhaps because their narratives and themes are so resolutely cerebral. With the obvious exception of Batman, who had already made his gloomy home in our collective unconscious, Nolan’s films don’t seem to be nesting in the public imagination like those beloved classics he so admires. Notice how the impression left by Inception, for all the apoplectic fanfare surrounding its release, has already started to fade after a mere four years? For that matter, hands up who even remembers 2006’s The Prestige, which seems to have left practically no trace in the long-term memory of popular culture?
Conceived and engineered in a total emotional vacuum, the films Nolan is making are like slickly produced trailers for themselves, constantly advertising an experience which is never actually delivered. The mystery, drama, suspense and intelligence they seem to promise are endlessly deferred and, judging by the unusually divided response to his last two films, I’m not the only one who’s tired of waiting.
Of course, the bewildering fact still remains that many, many audience-members will have a great time watching the film, and will find it delivers everything they are looking for. There’s nothing wrong with that but what I would say is, if you really enjoyed Interstellar, I don’t believe that enjoyment is something the film gave you – it’s something you gave the film. Viewers who genuinely have a great time watching it are doing a lot more work to generate that excitement, suspense, and emotion than Interstellar ever does. After all, a sufficiently imaginative 8-year-old can create vivid make-believe adventures out of an empty cardboard fridge box. The box might be the focus of all that creativity and enjoyment, but the credit really belongs to the child – not the guy who made the fridge.