‘Interstellar’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Absurd Reality
Deep, deep into the 169-minute running time of ‘Interstellar’ is a scene in which astronaut pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must dock a spaceship with another, larger, out of control spinning space ship. The solution is to spin the smaller ship at the same speed, so that the effect makes it looks like both crafts aren’t spinning at all. So, by spinning everything out of control, it manipulates the situation into looking normal. This is also an apt description of the style of ‘Interstellar’ director, Christopher Nolan.
Nolan rose to fame with 2000’s ‘Memento,’ a film that famously shows its scenes in reverse order. A nice trick that, in the hands of a less capable filmmaker – or, say, an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ – might be perceived as a stunt, but Nolan turned it into a structured plot device. Everything was thrown so out of whack, that, eventually we, as an audience – just like the spinning space crafts -- started spinning with the film, to the point it eventually all seemed normal.
Nolan also directed three superhero films in which not one person has a super power of any kind. By standing the superhero genre on its head and shaking out all of the excess nonsense, he made – arguably; with a lot of the heavy lifting done by ‘The Dark Knight’ alone -- the best standalone superhero trilogy ever put to film. An actor appearing in one of Nolan’s superhero movies won an Oscar. That is almost a ludicrous statement today – could you imagine anyone from a Marvel movie winning an Oscar -- but, at the time, in Nolan’s world, it all seemed normal.
‘Interstellar’ will most often be compared to Nolan’s 2010 film, ‘Inception' -- a movie that takes the whole idea of dreams and dreams within dreams to create a world that’s so foreign, yet based in a heightened scientific reality. (Soon after seeing ‘Inception,’ I read about how to have lucid dreams. After some time, it worked, but my lucid dreams were never as interesting as what we see in ‘Inception.’ Most of the time I just wanted to wake up.)
‘Inception’ got a little too much credit in the “it will blow your mind” department. 'Inception' is not a confusing movie – characters literally explain every single little thing that’s happening along the way – yet it got the reputation of being incredibly smart. ‘Inception’ certainly isn’t dumb, but it’s not hard to follow. If you went to high school, you should be able to follow the events of ‘Inception.’ What it does deserve credit for is making all of this seem plausible to the point that, after, people like me were trying to read up on how to have lucid dreams. One of Nolan’s greatest gifts as a filmmaker is taking the absurd and syncing that absurdity with the viewer, where now we are all spinning at the same speed and we feel what we are watching is normal and real. (Nolan didn’t entirely succeed doing this in his last film, ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ which I bet is a big reason why it hasn’t been embraced as much as his other films.)
And this brings us to ‘Interstellar,’ a movie filled with so much scientific jargon that it does a pretty good job hiding how absurd some of the movie can be. And that’s the thing: the scientific jargon is fascinating. But, it’s fascinating in a “this is cool to see play out with my own eyes thanks to the big budget this movie had” than an “it will blow your mind!” kind of way. Again, anyone who (a) went to high school or (b) has read a Neil deGrasse Tyson tweet will be able to follow along without having their “mind blown.” Sure, Nolan plays around a lot with gravity’s effect on space and time, but, like ‘Inception,’ everything is explained. (There’s a lot of exposition in ‘Interstellar.’) And Nolan plays around with being advanced enough to have the ability to see time as a dimension, which is really no different that what Kurt Vonnegut touched upon in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’
‘Interstellar’ begins by introducing us to former pilot, now farmer, Cooper (McConaughey). The setting is in the future, yet it’s a future where everything still seems somewhat familiar. (My best guess would be 50 to 75 years from now.) Cooper is now a farmer because, well, pretty much everyone who is still alive is a farmer – this is an Earth going through a devastating food crisis. Led by mysterious forces, Cooper and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), find a hidden NASA base. Led by scientists Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), they are trying to find a way for humanity to leave our dying planet. And, as it turns out, Cooper would be a perfect pilot for the next (they’ve had others) expedition (through a wormhole near Saturn) to try and find a hospitable replacement planet in another galaxy -- leaving his son and daughter behind.
Watching on one of the best IMAX theaters in the United States, the outer space scenes feel vast, beautiful and all-encompassing. It’s too bad there wasn’t more of this. We get quite a few scenes of burning crop fields, but far less space pornography. There are effects in 'Interstellar' that made me almost audibly gasp, then there are other effects where it looked like maybe the budget ran out. (The former outweighs the latter, thankfully.) There is a robot named TARS -- which kind of resembles a walking monolith; there's your arbitrary '2001' reference -- that looks real. I want to either purchase or meet TARS.
There’s a planet that Cooper’s crew visits (it’s the one you’ve seen in all of the trailers with the big tidal wave) that sits near a black hole. It’s Nolan spinning the whole narrative, then forcing us to spin with him by using real science. By the time we reach the planet’s surface – where, because of the gravity of the black hole, every hour spent there equals seven Earth years – we are in sync. It all seems normal, even though everything is massively spinning out of control. (Nolan seems to have a preoccupation with this sort of differentiating time narratives; he pulled the same trick in ‘Inception.’)
It is weird to think that everything we have accomplished as humans is all gone in a second if something happened to Earth. Save for a few records of evidence floating through space, most of all recorded history vanishes once we do. It’s a profound message: ‘Interstellar’ is about saving humanity, despite humanity. It disguises itself in science, but ‘Interstellar’ isn’t really about science. There’s a lot more Emotion in ‘Interstellar’ than I expected – its core foundation, really – but there’s almost too much going on in ‘Interstellar’ to the point that, at times, in retrospect, nothing is really happening even though it kind of seemed like something was happening. There are entire swaths of this movie (I won’t get into specifics for risk of spoilers) that could be cut and it wouldn’t affect the narrative.
(Case in point: There’s a fistfight in outer space that involves head butts and rocket boosters. Basically, there’s an actor in ‘Interstellar” playing the Steve Buscemi role from ‘Armageddon’ – the crazy guy who screws everything up. Up until this point, everything was so nuanced and so interesting, then it was decided that ‘Interstellar’ just had to have a head butting, rocket boosting intergalactic fistfight. I actively hated ‘Interstellar’ throughout this entire sequence.)
‘Interstellar’ is a good movie that so desperately wants to be important. That sentence is going to read as churlish, but I do admire ‘Interstellar’ for at least attempting to be something that’s not dumb. There are already too many dumb things we are subjected to on a daily basis. And ‘Interstellar’ is ambitious, even though there are a lot of head-scratching scenes. Yet, there we still are, spinning out of control with the reality that Nolan has created – and it’s only when we stop spinning, when we look at it from afar, that we kind of realize how absurd it all was … even though it leaves us craving a little more.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.