In Christopher Nolan’s first low-budget noir thriller, Following (1988), he opens with a monotonous voiceover explaining the rules of the titular game being played, and, in retrospect, this was Nolan’s original sin. Since then, throughout his filmography, Nolan has continued to sin in this vein. For a man who is drawn to ludicrous premises, farfetched worlds and characters with a theatrical sense of presentation, he is obsessed with dragging his concepts down to earth, not just making his outlandish worlds believable, but making their tendency towards the spectacular somehow essential to the plot, not content to just let spectacle be spectacle. Yet never before has Nolan’s addiction to world-building and methodology crippled his work so badly. Interstellar is effectively what would happen if someone saw the final transcendent sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey and thought “Wouldn’t a convoluted and laboured voiceover explaining how this fits in with the narrative make everything better?”
Nolan’s decision to once again film sequences in IMAX and continuously switch back and forth between 35mm and 70mm (different aspect ratios and all) is a perfect distillation of his approach to filmmaking. Visual appeal doesn’t occupy the same space as plot and character. Every big involving moment is clearly defined by the scenes that relay information about the plot or feature quiet drama, and as much as this may be a technical necessity, it speaks volumes to Nolan’s inability to let his pictures tell the story. He may be a committed storyteller and also a visual craftsman, but repeatedly separating the two becomes downright infuriating as the film goes on. The relative lack of substance of his Batman films is a blessing in disguise upon reflective viewing. On a more practical level this combined approach presents a challenge to every cinemagoer. The 35mm scenes look downright hideous when stretched out on the giant IMAX screen and I imagine much of the appeal of the larger sequences are lost on anything less. On virtually every level Interstellar fails to achieve synthesis.
We begin the film in a sort of dystopic John Steinbeck novel, with a predictably philosophical Mathew McConaughey unsubtly clueing us in to the world around him through conversations with people who would obviously know there’s a food crisis. After one of the most ludicrously swift second act turns I’ve ever seen, McConaughey abandons his family to explore potential future homes for the threatened human race, accessed through a wormhole put there by ‘someone’. I’ll stop providing narrative information in favour of simply stating that the plot is extraordinarily convoluted, topping both the laboured mechanics of Inception and the twisty pile-up of The Dark Knight Rises. There’s a somewhat poignant thread running through the film exploring the abandonment anxieties of both father and daughter, filtered through the potentially fascinating sci-fi twist of relative time. McConaughey’s breakdown while watching the daughter he’s left behind talk to him two decades after his departure (when he has barely aged a year) is touching and a fascinating teasing-out of various fatherhood anxieties that clearly come from a genuine place. However, to say that this is a central emotional and thematic element of the film is not the case. There is simply so much going on that trying to focus on a singular thematic or narrative concern of the film is futile.
We get to experience a dire warning on the future of American farming, the aforementioned family drama, speculative astrophysics, an extremely undeveloped budding romance with Anne Hathaway, some last minute tension trying to say something about the danger of isolation, more endings than the last Batman film and much, much more. Nolan doesn’t have anywhere near the finesse to pull any of this off and the resulting script make Prometheus’ lapses in logic and Gravity‘s cringe-worthy dialogue look nuanced in comparison. When characters aren’t simply trying to clue us in on the absurdly convoluted plot and world-building mechanics, there are some absolutely atrocious pseudo-philosophical musings most horrifically exemplified by an actual ‘scientific’ conversation about the tangible and observable properties of love.
As the plot gets more and more absurd and outside the realms of anything discernibly scientific, you hope that Nolan will finally pull a Kubrick and just let the images speak for themselves, leave an enigma in the audience’s head that will keep people talking for decades. One of the film’s seemingly endless climactic sequences is so surreal and expressionistic that it feels inexplicable, but nevertheless another droning voice comes in to provide some tortured reasoning for the absurdity. It’s even more ridiculous that we’re repeatedly reminded that scientists simply do not have the data on certain astral phenomena and then Nolan has the audacity to suggest that his limp script may be just the thing to provide a potential answer to the universe’s greatest mysteries.
As for the much-hyped IMAX space sequences, Nolan is burdened by the successes of his predecessors. The static and silent shots of the spacecraft silently drifting through space are certainly imposing (as downright anything is on the IMAX screen) but they lack the effortless sense of weightlessness of Cuarón, the lyricism of Kubrick, the eerie sense of isolation of Scott or even the simple, and scientifically offensive, fun of someone like George Lucas. It appears that, for Nolan, space is unfortunately neither a canvas nor a playground, but simply another blunt tool at his disposal to be used in his cripplingly ambitious epic. The more speculative and expressionistic sequences are far from underwhelming, but they do very much feel like CGI remakes of the equivalent scenes in 2001. It has become a bad habit of critics to compare every sci-fi film that attempts more than the average blockbuster to Kubrick’s masterpiece, but Interstellar really does invite it here, particularly in (one of) its final moments.
Interstellar will be remembered as the film where all of Nolan’s weaknesses caught up with him. Even the most easily impressed audience members will not be able to look past the plot holes, lazy dialogue and inconsistent cinematography. The reason this is so fundamentally disappointing is that there are genuine ambitions buried under the noise, both a beautiful human drama and an interesting riff on the fate of humanity and what lies beyond the unknown. But this ambition is nowhere near enough to rescue such a monumental mess that draws on all of Nolan’s bad habits at once then puts them front and centre. In one of his best, and most comfortably silly films, The Prestige, David Bowie turns up as Nikola Tesla and invents a cloning machine. It’s ludicrous, the audience knows it’s ludicrous and so does Nolan and yet we all move on. In retrospect this was the last time Nolan seems to have gone against his better judgment, and if he continues to be given carte blanche with obscenely large budgets, he needs to defy himself more often.
Around the Staff