Looking at Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s best work, a clear pattern emerges. Memento, The Prestige, and Inception have all been finely crafted puzzle-boxes. It’s not much of a surprise, then, that when they decided to pay homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey with their hotly-anticipated science fiction epic Interstellar, they decided to treat Kubrick’s masterpiece as, itself, a giant puzzle in need of a solution. Visually stunning, the film is a marvelous technical achievement that rightly praises human drive and ingenuity, but never quite connects with our sense of wonder.
We start on an Earth that is more clearly becoming inhospitable to human life than our own is. One crop after another succumbs to a blight; the population falls dramatically as the dust-bowl deepens. Society has become small-minded and timid, even denying our former achievements in one scene that feels lifted from a bad rip-off of 1984. But as much as we tell ourselves things are going to get better, they’re not. The remnants of NASA, working in secret, know that the blights are actually poisoning the air, leaving those who don’t starve to death to slowly suffocate on a mixture of nitrogen and airborne dirt particles.
There is one hope: someone has placed an Einstein-Rosen bridge — a “wormhole” — just beyond Saturn, and through it we can reach twelve possible new homeworlds. In fact, under the guidance of the chief scientist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), we already have. Twelve solo missions left, and now NASA is recruiting their former-pilot-turned-dissatisfied-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to fly the mission of scientists — Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a couple surplus military robots (Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart) — to check on the status reports of the three most promising planets in one system. But this means abandoning his son (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter (Mackenzie Foy), for a very long time. Even if it’s not so long for Cooper, relativistic effects mean his kids will age (into Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) long before he does. And that’s if he can even make it back at all.
The aging thing is at least handwavingly accurate physics, and the graphics team even took relativity into account in rendering the space around the black hole and its glowing accretion disk that host the planetary system. Due credit goes to the technical consulting of astrophysicist Kip Thorne — likely best known to general audiences as the winner of a year’s subscription to Penthouse in a bet with Stephen Hawking — who developed the first theory of traversable wormholes along with graduate student Mike Morris in order to support Carl Sagan’s work writing Contact. With his help, we have some of the most stunningly-rendered graphics of outer space ever put to film.
But with such an emphasis on the hard-sci-fi aspects of the film, it makes the lapses into technobabble all the more painful. I don’t mind so much when Star Trek solves every problem by inverting the polarity of something or other, but when you’ve sold me on how technically detailed your story is, the departures are much harder to take. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than the swooningly purple prose about love transcending time and dimensions, but Nolan actually did dig further down — dismissing it as obvious emotional nonsense when the woman says it, but making it the solution to everything when the man restates the same idea.
There are so many points of reference to 2001 that I can’t even begin to list them. So many plot points, so many shots, and even Hans Zimmer’s score pays loving homage to Kubrick’s film. But it’s the love of a technician for the parts, while missing the poetry and beauty of the concept. And so we set about turning transcendent, cosmic wonder into yet another puzzle-box, albeit one with moving parts so advanced they’re indistinguishable from magic. Nolan goes back to Kubrick and Clarke’s idea of something greater than ourselves interceding to help us over our next developmental hump, but now he wants to explain it all away. He offers us the nice, neat solution that he seems to think 2001 was missing, but makes it fundamentally inscrutable. It gives us all the satisfaction of “a wizard did it”. And the highest irony is that Nolan himself refuses to provide or even verify an “answer” to the ambiguous ending of Inception.
Despite the superficial complexity of the plot, Interstellar is bereft of any real surprises. Every turn is thuddingly obvious, making the emotional stakes — often for characters we haven’t spent enough real time with to care all that much about in the first place — even more ridiculous. Yes, the action scenes are thrilling, but it’s more or less clear how they’ll turn out, usually before they even begin. It’s a roller-coaster ride: exciting and fun, but ultimately safe from anything unexpected.
And that sense of something truly unexpected, unknown, and even dangerous is the foundation of wonder. Humanity looks — or at least looked — to the stars in amazement, but there is no confusing maze or puzzle here. There is no jaw-dropping awe; just a casual “huh, neat”, and the reassurance that you, yourself, right now can understand everything. That transcendent loss of control — even of one’s very self — is what 2001 understood; what Contact understood; what Gravity; what even a silly little flick like Joe Versus the Volcano understood as a sun-blistered Tom Hanks watched an enormous South Pacific moonrise. And control is exactly what Nolan cannot ever imagine giving up.
And so we get Nolan the ever-controlled technician, painting spectacular vistas on a six-story IMAX screen, projected through beautifully rich 70mm film stock. And we get cardboard-cutout characters playacting through the Nolans’ didactic policy rants about environmentalism and farming monoculture and the lost glories of human achievement — the progressive, science-loving flip-side of a crazy conservative uncle at holiday gatherings.
They’re mad as hell that we aren’t reaching for the stars anymore, or at least not with our own flesh-and-blood hands. They recite, over and over, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, as if using space colonies as a solution to our terrestrial problems is anything other than secessionism running away to start its own utopia.
But as great as interstellar colonization would be, we’ve never made it to space in anger or rage. Our anthem isn’t Dylan Thomas’, but John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight”. The human drive and determination that sends us to space is not borne of anger or desperation, but of a desire to touch something greater than ourselves. When the credits roll, Interstellar has no such thing to offer.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.