Much like Christopher Nolan’s celebrated take on the Caped Crusader, Interstellar is a film steeped in ideology. His experience with the now-definitive filmic representations of Batman honed his ability to tap into a national, if not global, socio-political consciousness, around which he and his go-to screenwriters delight in crafting various above-average plot structures.
While the Dark Knight Trilogy dealt with concepts of penal utilitarianism, populism, and the ever-illusory specter of “social decay,” Interstellar deals with technological capitalism at its most wide-eyed and inspirational. Here, the ongoing global environmental crisis is characterized not as an ethical failure on our part, but a spiritual one. The problem is not that we have selfishly destroyed an entire planet. Rather, it’s that we’ve failed to man up and leave Earth behind, that we’ve given up on the Cold War aspirations to boldly go.
This boyish aspiration to exceed our terrestrial bonds and, through pure force of what Ayn Rand termed rational selfishness, colonize the universe seems to me a core fantasy of neo-conservatism. Nothing else can explain such disdain for contemporary environmental concerns.
By using the term “neo-conservatism,” I want to be clear that I do not intend it as an indictment (that goes doubly for all you high-minded liberals out there that clutch to intellectual labels to regulate your own political ego!). It’s simply to note that great dramatic power resides in cinema’s ability to breathe life into grand political fantasies, whether they be the romanticized classism in Titanic (1997) or the it’s-a-dirty-job-but-someone’s-gotta-do-it moral cynicism of Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
Considering Nolan’s ostensibly libertarian proclivities, it’s understandably hard to avoid drawing an Ayn Rand parallel; after all, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and John Galt were both engineers.
In the first act, Cooper enjoys a vague, narratively baseless backstory that allows him to go from a salt-of-the-Earth corn farmer who swigs beer on his dusty porch to an intergalactic action-pilot in relative short order. His ruminations over the destiny of the human race create a tempting comparison to McConaughey’s coarse nihilism in True Detective, but ultimately that’s misguided. As the film opens, Cooper’s character is not down in the dumps because he wants to give up on terrestrial existence; rather, he’s bummed because everyone else has.
The problem with Nolan’s latest is not what you’d expect. The film doesn’t actually labor under an over-worked high-concept premise, and its human element isn’t crushed under the weight of oppressive cinematic stylization. Rather, Interstellar fails to accomplish precisely what it sets out to do, both in its narrative and within the context of modern cinema: to bring us somewhere we’ve never been before.
The central plot involving planetary exploration is contrived and uninspired, and the subplot back on Earth is convoluted by extraneous concerns involving meaningless chalkboard equations and the entirely superfluous character arc of Cooper’s son, Tom (Casey Affleck). As Professor Brand (Michael Caine) toils away pretentiously, it remains unclear to the viewer just what “the problem of gravity” is, how exactly “quantum data” is relevant to the plot as anything other than a cheap MacGuffin masquerading as impenetrably complex astro-quantum-physics.
The entire film seems to treat Science itself as its own deus ex machina, but it does this almost certainly in blissful ignorance of what that says about Western society’s preoccupation with the supposed infallibility of scientific discourse. When this movie posits that no one can look inside of a black hole except when you can and do look inside of a black hole, it demonstrates a certain obliviousness to the fact that science is as constrained by epistemological dilemmas as any other field of inquiry (see, e.g., thinkers like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend).
The potential chemistry between Cooper and Amelia (Anne Hathaway) is woefully underutilized, and at no point does the experience approach the kind of anxious adrenaline-frenzy that earned Alfonso Cuaròn an Oscar last year for Gravity. The planets explored by the crew are minimally interesting, but their most interesting features are probably already spoiled for 85% of the audience by trailers and previews.
The script is one thing. But more notably, the visual dimension of this film fails to inspire. With the exception of the wormhole sequence in the early-middle of the film, which was admittedly quite fantastic, this movie looks surprisingly dull. It’s as if Nolan made the conscious decision to scale back his visual aspirations and let the script do the talking. It’s a mistake for almost any filmmaker, and for Nolan and company it’s a death sentence. The exposition we’re forced to encounter throughout the three-hour experience isn’t just dense and banal, it’s downright cringe-worthy.
The script’s problem isn’t inaccessible techno-jargon or the legitimately baffling philosophical implications of modern physics, but precisely the opposite. If anything, this film’s scientific rigor is subpar, trafficking in nothing more challenging than a typical episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
I was surprised to find that the screenwriters somehow resisted the urge to spin any of the commonplace time travel paradoxes one would expect, opting instead for an unapologetically comprehensible and straightforward approach happy to ignore such paradoxes completely. Intellectually, this is about as far from Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) as a time travel movie can get. Creatively, it’s not half as imaginative as Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012).
Philosophically, the script fares no better. Though I somewhat enjoyed Amelia’s monologue on love when debating which planet to explore first, her fundamentally mysterious notions are soon co-opted by the film and instrumentalized in service of the absolute cheesiest of denouements.
I’ve read very little by way of reviews at this point, but my expectation is that the counter-narrative that will emerge against what seems to be a mounting backlash is this: detractors have their eyes on the wrong thing. This story, we’ll be told, was never about ideas so pedestrian as “the problem of gravity” or “quantum data” or time dilation.
Rather, Interstellar is about love. It’s about the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murphy (Jessica Chastain), and if you missed that, you weren’t paying attention.
There’s some legitimate truth to this view. Looking back, what I remember from this film isn’t alien worlds, time warps, or spaceships. It’s the various scenes between Cooper and Murphy, with performances that pull off enough emotional resonance to remind the viewer of what’s truly at stake.
Unfortunately, when the characters’ more human moments aren’t buried under stretches of platitudinous sci-fi cliché, they’re soon to be followed by such guileless sentimentality as deathbed quotations of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” So much in this film is so unforgivably sophomoric that it becomes impossible to relate to the good stuff.
Even considering the film’s few strengths, it still doesn’t add up to a particularly engaging film. Never quite interesting and never quite boring, Interstellar is a thoroughly mediocre experience.