Interstellar (2014)

inter2I’m not quite sure what to make of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. On the one hand its a bold, intelligent and epic movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe, and on the other hand, its an incredibly flawed, dumbed-down and infuriating movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe. How can it be both things at once? I saw the film in Imax (if you see the film, it HAS to be in Imax) last Tuesday and have refrained from writing this post, preferring instead to consider the film for awhile, discussing the film with colleagues at work who I saw the film with. Over the past few days I’ve started to reflect more on what the film does well than its flaws, but I’m still worried this post will swiftly degenerate into a confusing morass of conflicting thoughts…. its that kind of movie.

Its certainly no masterpiece though. Its a good film in many ways, but anyone going to see this expecting something as important and profound as 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be disappointed.  Sets your sights more towards 2010: The Year We Make Contact or perhaps even Sunshine and you’ll be happier with it. If that sounds like a damning comment then there it is. The one thing I will say in its favour is that they simply don’t make many films with space exploration  as a serious subject so we should cherish Interstellar for all its flaws- we simply are not going to see another science fiction film like this again for some years to come. That makes its flaws all the more frustrating, obviously…

What annoyed me most about Interstellar? For all its touted vision, all the huge effects and scope and acting talent, what this film lacks is a commentary, a voice of its own. Its bloodless. For me one of the most interesting parts of the film is its first act, on the blighted near-future Earth and a humanity that is facing a long, slow extinction. Text-books are rewriting history (the Apollo landings were faked, claimed to be a successful ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union), farming is the only thing that matters, there are no armies, no space programmes… but nowhere does the film state a reason for this End of the World scenario. Climate change? Global Warming? Rampant population growth? Is the film so afraid to be outspoken, afraid to alienate viewers by being political? With a premise like this , the film should be pissing people off, if only the current political establishments of this planet. Maybe it should be pissing all of us off, blaming us and our way of life for the blight. Have we killed the Earth? If so, do we even deserve to survive? The question isn’t even asked, as if believing that humanity is some innocent victim itself. There is an extinction event going on, God knows how many species already wiped out by the time the film begins, but no explanation offered, no reason or blame for it. We are meant to just accept it somehow. Its the reason for the odyssey that follows, and that’s all. The central premise of the film is stated as ‘Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here‘. It doesn’t ask why. Why are we not meant to die here, considering its us that fucked it up? The film should be asking do we deserve to survive, and the rest of the film demonstrating the answer.

inter3Doubly troubling is that everything is American-centric, a throwback to films decades past. There’s an irony that if its the free-capitalism and mass-consumption of the Western way of life that has destroyed the planet, its only the Americans that can save it. There’s no Big Picture here, despite the films huge subject. Beyond the rural land of Cooper’s farm, or the rather ridiculous subterranean hide-out of NASA, the big world picture is ignored. Bear in mind that as I write this in 2014, America and NASA cannot even get a man into orbit any more, in light of which the basic premise of the film (forget the Rest Of The World, America Can Save Everything) is insulting, frankly, in something that’s supposed to be so intelligent. Its more Armageddon than Contact, something I found quite surprising.

Some sequences are indeed jaw-dropping pure cinema, as one would expect of a director of Nolan’s credentials. When Cooper finally leaves home to pilot the mission to the stars, he leaves behind his young daughter begging him to stay. The music swells up powerfully, he drives off into the horizon, and as the music lifts up even more the picture cuts to the launch of the rocket, the magnificently bombastic Zimmer score propelling, simply willing the rocket into orbit. Its huge, exhilarating stuff, worth the price of admission alone. Indeed this may well be Zimmer’s finest score in years (it’s up there with The Thin Red Line in my eyes). But goodness is it loud. It drowns out so much of the dialogue some of these plot-points I’m moaning about may indeed have been addressed in the film, I perhaps simply missed it in all the noise. The sound design of this movie is problematic to say the least. It seems to be by design, but if so then I’m not sure it worked to the film-maker’s intentions.

So once we get into space, and all the promised spectacle of a blockbuster movie, its surprising how mundane it all seems. Have we lost our propensity for awe? Its troubling that Interstellar lacks the sense of wonder or spectacle that the Birth of the Solar System sequence of The Tree Of Life had, or so much of Gravity had (indeed, much of the film looks spectacular but Gravity remains visually superior, and it must really irk Nolan that it beat him to it). Going further back, Kubrick’s 2001 had such a grace in its scale, a sense of the vastness of space, our place in it: the Discovery a dot in the vast blackness of the 70mm frame, and then the humans in turn dwarfed by the construct carrying them. Nolan deliberately avoids hero-shots of the ships, perhaps to maintain an intimacy, or docudrama approach, but this hurts the films sense of scale and majesty. Originally Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct this film, if he had, I don’t think the film would have suffered this particular failing.

Nolan seems so distracted by time dilation and the years separating Cooper and his family back on Earth that the sheer physicality of space travel, the distances and the zero-gravity, food and air supplies, don’t seem to interest him. Even a film as derided as Sunshine had a greenhouse on its ship and a concious concern with supplies and survival. Interstellar is in such a rush to get to the wormhole it treats the odyssey to reach it (the wormhole orbits way out at Saturn)  as something ordinary, like a regular outing. We don’t have time, funnily enough in a three-hour movie, to really get a sense of the ship they are travelling in, establish its internal and external spaces, its functions. The crew leave Earth orbit, jump into cryosleep and wake up at Saturn minutes later. Sure, it moves the film forward but it loses so much grandeur and sense of awe, and once through the wormhole and we reach the Other Side, this sense of the ordinary continues, the prospective planets all (apparently) fairly close to each other, the astronauts tripping between them like in some kind of Star Wars movie. It’s necessary to keep the running time down, but it really diminishes the scale, which is odd, because this film is close on three hours long, and if that’s not long enough to maintain a proper sense of scale in a space movie, then are you doing it wrong? If sub-plots are forcing your hand condensing it all into three-hours, should it even be there?

Its as if they shot two three-hour movies and cut it down to one. Sort of like making a Peter Jackson movie in reverse.

I have endeavoured to keep as much of this spoiler-free as I can. People who have seen the film will have noted that I haven’t even raised certain elements of the film up. Derisive as I may already seem, I haven’t yet brought up a number of elements of the film that are really contentious. Bookcases and coordinates and surprise actors, rather problematic robot designs…  I’ll leave that for another day, perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out.

Suffice to say that while people still argue about what 2001 means, there’s no such argument regards Interstellar– its love conquers all. Yes, I’m afraid its about as high-concept as that. Which is not to say that its a bad movie, its just a frustrating one. Not quite worthy of all its ambitions. This post makes it seem as if I hated the film. I really quite liked it. I look forward to seeing it again. It just isn’t what we had hoped it would be, what it really should have been- a really great space movie. Nearly there, I guess.

Well, we’ll always have 2001...


7 thoughts on “Interstellar (2014)

  1. Great write-up man. I’m glad that you still walked out liking it. Despite being very frustrated…

    I differ from you in wanting to see it again. I don’t think I’d want too. At least not in the next four or five years haha. I did like it though.

    The only thing that we disagree on really is the robot designs. I thought that they were fine and I liked how much they differ from other movies. Yet I wouldn’t say they were that cool either…

  2. Well said. You’ve effectively nailed a lot of the issues I had with Interstellar, and raised quite a few that hadn’t occurred to me.

    I actually think this movie outright stinks. I really went into it hoping to like it, after shelling out a small fortune for a pair of IMAX tickets. I’m a long-time Nolan fan. I’m a big SF fan. Nolan does SF: it should be a dream.

    But it has literally nothing to offer. I was so disappointed I’m actually thinking of resurrecting my long-dormant, short-lived blog to get it out of my system. We shall see.

    This film feels like so many different, increasingly negative aspects of Nolan’s current style of film-making converging that I worry he may never make a good film again. After Inception [loud and dull], TDKR [loud, very dull, incoherent and lacklustre – you know watching it that Nolan didn’t want to make it], and then Interstellar, I think we’ve lost him to the budgets.

    By that I mean, there comes a point where film-makers get so addicted to big budgets and the freedom [after a fashion – more on this below] that comes with them that they don’t seem to be able to think straight. It happened to Cameron, it happened to Peter Jackson, and we see it happening to Nolan now right before our eyes. Once you get to play with the big toys, you never come back. It’s like an event horizon. Once you cross, you don’t ever return.

    Another aspect is that Nolan now seems to be determined to avoid anything anyone else does. So this film doesn’t have any spectacle, apparently for fear of seeming like something anyone else has done. The space scenes are flat and lifeless. There is no awe. Journeys to other galaxies and dimensions are just… nothing. Spaceship shots are dull. Like the Bat-Jet-whatever scenes in TDKR, he seems afraid to ever let rip and show something actually exciting, in an exciting way: so we see a lot of camera-mounted-to-spaceship hull shots, which contain nothing of interest; or else just flat wide shots wherein it takes off or lands uneventfully. i’m not asking for Michael Bay incoherence [though Nolan does come close in the ‘what’s-going-on-here?’ stakes] or CGI overkill, but just something inventive and stimulating.

    I know Nolan fans will argue that it shows great originality and restraint to follow your own path and not be like anything else… but when you strip away everything that’s like anything that’s ever been done before, you need to replace that stuff with something of your own. And Nolan has nothing here. Literally nothing.

    I found myself imagining the pre-viz and FX discussions in pre-production: FX supervisors and conceptual artists coming up with exciting ideas, and Nolan brushing them aside: “no, no, I don’t think so.. too vulgar”. So what we end up with is… nothing much… grey spaceship. Grey planets. A few brief flashes and twisty lights representing massive cosmic journeys. That’s it.

    I’m hoping this is the film where people realise that there will never be another Kubrick, or another 2001. We all desperately hope for it: remember the fan-made trailer for Avatar with the Koyaanisqatsi footage and Philip Glass music? Or the fervour with which people were waiting for Gravity [and the mild disappointment when it turned out to be just a slightly hokey space adventure – a spectacular one, that worked really well on its own terms, but not quite The Big Ideas movie we’d hoped for]? And the gravitas we all pre-emptively attached to this film?

    But Interstellar kills its own sense of mystery by the end. There’s no transcendence here [the third act explains everything away as far less interesting than it seems: we can’t have anything transcendent at the bottom of this, says Nolan, because someone did that before, in 2001 and in 2010 and in Contact. So I’m replacing it with… nothing much.] As you say, it all seems mundane and a bit dull.

    It has literally no gravity, no spectacle, and a central story that I personally feel is only there out of the dictates of the studio: if you want this much money, we need to reach a big audience, so make it about family.

    In another dimension, there’s the brilliant [if still sentimental – but the sentiment would work better] two-hour Spielberg film that this should have been. Where he went in and really organised the material, and made it flow, and had actual ideas about how and why he was going to shoot certain scenes, and given it an identity.

    But I’m stuck here with this dud.

    Anyway. Have you seen Under The Skin yet?

    1. Yeah, Under the Skin- I’ve been trying to get thoughts/review together for a few months now. Think I’ll have to give it a re-watch first though after so much time. I enjoyed it. Ending bugged me a little though. Maybe it’ll work better second time around. One of the better/stranger films of the year.

      Regards Interstellar, I think you are absolutely right. I walked out of the cinema thinking, ‘so he travels to another galaxy, falls into a black hole and into his kid’s bookcase back home’. I mean, you think about it like that and its so utterly banal and.. well, if I even said that to someone who hadn’t seen the film, they wouldn’t believe it. They literally wouldn’t believe it. And don’t start me with how he somehow finds his way back through the wormhole with his Spacesuit Of Infinite Air Supply and gets picked up by some passing spaceship.

      At least Kubrick had something to say in 2001. We might argue even now decades later about exactly WHAT Kubrick was saying, but at least he said something. I don’t think Interstellar has anything to say, which is why I referred to it as being bloodless. God I wish we were back in the 1970s now, with films like Taxi Driver and the Godfather etc. Hollywood has nothing to say. And you are so right about budgets. What the f–k happened to Peter Jackson? The Hobbit films are appalling. Or James Cameron? Admittedly scriptwriting was never his star asset but good lord some of the dialogue in Titanic and Avatar… as for Lucas… I watch THX 1138 and think its an artifact from some other timeline when the guy was a film-maker, nevermind the films tagline of being an artifact from the future.

      Anyway, get ranting on your blog mate. Its cathartic regards films like Interstellar and I could do with a good read. Some of the five-star reviews of that film are astonishing, there will no doubt be Oscar talk soon. To think 2001 got such a hard time back in 1968 and still does by many people even now.

  3. Great review! Nicely balanced & just like you, I was disappointed with a few things but I seem to be inclining more on the favourable side. It came as a respite for me coz I thought Nolan was gone when TDKR surfaced 2 years back.

  4. gregory moss

    Nice review, Ian! As you know – I’m not a fan of this film at all (banal is such a perfect word to describe it). I really hope I never have to sit through it again – ever.

  5. Good review. It was interesting to see where it went, but honestly, sometimes I felt like Nolan was just jumping into certain areas of his story, because even he didn’t know where he was going.

  6. Pingback: Interstellar (2014) | 100 Films in a Year

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