It’s All Relative: A Review of INTERSTELLAR (Nolan, 2014)

What’s frustrating about Interstellar is that we don’t have a word for works of art that simultaneously soar to the graceful heights of brilliance and sink to the lowest slimy depths of blunder. “Flawed masterpiece” won’t do, because the movie’s clearly not one, and because the term doesn’t quite capture the odd feeling one gets of having to grapple with a movie that’s at once so inspired and so abysmal. I’ve seen some critics (in other contexts) try out the term “mediocrepiece.” How about “infirmus opus”? Not a magnum opus, but a weak work that still has some weight, still resonates. (After positing this review, a close friend and colleague, film scholar Randolph Jordan, sent me a note suggesting the cheeky neologism “inceptional,” which has its obvious merits.)

At any rate, whatever the term we employ, it seems fair to speculate that most viewers will be unable to see past the movie’s many glaring flaws. They stare you right in the face. First, we have a bloated, plodding two-act exposition that thins out rather fattens up the characters and the world they inhabit. The paint-by-numbers conversation scenes early on appear to have been written last, ten minutes before the shoot (in fact, the film’s first hour remains just as Christopher Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, originally wrote it well before the film went into production, while the rest, involving the space travel, was subsequently revised by Nolan himself); and what ought to have felt like a Grapes of Wrath setting falls well short, and often leaves one asking, just why are they worried about the fate of planet Earth again? Life there doesn’t seem that bad.

Our engagement is also blown by some ridiculous twists whose motivations make them feel even more ridiculous. The Michael Caine death-scene confession is necessary–it gets us to the Matt Damon betrayal, one the best parts of the movie–but the whole song and dance about not believing that people would work together, well, we need to feel it during the exposition, rather than be told it halfway through the movie.

But most notorious among the film’s slip-ups are the nauseatingly frequent and drawn out scenes of full-on weeping by actors who ought to avoid such things. Along these lines, the film suffers from inane casting. I think of McConaughey, who lacks the restraint these days to carry the deep, simple emotions the Cooper character works toward (we needed the McConaughey of Contact (Zemeckis, 1997), I’d argue, and he’s long gone); and of Anne Hathaway, whose rounded, naive face enhances some scenes–it’s her wide-eyed delivery, “tell us about your planet,” that makes us suspect early on that something’s slightly off about Damon and his intentions–but her innocence makes the speech about love feel like the bleatings of a confused 14-year old whose head is filled with what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “deepities.” Perhaps my fellow audience members did so only in their minds, but I felt as if, at that very moment, everyone in the auditorium slapped their foreheads in embarrassment.

Finally, the tidal-wave-ridden waterworld in the new galaxy gives the viewer quite a ride—almost literally—but what gets us there—implausible bickering over which planet to go to first (wouldn’t all of this have been decided beforehand, and hasn’t anyone been put in charge of the expedition?)–does little but create drama in the worst sense of the word.

And yet.

Much like Inception (2010), Interstellar shines in the last act (or so). Truly shines. As I say, Christopher Nolan rewrote this part of the script (see Dan Jolin’s November 2014 Empire article, “The Ultimate Trip”), and what’s becoming clear is that when he produces these half-indie/half-blockbuster concept films he views himself as a “last act” filmmaker. The final set pieces—scenes that split the difference between action cinema and art cinema—are what drive his creativity.

From a certain perspective, Interstellar’s script indulges in a thought experiment (or series of related ones): what would it be like to give 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)’s Dave Bowman a back story? How would that change the character’s reactions on the Jupiter (in this case, the Endurance) mission? And in what ways would this personal history inflect his experience of the Star Gate sequence and the world beyond our conventional notions of space and time? How could we change the tone of the mission with robots (shaped like monoliths, of course) that are chatty and funny and even caring and skeptical? And what if we answer the question of who or what is leaving these “signs” (and drawing us on these explorations of deep space) by relying on what we now know of space-time and relativity and quantum mechanics, revealing that these signs were actually sent… by us?

This is where Christopher Nolan wanted to take us. And for all the ways that first hour (or more) is a minefield of blunders blocking us from where we want to go—from discovering something worth hanging onto in this flabby story—the rest of the movie leads us along a refined path. From the moment we learn of Michael Caine’s betrayal—his lie about the intergalactic expedition returning home—the movie’s many threads finally begin to pay off. One has to be patient, that’s all. Jessica Castain’s character, Murph (Cooper’s daughter), hits her lowest moment—she can’t figure out if her father knowingly left her to die during Earth’s dull and dusty apocalypse. But she finds her resolve, and this is where the Nolan’s editing style kicks in: like many of his other films, he uses crosscutting to weave together two or more plot lines–this time of daughter (seeking answers) and father (challenging the limits of human experience)–in ways that create rich thematic “sparks” and a sensation of momentum and anticipation that only he (assisted on this occasion by the swelling, monumental proportions of Hans Zimmer’s brilliant organ- and piano-based score) can create.

The crosscutting slows as Matt Damon enters the plot. Looking slightly bloated, but certainly gray and unheroic, he delivers perhaps the best performance of the film—Nolan can work with actors—and hits just the right emotional tone for an explorer who believed himself to be abandoned: desperate, unfriendly, even weaselly loneliness, a loneliness far more profound and far more desperate than that evoked in the cold, antiseptic ship of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Much as popular audiences remember 2001 for the HAL and Star Gate sequences, people will remember the Damon betrayal scene and what happens after. On a small transport, McConaughey and Hathaway must stabilize their larger intergalactic ship from spiraling into an icy planet’s atmosphere and burning up. Zimmer’s score again swells, and Nolan gives us one of the smartest set pieces of the film, because it’s heady and character-driven. The action follows the dictates of relativity—the ship is only spiraling if we are standing still—and McConaughey’s character now understands this, and thus begins to take the steps he’ll need to take later on to “warp” time and space—if not to get home, then at least to send a message back there.

Nolan is a Hollywood filmmaker, but he’s English, we shouldn’t forget. Presumably, he spends a lot of time in the US. And perhaps it’s this experience—of living far from the homeland, or far enough to make it difficult to keep those bonds with family and friends as firm as they ever were—that is stimulating his interest in plots of distance, disconnectedness and eventual return. While some are quick to dismiss movies like Inception and Interstellar as ambitious but failed technical and plot-structure exercises, both are much more profound than they’re given credit for. These movies carry insight into the personal experience of living in exile, or of having two homes and moving between them after long stretches of time; they are sensitive to the uncertain emotions felt in moments when you return to your “real” home only to discover that your relationship with others simply can’t pick up where it left off, because others have moved on. Your memories of them are, in a sense, static; they are limited to experiences and sensations and emotions from long ago. And you’re forced to reconcile these memories with these new people before you. This tension between memory and experience–this relativity–can leave the experience of return rather cold, and eventually become the source of a remorseful, yearning desire to reclaim the intimacy you once felt with others. Sometimes it is replaced with a new kind of intimacy. Sometimes intimacy is lost altogether.

The climaxes of Inception and Interstellar are variations on this theme. If the Cobb character (Leonardo DiCaprio) feels the elation of return to children who, it seems, have remained the same (he can pick life with them almost precisely where it left of, without losing the intimacy he and his children feel for each other), Cooper’s experience upon his return home is decidedly mixed. His daughter, now an elderly woman on her deathbed, has held on, awaiting his return. He kneels at her side, and appears to believe that they can rediscover the same intimacy they once felt for one another. But her life went on in his absence. She’s now the matriarch of a large family–a family Cooper isn’t a part of. What a brilliant, emotionally ambivalent moment—a wonderful POV shot with silhouettes of Murph’s family members crowding into the frame from the left and right sides—when Cooper is gently ushered out of the hospital room by his daughter and watches as this new family takes his place at her side. She’ll spend her final moments with them, not with him.

I wish the movie had ended that way.