The Christopher Nolan Conundrum (Part 2)

Interstellar-Wormhole-Poster

On Tuesday, I reflected on the past work of director Christopher Nolan, and today I’m going to dive into my many, many thoughts on his latest film, Interstellar. This post is essentially wall-to-wall spoilers, so if you have not seen the movie yet, you should probably stop reading now.

In May, this trailer debuted online and I decided I was more excited about Interstellar that I had been about any movie in a long time. There was just so much promise in this trailer. The profound, fate-of-humanity themes. The strong emotional story between Matthew McConaughey’s character and his daughter. The gorgeous, tantalizing space imagery. The way the wormhole looked (so cool!!). The V for Vendetta music that is totally cheating because it’s just way too good.

I say this all as a disclaimer. Because as much as I attempted to avoid forming specific, impossibly-high expectations of this film (I even avoided watching any further trailers), I definitely dreamt up a wonderful, imaginary version of what this movie could be in my mind. It was a blurry vision, but it was a vision nonetheless. As I mentioned in my last post, I was secretly certain that Interstellar was going to be Christopher Nolan’s best film yet, that he was at last free from the usual studio constraints and was making real sci-fi art on a grand scale.

Now, some people might argue that he did just that. For me, the strange, unsettling thing about Interstellar is that it is such a mixed bag, such an unusual combination of brilliance and silliness, all wrapped up in one package…it’s very hard to understand just what it is. There are people who loved it. There are those who hated it. I found myself floating somewhere in the middle, not loving it, not completely hating it, but rather just feeling a deep sense of missed opportunity, of profound disappointment in what could have been.

Because this movie has a lot of great ideas, and images, and moments, that feel like they belong in “the best film Christopher Nolan has ever made.” And then there are ideas, and images, and moments, that feel like they belong in “the worst film Christopher Nolan has ever made.” It honestly freaked me out how uneven this film was.

THE GOOD:

The overall concept / premise of this film is fantastic. I loved seeing a depiction of a post-climate-change world, in which humanity has essentially regressed to an agrarian culture, barely scraping by in endless drought and “blight” (which I guess is a bug that eats everything that we can’t pesticide-away…or something?).

The concept of a mysterious entity leaving a wormhole next to Saturn so we could travel to another solar system is another fun, totally 2001: A Space Odyssey type of idea. The concept of relativity—of traveling faster than light only to watch everyone you know and love on Earth age dramatically while you stay the same—is something I’ve wanted to see in movies for a long time (all these ideas have long been explored in sci-fi literature).

The concept of starting a new colony on a new planet to continue the human species, even if it means leaving everyone you know and love behind TO POSSIBLY GO EXTINCT ON EARTH?! That’s some heavy existential shit, and I love it.

interstellar-picture-3-saturn

The space imagery was gorgeous, harkening back to pre-CG sci-fi films that have a timeless feel. The music, while overbearing at times, was nonetheless really powerful and haunting, a very different feel from previous Nolan-Zimmer collaborations.

While Matt Damon’s mid-movie reveal was really disorienting and jarring, his storyline added some much needed immediate human drama to the film. I love the idea of a scientist arriving at a planet, only to realize it’s uninhabitable and that he’ll never be rescued, and deciding to lie so he can be rescued anyway. The whole sequence where he stole their shuttle, blew up part of their spaceship, leading to Matthew McConaughey having to dock at insane rotation-speeds was really fucking awesome.

Don't wake up Matt Damon!

Don’t wake up Matt Damon!

The moment when McConaughey fell into the black hole. It felt like at that moment, the film could have gone anywhere. I was prepared for it to blow my fucking mind. Were we going to meet the mysterious beings that set this all in motion in the first place? Was he going to pass into another dimension? Another point in time? Maybe everything in the movie was leading to this incredible twist that was GOING TO CHANGE EVERYTHING!

And so we get to…

THE BAD: 

Unfortunately, for me, the bad started way before McConaughey (Cooper) ejected from his space pod into a black hole. The signs that this was not going to be Nolan’s best movie ever began disturbingly early in the picture.

Alright, so his daughter (Murphy) has a “ghost” in her room. And there’s weird magnetic stuff happening around Cooper’s farm. Cool, that sounds like it could lead somewhere eventually.  Cooper is clearly set up as a scientist—not one to jump to conclusions about this so-called “ghost.”

But wait, when some dust falls in straight lines in Murphy’s room, Cooper suddenly decides that this phenomena is not random, not something to be further investigated, but definitely binary code spelling out GPS coordinates. No, I don’t know why he would jump to that conclusion so quickly, or bother driving for HOURS out into the middle of nowhere, all because some dust fell a certain way in his daughter’s bedroom. It was the first of many times in this film that a character’s motivation and actions didn’t arise organically, but rather abruptly, out of nowhere, simply to move the plot along from Point A to Point B.

The sheer implausibility of the plotting gets even worse when they arrive at their binary-encoded-dust-coordinates. It’s secret NASA headquarters (which I guess just so happens to be driving distance from Cooper’s farm), and inside just so happens to be Cooper’s former mentor, played by Michael Caine, who just so happens to need a pilot for the most important mission in human history, and he’s not letting Cooper out of here until he promises to leave everything behind and be the pilot.

It's lucky those lines of dust brought you here, because we happen to specifically need you to be our pilot.

It’s lucky those lines of dust brought you here, because we happen to specifically need you to be our pilot.

Now, I understand that movies have to make leaps in logic sometimes, but this was just starting to get weird. If Michael Caine is Cooper’s old mentor and friend, and they desperately needed a pilot, and Cooper was the best man for the job…why didn’t he just call Cooper up months ago to ask him to do the job? That would have been a perfectly fine reason for Cooper to drive out there instead of, “The dust made some lines…”

Around this part, there’s a classic Christopher Nolan montage of exposition, where lots of people walk and talk and set up the rest of the story. It feels like Nolan knows that this is an ongoing flaw in his movies, and seems to rush through this section as fast as possible. The problem is, in Interstellar, the things they are talking about are so profound, and so paradigm-shattering (unimaginably powerful beings have left a wormhole that leads to other habitable planets just for us?!), that I’d expect the movie to really let us feel the gravity of these revelations. Instead, we have a lot of people talking very casually in a montage about leaving Earth (possibly forever) to colonize other planets, via alien-created wormholes, and also attempting to vaguely “solve gravity” on a big blackboard back on Earth, concluding pretty neatly with Cooper deciding “okay sure, I’ll go.” 

Once again, I understand that movies have to compress time and keep things moving, but when Cooper’s rocket was blasting into space, the film gave me no time to truly feel the weight of what was occurring (leaving-Earth-maybe-forever is kind of the heaviest thing I can imagine). Instead of a truly emotional, awe-inspiring sequence, we get some barely-audible banter between Cooper and the on-board robot, and a general sense that everybody’s feeling pretty chill about this INSANE MISSION INTO A FUCKING WORMHOLE.

Thats pretty fuckin cool.

Thats pretty fuckin cool.

I had the same odd feeling when they actually entered the wormhole. At every step of this space epic, Nolan was missing opportunities to allow us to feel the profundity and emotional weight of this kind of story. There’s a teeny bit of trepidation displayed by the crew members as they punch through space and time into another galaxy, but mostly they’re pretty chill about it all, and Anne Hathaway is pretty sure that she just pleasantly shook hands with an alien, even though it looked like her fingers were terrifyingly getting warped into another dimension or something.

That was really cool actually, seeing Hathaway have that moment in the wormhole, possibly “shaking hands” with a transdimensional being. In a really tight script, that moment would have changed her. It would have led to her thinking differently about the mission, or becoming obsessed with going back into the wormhole to contact the beings. Or something. It would have been there for a reason, and had consequences. But instead, it’s just a kinda lame setup for Cooper’s black hole journey, in which it turns out he’s the one who gave her a handshake…just because. Maybe because love(?) 

Love. I know Interstellar has gotten a lot of flack from us nerds for the mushy not-hard-science-lovey-dovey stuff. The idea that intuition and feelings like love could be tapping into forces we don’t yet understand scientifically is something I can totally get behind as a concept, and I dig the idea of working that into this story. I think Nolan could have explored these themes in an intelligent, subtle way.

Instead we get—in the middle of deciding which planet humanity should colonize—a long, clunky speech from Anne Hathaway on how love is definitely “the only thing that transcends time and space” and maybe that means that they should go to her boyfriend’s planet? (Also, women, were any of you insulted by the fact that both lead female scientist characters seemed to also be the most emotionally erratic?)

But...love!

But…love!

Speaking of which, I love Jessica Chastain. But it feels like she was wasted in this movie. Her character, Murphy, grows up to be a scientist, also working for Michael Caine, on the very same project that involves her dad traveling to another planet. YET, she has never forgiven him for leaving, and essentially stays on this one-note of bitterness for most of the film (I’m mad at Daddy for leaving me!). I think that’s a powerful emotion to have at the core of her character, but goddammit she’s a grown woman now working on the very same mission here on Earth, so let her be a little more complex or ambivalent about it all please!

I'm going to put my advanced scientific skills to use in any way I can on this save-humanity project, but I HATE MY DADDY FOREVER FOR DOING THE SAME THING!

I’m going to put my advanced scientific skills to use in any way I can on this save-humanity project, but I HATE MY DADDY FOREVER FOR DOING THE SAME THING!

The Earth-bound story got really problematic as film went on. We have poor Casey Affleck playing an even more one-note character as Chastain’s brother. His wife and son have dust-cough, or something really bad that happens when you breathe dust all the time. Casey Affleck apparently does not want his wife and son to get medical treatment…because. So Jessica Chastain sets his crops on fire to distract him, then drives back to look at old things in her room, while Topher Grace stands awkwardly in the front yard yelling repeatedly (to maintain the tension!) “He’s coming back!” or “The fire’s out! Hurry up!”

Before we get to what happens in Murphy’s dusty bedroom, I’d just like to say that the way this whole Earth storyline was intercut with Cooper’s storyline, on another planet, battling Matt Damon’s character, really didn’t work for me. It felt like Christopher Nolan was copying-and-pasting techniques he used on his earlier films like Inception, intercutting simultaneous parallel sequences…but when one of your sequences involves astronauts fighting for their lives and the future of humanity, and the other is “Casey Affleck is grumpy and stubborn for some reason,” it really doesn’t add up to anything. I don’t want to suddenly cut to some corn burning in a field in the midst of “HOLY SHIT DID MATT DAMON JUST STEAL THEIR SPACESHIP?!”

Anyway. We finally come back around to the now-infamous “tesseract” sequence. Once again, when McConaughey fell into the black hole, I was bracing myself for an awesome finale. Something I didn’t expect. Something that might make the movie’s pitfalls all worth it. 

Well, it was certainly something I didn’t expect. Once again, I liked the broad concept and ideas and potential of this finale, but the execution was, like so much else, really disappointing.

The "Tesseract"

The “Tesseract”

So, let’s get this straight: future humans, “beings of 5 dimensions,” created this 3D space just for Cooper to be able to literally punch some books off a shelf, stick his arm through some dust, and encode as-yet-unknown equations generated from within a singularity via morse code onto the second hand of a watch so that Murphy can “solve gravity” back on Earth and put a bunch of white people onto a big circular suburbia space station? 

That’s a pretty weird sentence, but I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. Even more inexplicable: how in the heck does Murphy, sitting around in her bedroom, come to the realization that her dad is the “ghost?” Does she still actually believe in ghosts? Does she think her dad is dead and literally haunting her room? Does she infer that he has passed into the 5th dimension and is now using his new gravity-altering powers to fuck with her old watch?

Like, seriously, I want to know WTF is happening in her head when she triumphantly marches out to greet her nearly-homicidal brother with a big smile, saying something like “Dad’s in the watch!” What’s going on in his head? Why does he just stand there blankly when a minute ago Topher Grace was pulling out a fucking tire iron to keep him away from his wife and kids? Does Casey Affleck, the actor, even know? I don’t think he does.

I’m realizing that in a lot of ways, so many of my problems with Interstellar‘s script are “first draft” problems. It feels like I’m watching a deeply flawed early draft of a better movie, a draft in which the character motivations are barely figured out and are mostly there just to move the plot forward (which itself isn’t 100% figured out, cause-and-effect / logic-wise). It’s really confusing, because this looks like a not-first-draft movie, this looks like the kind of movie that a lot of thought and care was poured into. But then why are there such fundamental, flat-out silly flaws on a basic script level? Did no one dare give Nolan notes, figuring he was above critical feedback at this point?

We finally come to the end-end of the movie, which, like so much else in this film, feels like yet another wasted opportunity. Cooper wakes up in a space colony orbiting Saturn, in the far future. His daughter has “solved the gravity equation” on Michael Caine’s blackboard (still not clear on what “solving gravity” even means) and therefore they can have awesome tubular space habitats like the Citadel in Mass Effect! That’s pretty neat.

The Citadel! If you don't know what Mass Effect is, you should.

The Citadel! If you don’t know what Mass Effect is, you should.

Let’s remember that for the people in this space habitat, Cooper just appeared on the Saturn side of the wormhole, floating in space, not having aged in 90-something years. This is like Abraham Lincoln or something coming back from the dead. And yet, there are no historians or reporters or scientists who want to ask him questions, or find out what happened on the other side. Instead, Cooper is greeted by a giggly nurse and a goofy overzealous tour guide who takes him directly to a weird museum replica of his old farmhouse. (Apparently, the video displays in the museums of the far future are still in the old 4:3 TV aspect ratio and look like they were shot in the 80’s…we solved gravity but we don’t have holograms or something yet???)

Are these people planning to shortly travel through the wormhole to the planet Anne Hathaway landed on? Or are they just chilling next to Saturn indefinitely? Do they not care about finding another planet anymore? None of these questions are raised or answered, as far as I remember.

At the end of The Dark Knight, Nolan set up a filmmaking device he really fancies: having someone give an epic speech over epic Hans Zimmer music, while we see a montage of characters reacting to things and doing things, and generally giving us a FUCK YEAH feeling as we walk out of the movie. He tries to do the same thing here, but as has been the case throughout the film, simply copying-and-pasting epic-action-movie montages onto Interstellar doesn’t work, and doesn’t suddenly make it good. Just because a “FUCK YEAH!” montage worked in one movie doesn’t mean works here, or even makes sense here (although it might feel like it does for a minute before you walk out of the theater and start thinking about it all). 

Cooper reunites with a super-old Murphy (Ellen Burstyn) after all these years, and what does she tell him to do after an extremely brief conversation? “Find Brand.”

Brand, meaning Anne Hathaway. This suggests that elderly, just-come-out-of-cryo-sleep Ellen Burstyn has been briefed on the fact that Brand is alive, that she is alone on the last known habitable planet (which also assumes that Brand’s scouting-ahead boyfriend is definitely dead, which nobody knows at this point), that it’s probably a good idea for Cooper to just bounce and head there to keep Brand company (so I guess humanity really is just going to chill next to Saturn, and isn’t en route to Brand’s planet anyway????). She essentially shoos Cooper out of her room, who then promptly steals a spaceship (because I guess it’s fun to see a lame spaceship-manager guy notice a spaceship is missing from its slot? Take that, lame future-pencil-pusher with a clipboard!).

THE END.

What am I supposed to take from this ending? That there’s now going to be a Hathaway-McConaughey Adam & Eve thing on this new planet, and everyone else is gonna chill by Saturn? Is it simply supposed to make me feel pumped that McConaughey stole a ship and is gonna go kiss Anne Hathaway like a boss? Basically, why is a movie that is about the future of humanity and so many huge important ideas ending with Ellen Burstyn making really weird assumptions about lots of things she shouldn’t know about and telling her long-lost dad to go straight back into the wormhole (not, “meet all your great grandchildren who are standing right here staring at us!”)?

Alright. I think I’m done. That was long, and I apologize. I know there is a lot to appreciate about this movie, and yes, I’m holding Christopher Nolan to a very high standard. I’m also a sci-fi geek who wanted a lot from this movie, and didn’t get everything I wanted, which obviously makes me not your average just-want-to-be-entertained moviegoer. 

Here’s what I wish. I wish Christopher Nolan would actually make the leap I thought he was making with Interstellar. Not giving us a movie that just looks and feels like a really profound sci-fi epic, but actually is. With a real, adult plot with real, complex characters that don’t just do things because the story needs it to happen right now. Not just copying-and-pasting techniques from The Dark Knight or Inception. Those are fundamentally different movies from Interstellar, and a film of this scope and ambition deserves its own style and pacing and editing that best serves this story. 

What it really comes down to is: I’m so happy sci-fi movies like this are being made. We’re absolutely in a sci-fi “cycle” in Hollywood, and it’s very exciting.

I’m also sad that this cycle has yet to produce a truly great sci-fi film, a new classic that could stand alongside the best. I thought Interstellar was going to be that classic. And while for moments it looks, and feels, and promises to be that new classic, it’s just not. 

All that said, I’m probably going to see it again, at the really big IMAX theater near my parent’s house in Arizona, just to have the experience one more time. So, there’s that.

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  Film Discussion
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About

 Alex Calleros

  (10 articles)

I'm a co-founder of Finite Films, and I directed the shorts Day 1000, Stealing Time, Occupational Hazards, Anamnesis, and Unsustainable. Of the 3 of us, I'm probably the most obsessed with film soundtracks and most likely to be called a "foodie" and/or "wino." Most recently co-wrote and co-directed Anamnesis: The Series.

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