'Interstellar' Movie Review: Humans Are Alien to Nolan

interstellar
'Interstellar' is in theaters now. Paramount Pictures

There is no returning to 2001: A Space Odyssey in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. The comparisons are invited again and again,  as a booming organ score fills every arcminute of brain not eclipsed by the sight of Endurance—humanity’s last hope—traversing the rings of Saturn. Interstellar is full of this kind of splendor. But ultimately Interstellar is brought back down by the moments where it most wants to be insightful.

Interstellar Movie Trailer

Interstellar is an immense movie, encompassing travel through wormholes, to refreshingly alien planets, and into the heart of a black hole. So it’s a bit disappointing when Interstellar places fairly obvious constraints on itself right from the beginning. The movie begins with Matthew McConaughey’s Coop chasing down defunct drones, loving his children, and feeling impotent and angry at the fading fortunes of mankind. Our crops are slowly succumbing to The Blight, and now we all have to eat corn all the time (status quo maintained). But then his daughter starts receiving cryptic messages from a “ghost” and we’re off to the stars, with a ghost that traffics more in coordinates to top-secret NASA bases than chain rattling.

Is Interstellar Confusing?

Christopher Nolan movies have a reputation for being confusing, especially if you’re 12:

I think part of this is due to some Christopher Nolan hoodwinking. He has a well-nurtured reputation for meticulousness that makes audiences blame themselves for his defects as a storyteller. This has been particularly milked for Interstellar, with interviews and pre-premiere hype defined by a proclaimed scientific rigorousness to the film. I’ve heard Kip Thorne’s name more than my own in the past six months of Interstellar hype. It’s a supreme bit of misdirection that has lead to lots of boring nitpicking of the science in Interstellar. But science isn’t the film’s problem. As usual, it’s human error at fault.

The seeds of everything wrong with Interstellar are right there in the beginning. If you’re at all familiar with time travel movies, then the source of Murphy’s “ghost” was probably obvious: this must be Coop from the future. And with that realization the movie becomes a narrow exercise in traveling through vast realms of space and time just to get Matthew McConaughey to a place where he can write messages to his daughter by pushing stuff off a bookshelf. Everything else is just beautiful noise. These are Terminator rules, in which events must fulfill themselves… just cuz. And while it’s possible to innovate even in that restrictive storytelling space (Timecrimes comes to mind), it’s a bizarre handicap put on Interstellar right from the beginning.

Christopher Nolan sets up this plot, where all of the universe comes down to the love between a father and daughter, because he wants to create a more human space epic. Interstellar takes the onus for human advancement out of alien hands and back in ours. Interstellar also makes the case that our most admirable traits are not the ones that Coop first values. Our status as adventures and singular paragons—humanity reduced to a series of heroes—is either subtly damaging, as is the case with the wannabe martyrdom of Michael Caine’s Professor Brand, or a ticking time bomb, as Dr. Mann’s supposed heroism curdles into narcissistic madness. Instead it is love and the connections we draw, one individual to another, that brings about the salvation of the human race.

But while Nolan makes an admirable effort, his argument for human sentiment converts love into a storytelling cog, stripping it of any emotional resonance and crushing the great character work between Coop and his daugher, Murph (Mackenzie Foy is perfect as Young Murph) into just more plot dust. This generates all of the worst parts Interstellar. While Coop and Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) are in space getting into astounding and creative adventures, Interstellar cuts back to Earth again and again, Nolan trying his best to inject energy into the yawn that is Jessica Chastain’s relationship with her brother, Casey Affleck. This leads to the most laughable scene in Interstellar, as Chastain’s Murph burns down her brother’s crop in order to distract him long enough that she can run up to her  bedroom and search for gravitational anomalies.

Interstellar Always Comes Back to 2001

This brings us back to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the subversion Christopher Nolan attempts with Interstellar. Kubrick is notoriously cold and uncaring about his human characters. So is Christopher Nolan, as much as he may fight that characterization in Interstellar. Who watched 2001 thinking it was all about how much humans mattered? Sure, there’s some lip-service played to that in the end, as the Star Child descends on Earth. But even there, at the ultimate hopeful prospect of mankind’s evolution into galactic beings, the focus is firmly on “Star,” the evolved being far more alien than human, come to deliver extraterrestrial—not human—wisdom. We can expect some level of confusing extra-dimensional bedrooms because these are alien decorators after all. Interstellar can’t be that kind of New Age. The alien is not alien, just inscrutable… for now. But with enough pluck, and enough box-jawed, astronaut can-doody, even the cosmic space freak-out, the black hole jamboree, can be nothing more than an efficient operating system for a three dimensional time library set up by future humans.

So why does love matter more than anything? What’s the big secret at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s conception of human emotion? Nolan can’t tell you, because it’s too late the moment he sticks the emotional arc of Interstellar in a time loop with an inevitable payoff. Things happen the way they do in Interstellar because that’s the way the future folk wanted it to go down. Or, maybe, love is a fifth-dimensional quantum entanglement and the only navigational signpost in the third dimension legible from the fourth. But what it amounts to is that a number of very silly and very small events unfold into all of our future potential as a species. I can see the temptation of treating the narrative like this, to enfold all of humanity in the drama of a single family, but it seems more a product of insecurity than confidence. It’s as if Christopher Nolan can’t make you feel for unadorned humans. Love as love isn't enough in Interstellar. Instead, love must be conflated and entangled with all events, all times and the very future of our species.

I’ve done my best to tease out exactly what bothered me in Interstellar, but you should still go see the movie if you haven’t yet. It’s a powerful film full of startling images, and while the narrative Christopher Nolan has built is flawed, it’s not unserious. Interstellar is a movie worth grappling with, perhaps Nolan’s first. Sure, Interstellar is a more mixed bag than his most satisfying films. But it’s not an elaborate gimmick like Inception or The Prestige. Nor is it a moral and thematic muddle, like the bizarre and conflicting motivations behind the Nolan Batman movies. Interstellar is a mature film, more thoughtful than we ever get from something that costs $165 million. As a spacefaring and pensive science fiction it far surpasses Prometheus and is worth both your time and consideration.

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