At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how many flaws I find in Interstellar, I can’t be mad at Christopher Nolan. In a movie landscape where movies are announced and produced like items in a factory line, Nolan is one of only three cinematic voices -the others being Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg- that can find an audience for a movie of Interstellar‘s magnitude based on their name alone. Nobody could argue that Nolan doesn’t have a vision and style of his own. That he is what young French critics from the fifties would call an auteur. He is also a talented director (you should watch The Prestige if you need proof).
So, why then, did I come out of Interstellar with a bitter taste in my mouth. There was something keeping me from loving the movie, but what? Well, the answer came to me in the form of a Tweet by film critic David Bax. If you allow me to go on a short tangent, Bax is the co-host of the amazing movie podcast Battleship Pretension, which you should definitely be listening to. Anyway, here’s what he tweeted:
Chris Nolan has a lot of talents but sometimes I think he’s mistaken about what exactly those talents are.
— Davey Pretension (@thepretension) November 6, 2014
And I couldn’t agree with him more. Nolan’s approach to filmmaking seems incredibly Aristotelian, focusing almost exclusively on plot. Here we have a filmmaker who is being given endless resources to make a gigantic movie about space travel, and shoot in IMAX, who seems to be somehow exclusively interested in the plot of his movie, leaving behind other things like character or spectacle. This is not to say that Interstellar looks bad, because the visual effects are flawless, and it is rather gorgeously shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Let the Right One In).
Interstellar is set in a dystopian future, in which the Earth has become a huge dustbowl that has made growing crops increasingly difficult. Our protagonist, Coop (Matthew McConaughey), is a farmer, but also an ex-pilot. He shares a love for flying, space, and exploration with his daughter Murph (played as a girl by Mackenzie Foy, and by Jessica Chastain as an adult). What happens is that, through a series of accidents, Coop ends up being recruited by what is left of NASA to pilot a spacecraft in a mission that will explore possible planets where humanity might be able to move to once Earth come to its imminent end.
It’s no coincidence that Interstellar’s weakest moments come in the third act. That is, after all, when all the big ideas Nolan has been hinting at throughout the movie must come together, and where a lot of time and energy must be spent by the screenwriters to generate enough drama as for the movie to have a climax. Because for the most part, Interstellar is a 169-minute movie about people talking about science, which is, again considering our current blockbuster landscape, something I find kind of delightful. The problem is that plot is not really Nolan’s strongest suit, and we end up with a lot of unnecessary and mishandled plot twists.
He reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan, who burst into the scene with the gigantic success of The Sixth Sense, and drove his career into the ground by trying to replicate the shocking revelations of that movie. If one does a superficial analysis of Shyamalan’s career, one could say that he failed to recognize that The Sixth Sense wasn’t a great movie because of its twist ending, but because of the character drama, and its creepy visual atmosphere. Years later, my fondest memory of The Sixth Sense isn’t any twist, but Toni Collette’s touching performance as Haley Joel Ostment’s mother.
The case of Nolan is very similar. Think of Nolan’s most successful movie ever, The Dark Knight, and how the smallest amount of scrutiny would reveal hundreds of holes in the plot. Sure, The Joker’s plan makes very little sense, but it doesn’t matter, when the genius of The Dark Knight is in the way Nolan masterfully plays with momentum, moving the story eternally forward, playing with the audience’s excitement like a virtuoso musician (an analogy that I’ve used before to describe his strengths).
People think of Nolan as a cerebral filmmaker, but I find the theories presented in his movies to be almost silly at times. I think the director’s strength is in using moving images as a sensorial experience. I don’t remember a single line from Inception, but I remember Paris bending on itself, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt flght-flying on a hallway. So, unlike many others, I wasn’t surprise when the most effective parts of Interstellar ended up being the emotional moments between Matthew McConaughey’s character and his daughter. The most memorable moment of the movie, the one that made my heart race, was when McConaughey says goodbye to his daughter before leaving on his mission.
It’s a shame that Interstellar is a movie about love, that spends much more time considering the intricacies of its plot, rather than letting characters have emotions. So, while we have some of the most state-of-the-art filmmaking on screen, we are stuck with two female leads whose personality is defined by the men around them. Nolan has never been particularly generous towards actresses, but Jessica Chastain really gets the short end of the stick when playing a character whose every value within the world of the film nests on McConaughey’s actions.
I would like to end by making a complaint that doesn’t exactly have to do with the quality of the film. I saw this in IMAX, and while the image was crystal clear, and absolutely beautiful, the sound was a disaster. The Hans Zimmer’s score, which is pretty inventive at parts, does feature a trembling bass that will pound your head, and a screeching organ that will sting your earlobes, and the sound mixing is outright atrocious, making you unable to understand key pieces of dialogue. Never a good sign when watching a movie that relies so heavily on plot.
UPDATE: (Nov. 8th) It’s not even been a day since I posted this review, but I already feel like it makes me sound much more negative than I actually am on Interstellar. At the end of the day, flaws or no flaws, Nolan beats to his own drum. A drum that might not be the best, but it’s different enough from other drums that it’s worth experiencing. There is a lot of ambition in Interstellar, and I really admire that about the movie.
Grade: 7/10 .