Behold, and tremble in awe
Interstellar’s a movie that wants you to know how awe-inspiring it is. Tracking a ragtag team of astronauts as they journey through deep space in search of a new home for the residents of a dying earth, the film dwells on big images and even bigger ideas. “Look at that mile-high tidal wave!” the movie seems to whisper, taking full advantage of the scene’s IMAX 70mm format to get every last detail in crystalline high definition. “Check out that black hole!” Meanwhile, the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer surges to deafening heights, and the story ventures to the edges of human experience and farther still, tackling such lofty concepts as love, knowledge, and faith. Throw in tearjerking moments and a poem recited by Michael Caine, that ol’ bard, and you’ve got one EPIC movie, spelled out in all caps.
Yes, Interstellar is epic in almost every sense of the word, but epicness is not always a plus. Christopher Nolan, arguably the most powerful blockbuster filmmaker since Steven Spielberg in his heyday, seems to have nestled too comfortably into his newfound role as mythmaker. He wants his films to be archetypal, emotive, big. We saw this tendency most clearly in the Dark Knight trilogy, where Batman surpassed spandexed vigilante to become a Greek tragic hero navigating the line between good and evil, order and anarchy. We saw strains of it in Man of Steel, a film that Nolan penned and that transformed Superman into a somber, pseudo-Christ figure. We see it now with Interstellar, whose mythos arises from modernism’s glorification of progress and human endeavor—think 2001: A Space Odyssey, refashioned with 21st century special effects. Like Kubrick with that film, Nolan wants to move us to wonder by visualizing the narratives, dreams, and desires that float about in our cultural subconscious, in the process bringing us to sublime realms of sensing and feeling.
The thing is, there comes a point when the experience of the sublime becomes too sublime, thus breaking our immersion in the film. Such is the case with Interstellar, whose audiovisual and ideological grandstanding detracts from the experience the movie was trying to convey with those very gestures. When a film tries too hard, we notice it trying. (What’s more, the film’s cinematography doesn’t really justify all the fanfare in the first place—the images are beautiful, sure, but more creative and compelling compositions have been created by other filmmakers on a fraction of Interstellar’s budget. To name a few: The Tree of Life, Blade Runner, Gravity, and yes, 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Exacerbating the effect is Nolan’s celebrity status as a mainstream, auteur-visionary—we expect greatness from this man, he knows it, and we know that he knows it. Watching a Nolan film is to be continually and actively seeking out the director’s signature penchant for sensory and emotional volume. From the filmmaker’s perspective, this kind of pressure is undoubtedly overwhelming and stifling for the creative process. Perhaps our expectations—and perhaps Nolan’s own, understandable-if-true infatuation with being “Christopher Nolan: Mythmaker,” a flattering title indeed—have caused him to push his style too much, resulting in a film that works on paper but feels somewhat bombastic in execution.
There was a time when I worried Nolan would be stuck making puzzle films that banked on plot twists and atmosphere, but now that he’s become pigeonholed in this other aesthetic, I find myself missing the former. Those films were more modest in scale but deviously airtight in construction, showing a filmmaker in full control of both cinematic form and his audience. These more technically ambitious epics, on the other hand, are trickier to manage because their reach easily exceeds their grasp. I’ll be the first to admit that it is precisely the size of The Dark Knight that makes it Nolan’s most accomplished work—the film’s minor plot- and character-level foibles fade against the canvas of the movie’s gargantuan scope—but films like The Dark Knight Rises and now Interstellar demonstrate that striking a meaningful balance between spectacle and storytelling is no simple task. Those latter two films reveal a Nolan trying so hard to ham up the sights, sounds, and pathos that other elements suffer. In Interstellar, these flaws aren’t evident in any obvious way, but we sense areas that fall short of their full potential. The characters, though not altogether one-dimensional, feel only half-heartedly sketched, and the plot, though reasonably involving, is marked by uneven pacing and only occasional profundity. Put bluntly, Interstellar often feels like superior technique masking a mediocre movie.
And yet, there is still something special about Nolan, despite the dispiriting direction his oeuvre seems to be taking. For though Interstellar creaks and lumbers beneath the weight of its own grandiloquence, it still manages several soul-stirring sequences that seem to slip free of the film’s machinations, leaving us awestruck in spite of ourselves, daring us to believe in the power of cinema and storytelling. The sequence that immediately comes to mind is a showstopping voyage through a CG wormhole. I won’t describe it (not that I could do it justice if I did), but it’s a virtuoso stretch of FX wizardry that will guarantee the film’s entry into the upcoming Oscar race for Best Visual Effects. Another is a sequence in which the film cuts back and forth from an action in space to an action on earth, conveying a simultaneity that is impossible in the movie world because relativity ensures the experience of time passes differently for the two characters involved. But cinema enables this parallelism, and the crosscutting poignantly articulates how the characters’ shared cause transcends space-time.
It is in these moments that we remember why we continue to embrace Nolan as a filmmaker. For though his reach may at present exceed his grasp, he continues to reach. Sometimes he misses, but his outstretched hand almost always brings back some specimen of greatness, a particle from the awesome unknown. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” Matthew McConaughey’s hero-engineer laments at one point in the film. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” This “we” does not include Nolan. For amid the blockbusters scavenging in the mud for recycled parts to use and reuse, this filmmaker continues to gaze skyward, eyes fixed on the beyond.