In its second or third shot, Interstellar is already explaining things. An older woman appears in documentary-like footage describing the ecological blight which has turned much of the earth into a dustbowl. She won’t be the last to lecture us. As Interstellar proceeds, it soon becomes apparent that what many, myself included, had hoped would be Christopher Nolan’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is, instead, 2014: An Exposition Odyssey.
That woman is the first in a long line of characters who appear not to live and breathe within the story, but rather to tell us things. There is the school principal (David Oyelowo) who explains that textbooks now claim man has never landed on the moon in order to concentrate humanity’s efforts on taking care of the earth. (I must admit I never quite understood this logic.) There is the scientist (Anne Hathaway) who has a few words about gravitational anomalies. And then there is Michael Caine – Mr. Exposition himself when it comes to Nolan films – who shows up to give us a tour of this movie’s version of the Batcave.
Listening quite dutifully to all of this is Cooper, an astronaut-turned-farmer played by Matthew McConaughey. Cooper is pulled out of mothballs by a secret offshoot of NASA, which is sending volunteers into space in search of new worlds that may be hospitable to humans. After considerable heart-tugging between Cooper and his precocious, attached daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Cooper suits up and leaves the farm – knowing full well that decades might pass before he returns, if he returns at all.
En route to another galaxy, Cooper patiently endures more lectures from his fellow explorers involving wormholes and black holes, despite the fact that you’d think most of this science would be familiar to him. Even so, the problem isn’t really that Interstellar is too talky (after all, getting a verbal tour through the mind bends of Nolan’s Inception was part of that movie’s fun). It’s that, despite all of its explanatory yammering, Interstellar is still confusing in basic ways. It’s not always clear what’s going on during many of the set pieces – what the immediate goal is; the function of certain equipment; the desired destination of a spacecraft. I wasn’t over the moon about Gravity, but Interstellar made me miss that film’s simplicity and clarity in communicating basic logistics. (Even better on this front: Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.)
What’s more, Interstellar doesn’t need all of this babbling (Inception did). The movie itself proves this. Early on, there’s a quick shot of a dinner table in Cooper’s house, where all the plates have been turned upside down to keep away the incessant dust. That’s all we need to know about the blight. The same could be said of the imagery once we get into space. I’d have appreciated a more visually inventive depiction of the wormhole than having a character describe how a wormhole works. Space movies, more than most, can exist on purely visual terms.
Despite all of its explanatory yammering, Interstellar is still confusing in basic ways.
What poetry the movie has (I’m not counting the three – three! – uses of the same poem by Dylan Thomas) is due to the Imax imagery. Nolan and his team manage some truly stunning, large-format vistas, all of which emphasize the vastness of space and the Hail Mary nature of Cooper’s mission. One of these shots depicts Cooper’s craft, about the size of a pinprick, slowing moving across the expanse of Saturn that encompasses the screen. Later, on a planet where the clouds are frozen, mountains of ice envelop his vehicle from both above and below. A different planet yet appears to be entirely covered by water; moments after landing, Cooper’s ship is inundated by a Florida-sized wave. Interstellar uses the Imax format to create moments of pure grandeur; unfortunately, I could say the same thing of Space Station 3D.
What is Interstellar about, then, beyond its scientific blathering and Imax imagery? Here’s where Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who collaborated on the screenplay, reach for the stars. All of the science ostensibly exists to set up a question, which the imagery then strains to answer: is there anything out there that can transcend time and space, the limitations against which Cooper is straining? If so, does it lie within us or without?
Connecting the cosmic and the personal is a grand cinematic tradition, in epics as varied as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The emotional through line here is supposed to be the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, and I’ll grant that the early scenes between them have a poignancy that resonated with this father of girls. Yet as the narrative progresses, Interstellar leans on these moments harder than they can bear. This is especially true when the climax tries to meld science and sentimentality for a finale that essentially says, “Love is all you need.”
Emotion has never been Nolan’s strong suit, but this is the first time one of his films have struck me as hokey. It’s also the widest point of diversion between Interstellar and the elephant in the galaxy that I mentioned at the top: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Both movies look as far as mankind has ever looked to explore the inner recesses of the heart. Where 2001 finds corruptibility, Interstellar finds love. If 2001 is the far, far greater achievement, it’s not only because it uses about a tenth of the words to do its work (though that’s a big part of it). It’s because Kubrick’s coldness has more conviction than Nolan’s tears.