As a society, we love a bit of schadenfreude. Whenever a popular, beloved filmmaker is on a hot streak, it becomes a waiting game to see when he’s going to fall off. Christopher Nolan has had the good fortune of ascending from a no-budget indie thriller-helmer to the guiding hand behind some of the highest grossing films of all time. With the exception of career best The Prestige, every film he’s made since his debut has been exponentially larger than the last, and with Interstellar he seems to have hit a ceiling. Not content to just keep going bigger and more complex, Nolan veers wildly within the framework we’ve come to expect from his films, at once perpetrating the same tropes and themes we’re used to while seeming to scorch the Earth beneath, experimenting with various degrees of success.
Moreso than any of his previous projects, Interstellar left me largely confounded, wondering if Nolan had finally “lost it.” After spending more time than necessary or reasonable on pinning down where his latest fits in the pantheon, I’ve finally stopped worrying about whether or not it’s my least favorite Nolan work (tbh, it probably is) and instead I’ve chosen to focus on what makes it so peculiar. Here is a nearly three hour film I walked out of wearing Joey Tribbiani’s “who farted” face, and a film that I am desperately trying to fit in for a second and potential third viewing. That’s weird, right? See, good or bad, a film is an experience. The binary isn’t so important. Interstellar isn’t an important film because Nolan made this generation’s 2001 (he didn’t) or because he’s outdone himself (he really hasn’t) but because so rarely do we as an audience get the opportunity to watch a filmmaker of this caliber struggle to writhe out of his self-created shell to a new chapter of his career, especially on so grand a scale.
(A note on spoilers: I stood at a bus stop at 3am the other night spoiling the shit out of this movie for a few random strangers and it was really freeing. As penance, I’m not going to bother getting into too many specific plot details. This is basically the biggest movie event of the year right now and if you’re bothering to read this, you’re going to go see it. The J.J. Abrams Puzzle Box shit is getting a little absurd and so few of Interstellar‘s zigs and zags really shock or resonate all that much. Let’s skip trying to hopscotch the narrative minefield of spoiler culture together.)
Nolan’s films are particularly adept at telling broad, poignant genre stories hung on very human hooks and Interstellar succeeds where Inception failed, truly selling the familial bond between Cooper (peak level, near parody Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy and…other…actresses) in a way we never really invested in Dom Cobb and his absent, faceless kids. It feels like a more mature, personal work, painting a heart-tugging portrait of love across the vast canvas of the stars, but above all else, it feels like Christopher Nolan showing that he’s sick of being typecast. Knowing that he chose to adapt a script his brother Jonathan developed for Spielberg led me to think he would be stretching his Amblin ambitions with the emotive, heavy lifting of wide-eyed McConnaissance idealism, but I was not prepared for the degree to which the Dark Knight helmer seems to be addressing his backlash haters.
Think Nolan is humorless? Here’s two wise cracking, cubical robots funnier than anything Judd Apatow produced this year. Feel like Nolan is too reserved and cold? Here are literal mountains of close-ups of actors crying like they’re in shot/reverse shot coverage with a television playing the end of My Girl for the first time. Don’t like Nolan’s rigid adherence to a certain narrative effiency? Here’s a doughy, unwieldy rumination on humanity and survival and love that could easily be forty minutes shorter. Wish Nolan wasn’t such a sexless storyteller who sometimes gives short shrift to his film’s women? Yeah, I got nothing for you. No boning in space and we get another entry into the Chris Nolan Dead Wives Club. (Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain are both wonderful in their respective roles, but they feel ancillary at times.)
Watching such a hugely popular filmmaker wildly flay around on screen, bursting with inspiration and invention but maybe lacking in the structural discipline that brought him to the dance is as fascinating as it is frustrating, curious and confounding. At times, Interstellar is truly breathtaking, from the powerful imagery of a dust bowl-ridden future Earth to the grandeur of the cosmos. The way Nolan plays with time, both literally, inside the film’s plot, and stylistically, from an editing perspective, is interesting, building upon the work done in Inception‘s dream-within-a-dream structure, but considerably more free form.
One gets the distinctive notion that it’s not the textually stated effect of present day excess that has decimated our future world, but a fetish for applying scientific ingenuity to trinkets and baubles instead of larger, more noble pursuits. For all of his on-screen admiration for the visual trappings of space travel, it’s not about rockets for Nolan. He doesn’t give a shit about NASA. Not really. Yes, he is enamored with the scope of the universe and is clearly a sci-fi nerd from youth, but you can’t help but feel the connection between a future where humans have stopped looking to the skies and the filmgoing audience that Nolan is so desperately trying to pack in front of 70mm projectors.
Interstellar‘s narrative may be principally concerned with the preservation of the human race, but it’s our numbness to wonderment that kicks in Nolan’s survival instinct. Nostalgic for the same bygone era of analog film and silver screen spectacle that instilled in him such an appreciation for the curative power of art as magic as a child, Interstellar is Nolan’s grand attempt to replicate a naked openness missing from a lot of modern blockbusters. Some uncharacteristically clunky writing gets in the way of his goals, but watching him try to make this ambitious mess function is inspiring, exciting and noble.
People complain about movie ticket prices in 2014, but film is still one of the most affordable forms of entertainment today. Fifteen bucks to get whisked away to another galaxy for a couple of hours? Not a bad deal, all things considered.
I’m up for round two.
Interstellar is now playing in theaters nation wide. There is no acceptable reason not to see it in IMAX.