Michael Herr once said Stanley Kubrick made art films with blockbuster pretensions. It seems fair to say that Christopher Nolan makes blockbusters with art film pretentions. This approach has met with extraordinary financial success, but the artistic results have been more ambiguous. Nolan’s Batman films are adored, but will likely age badly, as the trendy doom-and-gloom approach to comic book films recedes in favor of “Avenger”–style fantasy. His non-comic book films, such as “Insomnia,” “The Prestige,” and “Inception,” are stylish enough, but have been generally overpraised, and none has proved particularly memorable.
In other words, for all his success and despite his undeniable talent, Nolan has yet to make anything approaching a great film. His latest, the science-fiction epic “Interstellar,” appears to be his bid for precisely that. It is fair to say that the result is probably Nolan’s best film. But there is also no doubt that it falls far short of greatness.
The film’s plot is simple and, one regrets to say, unoriginal enough: On a near-future earth, the environmental apocalypse that liberal-minded Hollywood never tires of predicting has arrived and the planet is turning into a giant dust bowl. As a result, the human race must send its best and brightest into the stars to find a planet where mankind can make a new home. Through a thoroughly improbable plot twist, the task falls to Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper (we are never told his first name, for reasons unknown but likely pretentious). With Anne Hathaway by his side, the ever-reliable Michael Caine back at mission control, and his precocious and very resentful daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) remaining behind to provide a major third-act plot point, Cooper takes a small crew through a wormhole of unknown origin. Their destination is a group of possibly-habitable planets near a black hole with the rather heavy-handed name Gargantua. Once there, the theory of relativity, the obligatory survivor-gone-mad subplot, and various other malfunctions wreak havoc, ultimately sending Cooper on the proverbial “journey beyond the infinite” in order to save the day.
‘Interstellar’ Scores on Visuals, Strikes on Science and Soundtrack
To describe how it all ends would give away too much. It is worth noting, however, that while the film’s publicity machine has worked overtime to emphasize its scientific accuracy—complete with the now-ubiquitous Neil DeGrasse Tyson testifying on its behalf—its climax collapses into what professional skeptics generally refer to as “quantum flapdoodle.” That is, into pseudo-science of such absurdity that it approaches camp. To the extent it is comprehensible at all, it appears to have something to do with love being a quantifiable physical force at work in the universe, which may be amenable to popular audiences, but has absolutely nothing to do with science. Indeed, it is frankly impossible to imagine what Tyson was thinking when he endorsed a film willing to claim otherwise.
This does not, of course, render “Interstellar” in any way unwatchable. It has the flaws typical of Nolan’s recent films—mainly a bloated running time and a soundtrack that feels like a thousand Howitzers going off in an echo chamber—but with the exception of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan has never created a truly bad movie, and there is a great deal to like in his latest effort. The visuals are, as almost everyone has noted, stunning; the basic story is compelling enough; and the film does take some admirable chances. Indeed, it may be the first film since “2001” to accurately portray the fact that there is no sound in space. And certainly any director who continues to give us the gift of the now mostly-retired Caine deserves considerable praise.
In particular, the film is emotionally affecting to a surprising degree, far beyond Nolan’s previous work, which has tended towards detachment. Quite deftly, Nolan exploits the implications of the theory of relativity to explore the essential tragedy of time and mortality. The further Cooper travels, the less he ages relative to the people he leaves behind. The consequences are heartbreaking, particularly in regard to Murph, who never forgives him for abandoning her. Cooper, who has been temporarily removed from time by the vagaries of Einsteinian physics, is forced to watch as it crushes all those he loves. It is genuinely powerful stuff. Unlike most Hollywood films, “Interstellar “earns its tear-jerking moments.
There is also no question that, for the average cinephile, “Interstellar” is a great deal of fun. Depending on one’s point of view, it either rips off or pays homage to almost every major science-fiction film ever made; especially Danny Boyle’s very underrated “Sunshine,” the plot of which is suspiciously similar. There is also, surprisingly enough, an almost word-for-word reference to the cult sci-fi horror film “Event Horizon.” “Interstellar’s” touchstone, however, as for all sci-fi films that are not essentially remakes of “Star Wars,” is Kubrick’s “2001.” Indeed, the number of times the score either evokes or outright copies the iconic “Also Sprach Zarathustra” theme is almost embarrassing.
Its Greatest Moment Is Also ‘Interstellar’s’ Downfall
In evoking “2001,” however, “Interstellar” also inadvertently reveals its ultimate failure. Put simply, in trying to be a blockbuster with art film pretentions, it becomes a film without the courage of its convictions. When it came time for Kubrick to show his hand at the end of “2001,” he proved brave enough to show it by not showing it, taking the possibilities of cinematic imagery to the level of pure allegory. Nolan’s courage fails at this moment, and he finds himself driven to cover his bets by abandoning imagery in favor of explicitly reassuring the audience that they have been watching a film about the triumph of the human spirit. The tragedy of this is that there may be no more triumphant image in all of cinema than Kubrick’s Star Child, its luminous eyes slowly turning and staring directly into ours, its meaning as clear as it is impossible to articulate. For the moment, it seems, such transcendence is beyond Nolan’s reach.
This is also tragic because there is every indication that Nolan has a great film in him. But we are unlikely to see it until he realizes that he lacks the box-office courage to make an art film and the artistic courage to make a blockbuster. He must choose one or the other. As directors like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder have proven, the blockbuster can be an art form unto itself. As directors like Martin Scorsese and Kubrick have proven, an art film is capable of attracting blockbuster business. But to choose one or the other would demand the kind of risk Nolan seems unwilling to take. With “Interstellar,” he comes to the brink of doing so, but ultimately steps back. Nolan’s cinema, it seems, can do many things, but it cannot take us beyond the infinite. At least, not yet.