Where T.S. Eliot found fear in a handful of dust, Christopher Nolan finds it in huge clouds of the stuff. Dust storms are consuming America’s failing agrarian communities decades from now. Blight ravages the planet’s few remaining crops as that dust brings illness and despair. This is a pre-apocalyptic world, a wasteland upon which mankind surveys its own extinction (through the eyes of Matthew McConaughey)
It’s also the foundation for probably the weakest fifteen minutes of Nolan’s career, a clunky, overwrought and over-explained introduction that suggests the king of the modern blockbuster may have lost his touch … at least, until we launch into space and Interstellar soars. Until then, though, we’re treated to a series of scenes where characters explain to each other things that they already know.
A preponderance of exposition has always been a defining characteristic of Nolan’s work, but it’s not always a weakness. His two best films, Memento and The Prestige, deftly leverage the unreliable narrator to undercut their persistent explanations, though Inception was dragged down by its insistence on explaining every detail of its dream-world. That film, at least, had an audience surrogate – an oblivious Ellen Page trailing its heroes – but Interstellar’s introduction has no such excuse.
An overemphasis on exposition is part and parcel with the package that is Interstellar, and your tolerance for long-winded explanations around its gorgeous space imagery and lofty themes will play a significant part in your appreciation of the film. And, to be fair, this expounding is probably necessary for a film that explores the limits of modern astrophysics and the ‘power of love’ alike.
The best way to describe Interstellar, then, is as if Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey while carefully explaining every intricate detail of that film (“Ah, I have evolved to become the Star Child, an immortal being that…”). This kind of approach is likely necessary to sell a film this expensive to modern audiences, but it seems self-evident that something is lost when love is quantified; expressed as a fundamental force of physics.
Not that 2001 and Interstellar – despite some obvious similarities – are trying to tell the same stories or address the same themes. 2001 was about the aspiration and evolution of mankind; Interstellar is about our persistence as a species rather than our improvement as a species and it’s about the bond of love between a parent and a child. It’s not especially subtle about these themes, since this is Nolan we’re talking about; Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” is repeated multiple times (to diminishing returns, sadly, especially as its first recitation was the film’s apex) and Anne Hathaway is granted a speech about the inexplicable power of love (which, on the other hand, is easily the film’s nadir).
The notion of confronting our own mortality – as an individual and as a species – in the vastness of space resonated for me. The night sky illuminated by the light of stars from thousands or millions or billions of years in the past, has always fascinated me. It’s impossible not to be humbled by the sense of our own smallness and mortality, infinitesimal specks in an infinite expanse. For all Interstellar’s problems with exposition, it is the first film I’ve seen that truly harnessed that feeling. Yes, Nolan perhaps over-emphasises these ideas with dialogue that threatens to cross over the event horizon of the bad dialogue black hole (“You brought me back from the dead,” is met by a sombre “Lazarus,” which also happens to be the name of the mission. Yeah). But making these grand ideas accessible in a hundred-million-dollar blockbuster requires some bluntness.
Beyond these ambitious philosophies, Interstellar delivers some truly breath-taking visuals. Nolan’s emphasis on practical special effects has no doubt played a part in the effectiveness of the scenes set in space; it’s not as showy as Cuarón’s work in Gravity, but it sheds the thin sheen of artificiality that enveloped that film. It’s beautiful, besides. I genuinely had a physical reaction to some of these space scenes – I don’t think the goosebumps were entirely explained by the cinema air conditioning. It’s just a shame that these wordless, powerful moments are invariably followed by a slab of more exposition.
Hans Zimmer’s score is overblown, bombastic and, as you may have read, regularly drowns out the dialogue … but this isn’t a film that calls for subtlety in its soundtrack. The film gives Zimmer a lot to do but is less generous with its actors. McConaughey is serious and Southern and sweaty but is saddled with a symbol rather than a person to play. Jessica Chastain, as his grown daughter, gets to be teary and yelly and to make-out with Topher Grace, and I got the feeling it was all a bit beneath her (especially the Topher Grace bit). Michael Caine is sad and old and smart. Anne Hathaway gets the shortest straw, playing a variation on her role in The Dark Knight Rises: apparently intelligent and competent but ultimately little more than an incidental love interest.
Actually, the film’s gender dynamics are kind of …patronising, I guess? It’s hard to discuss without delving into spoilers, but the quadrilateral formed with McConaughey, Caine, Chastain and Hathaway at each vertex is undeniably unbalanced. The dialogue regularly reminds us that both Chastain and Hathaway’s characters are brilliant, and yet all their achievements are hand-me-downs from the men. The film presents us with women who are intelligent but reliant on patriarchal figures to actually achieve anything, and it – likely unintentionally – plays into the long history of exceptional women whose accomplishments are appropriated by the men in their life. Seven films in, it’s maybe time for Nolan to find a female character who isn’t a sidekick (or villain)?
Of course, Interstellar presumably isn’t interested in such things; it wants to tackle big ideas like the mortality of the species and the immortality of love and the nature of black holes (on that last point – the film is, with only a couple exceptions, remarkably accurate when it comes to astrophysics, in case you’re the kind of person who cares about that). It’s an ambitious film. It’s a good film. Its chief flaw is that it lacks confidence in its audience, stopping every five to ten minutes to ensure that they understand; I just wish it was content to let us feel.