The characters in Interstellar lament over a bygone American era; I lament for a Christopher Nolan who did not mistake scope for profundity. There was a time where Nolan made intimate films about his pet themes of memory and lost love that were engineered within the confines of their narratives. They were personal films enclosed within grounded stories that spoke to a human experience; they resonated. The swelling seriousness that have defined each of his films may have indicated a cerebral quality, but in reality, Nolan is a realist, dictating his narratives around their plausibility and tossing in a twist for good measure. Sometimes this works. His films, particularly Following, Memento, and to a lesser extent, The Prestige and The Dark Knight Rises, benefited from this compulsive need to ground their narratives within a framework of aggressive practicality. But with Interstellar, Nolan attempts to rationalize with the cosmos. It’s a commendable attempt to approach something so daunting and unknowing with a brazen directness, but Nolan’s ambition is undercut by his own limitations as a writer and director.
Nolan and his brother/co-writer Jonathan depict a truculent America from the start of Interstellar. Following an environmental crisis called the Blight, Earth is enveloped in a dust bowl. The population dwindles. Agronomy declines, with the world suffering from depleting yields. Corn production serves as a wheat substitute, and subsequent yields promote everyone’s greatest fear: the scarcity of food is only getting worse. Yet the audience is spoon-fed this information, as we never leave the cornfields and surrounding community of a small American town. At its center, this is a film about an American man and his desire to fulfill an American destiny - to explore. While the Nolans attempt to broaden the surface to something intrinsically human, there’s no denying that the picture’s emphasis on a farmstead, typically shot in a reverent low angle, encapsulates the warmth and nostalgia of a bygone American era. In a film that explores terrestrial concerns, it keeps home at arms’ length. The farmstead and all that it symbolizes becomes an anchor for which Interstellar pivots but never breaks free from.
What always struck me as interesting about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was how it dealt with time. It begins with the past, options itself into the future, and progresses into a great beyond. Structurally speaking, it’s a fairly simple film, though it’s through Kubrick’s imagery and editing that the picture feels so otherworldly and at times impenetrable. Interstellar operates under similar principles of time, though fashions them in arguably less complex ways. There’s the not-too-distant future that doesn’t look too far off from our own, led by Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) as a corn farmer and engineer. Then there are intercutting images of dust bowl survivors, elderly men and women talking about late 21st century life in the wake of the Blight. Nolan deploys these interviews without much discretion, which is problematic in that it maps out the plot schematic - Cooper and his farmstead are point A, these interviews are point B. How do we get there?
This human-to-human plot trajectory contains the stars, wormholes, and alternate dimensions, but Nolan remains steadfast in maintaining the picture’s father-daughter relationship. It’s reflective of what I mentioned before – Nolan making personal films within grounded stories that speak to human experiences. But the reason why Interstellar fails to connect is because the “human experience” is presented as if it were representative of every father’s experiences. The Nolans’ screenplay operates in platitudes, utilizing its actors as ciphers to regurgitate trite dialogue on the drive of love and a man’s insatiable need to explore. This has been the case for a lot of Christopher Nolan’s films, but it’s in Interstellar where the effect is most ineffective, largely because of the thematic design of the picture. The screenplay calls for broadly emotional scenes of a father’s struggle, yet there’s no sense of specificity to the Cooper character to make him any more than an American symbol. All these characters move through the dull spatial setting operating as ideas rather than actual human beings. That would not be a bad thing if it weren’t for the dramatic tendencies of its screenplay – Interstellar wants to be dramatically nuanced and scientifically conscious but lacks detail to make either convincing.
And this is only exacerbated by Nolan’s dull compositions. The director’s fascination with film stock is an peculiar one, with particular portions of the film shot on 70mm under the guidance of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. Hoytema is a skilled craftsman and does provide Interstellar with some persuasive images, particularly in the early, dust-filled portion of the picture. But ultimately, the film is hindered by a lack of compositional depth. Simply put, something so otherworldly has never looked so boring or moved so lethargically. While I was critical of last year’s space opera, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, at least I found that film to possess a greater sense of movement and staging within each frame. One can actually gather a sense of anxiety in the pursuit of a great beyond. In Interstellar that same sense of unease is sorely missed. Compounded by Nolan’s persistent and on-the-nose use of cross editing, along with yet another overwhelming Hans Zimmer score, Interstellar is something of a scattershot mess.
Messes can be interesting, though, and conceptually there’s plenty to contemplate in Interstellar. Considerations on environmental sustainability and the regression of man’s desire to uncover the unknown are stimulating themes of discussion within the film. But in perhaps a measure to appease his critics, Nolan adoption of such a blatant and hyper-sentimental narrative to see his vision through is an unforgivable act of misdirection. The contradictions in tone, image, and scope pile on to a dizzying degree – something of initial promise escapes the grasp of its director, becoming so unwieldy and nauseatingly melodramatic. In amping the melodrama, however, Nolan refuses to loosen the proverbial comedic tie, and maintains the same rigidly somber tone of his previous features. It’s effectively his greatest departure as a director but also his most critical misstep.