I appreciate that Christopher Nolan has taken the clout he earned from making Warner Bros. a couple bajillion dollars with his trilogy of Batman films and put it towards crazily ambitious, reality-warping films. In this cinematic age, when no studio is prepared to invest much more than the change found beneath the cushions of the casting couch in any project that doesn’t hold the possibility of sequels and spinoffs all doubling back into amalgamated, ready-made blockbusters, it’s almost inconceivable that a film like Inception gets made without a director like Nolan cashing in his collateral. It’s not the massive amounts of money obviously stuffed into every frame that impress. It’s the abundance of ideas. Interstellar often feels like Nolan extracted every thought about the flexibility of time and space from the brains of a houseful of perma-stoned metaphysical philosophy majors, swirled them together, and then tried to build a narrative around the resulting corkscrew of grand supposition. The ambition is nice, but it unfortunately doesn’t guarantee a satisfying film.
For about the first half-hour or so of the film’s nearly three-hour running time, Interstellar has a pleasant Spielbergian vibe. Nolan establishes a near-future hobbled by a crumbling social infrastructure. The various technological forms of communication are largely absent, and there’s a lot of discussion that alludes to the wide-ranging repercussions of a worsening climate. In a unique touch, the slow, decisive collapse of a comfortable, established way of life hasn’t led to some awful dystopia. In a way that feels very right, people have solemnly adapted and kept moving on. Nolan mostly portrays this through the daily existence of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), and engineer and pilot turned farmer. That existence is turned upside down when his young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, initially), decides that the books knocked off her bedroom shelf are communicating something to her. With her initially skeptical father’s help, it’s determined that coordinates are being conveyed, and the adventure is off and running. This is all presented with the sort of genial innocence that used to be the defining characteristic of Spielberg’s work. There’s no dilemma, no matter how fantastical, that can’t be met with a little familial (or at least familial-style) problem solving.
As Nolan’s canvas gets bigger, the film gets weaker. Cooper is asked to pilot a secret mission for an equally clandestine iteration of NASA, plunging into a wormhole to rendezvous with potential planets that were explored by astronauts previously hurled into the void. This is where the script by Nolan (written, as usual, with his brother Jonathan) begins piling on both wild concepts and turns meant to explore the psychological ramifications of such a desperate undertaking. It’s on the latter account that Interstellar really falters, largely because it doesn’t have the time to develop the characters properly. Dire situations and surprise turns have marginal emotional impact. I couldn’t shake the notion that Nolan’s story would have been better served by spreading it across a high-end cable television series, something HBO might use to anchor the schedule in the part of the calendar that could use a Comic-Con-friendly companion to Game of Thrones. That would give ample time to work the scenarios, to find the characters, the build more slowly to the most jarring moments. Appropriate for a film that plays around with the relativity of time, stretching the story out would paradoxically give it more urgency.
I suspect that more of a slow play would also give the whole thing more credibility. While enough of the science roughly checks out (at least to my highly rudimentary understanding), the actors are uniformly unconvincing when charged with delivering key information. Even Jessica Chastain, who managed to play a brilliant CIA agent with fierce authority, is felled by the dumbed-down jargon and expository leaps of hypothesis faith. There’s so much in Interstellar that impresses, especially visually (the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is gorgeous, pristine, and quietly inventive), but the most splendid dressing can’t undercover fundamental problems at a film’s core. Nolan clearly has a lot to say. As anyone would discover, trying to say it all at once leads to a giant muddle.