‘Interstellar’ Has Most of Christopher Nolan’s Worst Habits and Few of His Best Ones

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Interstellar, you probably shouldn’t read this.

Christopher Nolan’s movies don’t have characters as much as they have tour guides. He’s a director whose strengths don’t include storytelling, so he tends to use his characters to lead the audience through the backlots of outer space, Gotham City, someone’s brain, wherever. By having his protagonists keep up a constant, repeating chatter of the rules and blueprints of the architecture he’s created, Nolan tries to distract the audience from noticing that his sets are facades, revealed as hollow once you walk behind them. For some people, the three-walls-and-a-ceiling structures are grand and dazzling enough. The rest of us wish he’d built the back wall, too.

In the case of Interstellar, what’s missing is a sense of what the movie is for. There’s space exploration, but only a little. The few planets and phenomena we’re shown would fit comfortably into a decent episode of Star Trek, and we don’t even get to see a lot of where the astronauts go. For how little spatial orientation the camera provides, we might as well be watching 2-D paintings of the galaxy. There’s the uber-hyped hard science, but all it contributes are a few scenes of time–gravity shenanigans and the apparently ultrarealistic rendering of a black hole.1 (There’s the wormhole, too, but surely that idea can’t still be news to many people? If nothing else, we’re almost two decades past Contact, which also starred Matthew McConaughey.) And there’s the revelation that love is the most powerful force in the universe, though perhaps not as powerful as the eye-rolling that follows. What’s the point of the hard science if it’s jettisoned in favor of sentiment-powered time travel? Ultimately, science is the enemy in Interstellar, the thing keeping Cooper and his daughter apart. And it’s overcome not with more science but with feelings, which is why taking Interstellar’s science seriously is difficult.

The movie also doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with time. It’s what the stakes of the story ostensibly are (as we’re reminded, again and again, the human race is running out of it and Cooper will miss more and more of his children’s the longer his mission takes), but it’s treated very casually throughout. When we find out that the physicist, Romilly, who stayed behind during a mission was left alone, via relativity, for 23 years, a few seconds pass to let the shock sink in, then everyone goes about their business with a shrug, including the now-senior member of the crew himself. We’re told time is important in the movie, but we don’t really see it—it’s a bit like limbo in Nolan’s Inception, which we’re told is the lowest nether region of the unconscious, yet characters hop in and out of it at will.2 The stakes in Nolan’s Batman movies are very concrete—save the city, stop the villain—but when his stakes are more abstract, Nolan isn’t great at giving them the consequences they need to have real weight in the plot. The narrative becomes a pretense for the movie, a MacGuffin to set Nolan’s spectacle machine in motion; the stakes in Interstellar become timing more than time.

Characters are another area where Interstellar feels lackluster. Again, the Batman trilogy has an advantage in that it comes preloaded with characters we know; again, Nolan isn’t great at fleshed-out, 3-D people when he’s starting from scratch. Beyond his love for his daughter, “Coop” is as flat as his nickname: he’s a pilot-farmer, he wants to get home, and…what else? I honestly can’t remember the name of Anne Hathaway’s character besides that it sounds like “bland.” All we know about her is that she’s a scientist and somehow the only female sent on a mission to populate another planet with the new human race, until suddenly we also know she’s in love with one of the would-be colonizers.3 But the saddest character of all is Romilly, who just cannot catch a break in Interstellar.4 After living in isolation for 23 years, he finally sets foot on a planet with other people only to be promptly blown up by “space madness” Matt Damon. For all the vaunted humanism and emotional core of Interstellar, Nolan, as ever, largely treats characters as an unavoidable element of the conceptual movie he wanted to make. The people are in service of the story rather than being the story themselves.

Really, Interstellar feels like exactly what it is: a few concepts that a scientist thought would make a cool movie, with a Hollywood studio ending tacked on. It could be better, but we should probably be grateful that a director who gets to work on this scale is interested in having ideas in his movies. The ending is especially frustrating because it’s the same kind of faux-depth that Nolan’s third acts regularly dip into—though his third acts never know when to end, stretching into fourth and fifth acts—often at the behest of his brother and frequent writing partner. One wishes Nolan would work with someone who might push him more next time. Oh well. At least Interstellar played a role in financing the next South Park movie.5

1 ^ The black hole being visible seems like it might confuse people. There’s a line of dialogue saying that it’s because of the light from the star that the black hour is devouring, but still.
2 ^ Inception is another movie in which characters’ location determines how fast time moves for them.
3 ^ One of Nolan’s minor trademarks is moments like these, where characters who are largely black-and-white get a quick splash of color to make them, for a moment, seem real. In Inception, there’s a scene where the gang is planning the heist. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is leaning back in his chair and Tom Hardy sticks his foot under it to knock JGL over. Hardy smirks, the audience laughs, we revel in the heretofore unseen friendly rivalry between the two characters, and momentarily everyone forgets that we barely know anything about them.
4 ^ Sci-fi movies are always interesting for the order in which their scientist characters die—which discipline dies first, second, third? Who’s the most dispensable?
5 ^ http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/christopher-nolans-interstellar-warner-bros-562879

JM Olejarz holds an MA degree in film from UCLA and coedits the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD.

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