“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a film about grasping the unknown, recognizing there is a realm of understanding and existence we can’t possibly fathom in our present state. We strive for that understanding constantly but must be in total amazement before we reach that peak and evolve. Stanley Kubrick’s film is a polarizing masterpiece, but he conveys this incomprehensible idea through the surreal, the spiritual, the terrifying and the awe inspiring. The film’s iconic images are impenetrable and inscrutable, and yet in that moment they transport us to something beyond ourselves.
Christopher Nolan may or may not be Stanley Kubrick’s disciple and modern equivalent, but though his latest film “Interstellar” is thematically familiar to Kubrick’s classic, Nolan’s execution is that much more procedural and clinical. For his entire career he’s toiled in rules and exposition, and it’s as though now with “Interstellar” he’s tried to make something literal out of Kubrick’s reverie.
“Interstellar” is an ambitious mess of a movie, and yet the scale at which it stages these themes may make it secretly brilliant, a movie in which Nolan has cracked the secret to understanding what’s beyond the horizon. That’s the sort of power Nolan has as a filmmaker and over the general public; he gives an impression that he’s full of sage wisdom that, with enough scrutiny, we can decipher the full meaning behind his movies.
Nolan’s last movie not about Batman was “Inception”, a film that might be called Nolan’s “Vertigo”. It combined all the ideas and stylistic ticks Nolan had been hinting at and building throughout each of his subsequent movies, confirming that his movies are about breaking down complex ideas into boxes and adhering to the movie’s strict universe of rules. That doesn’t make “Inception” a good film, but it sets a precedent he’s able to double down on in “Interstellar”.
“Interstellar” is a movie concerning discovery and exploration, but Nolan takes us to far off galaxies by first sitting us in a literal boardroom, drawing on a white board and stopping the movie to explain in a simple demonstration how a wormhole works. The movie’s core human drama hinges on a scientific anomaly of time and space, and the movie is so fact driven that it opens itself up to accuracy questions of astrophysics that are bound to tear it apart. That’s because unlike “Inception’s” pseudo dream science, “Interstellar” concerns the very real ideas of gravity, relativity and quantum theory.
The story begins on Earth in a transformed Middle America. Dust clouds have ravaged crop life across the country (though we never get a broad sense of conditions across the country or around the world), and soon only corn will be able to be grown. Schools want to encourage farming and dispel the excess of the 20th Century, even going as far as to suggest that the moon landing was a giant hoax (directed by Stanley Kubrick perhaps?).
This doesn’t sit well with Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut who never successfully made it out of the stratosphere. He encourages a sense of exploration in his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and they follow some mysterious dust patterns in Murph’s room to some secret coordinates. There they come across NASA, now an underground organization researching in secret away from public scrutiny.
Their mission is to navigate a wormhole located near Saturn that could transport them to another galaxy complete with potentially livable planets. They enlist Cooper on this latest voyage to connect with astronauts sent ahead of him and bring back research that can get people off Earth and save humanity.
“Interstellar” starts with a ponderous, curiosity filled tone and flighty score by Hans Zimmer that more closely resembles Spielberg than Kubrick. Cooper’s conversations with his father (John Lithgow) are searing thesis statements that encourage discovery and plucky will, despite the cynical realizations that this drive has been diminished in modern America. And he speaks directly to those skeptics about the power and beauty of nature. “We face great odds, but not evil,” says Astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), Cooper’s co-pilot on the mission.
But before long “Interstellar” truly does soar to great heights. It dives head first into spectacular and immense portals to other worlds, showing us a spiraling Earth in the background and planets that dwarf their spacecraft. But Nolan also achieves some of the best human drama of his career, connecting the excitement of Cooper’s interstellar journey with the pain of having to leave his family behind on a dying planet, watching his children grow old before his eyes in video messages while he remains the same age.
And yet this is the same Nolan who lets his affinity for gritty realism get in the way of fantasy and imagination. In “Inception”, Nolan envisioned a dream world in which people battled with machine guns and avoided trains in car chases. And now in “Interstellar”, Nolan sends Matthew McConaughey to space only to have him survive a tidal wave and a fistfight.
For a movie that is as expansive as Nolan has attempted yet, you wish he would break out of the boxes and storyboarded filmmaking that has defined his career. So many shots are close-ups of McConaughey or Hathaway’s screaming faces during treacherous space voyages, with frantic cross cutting now traveling across dimensions and adding to the film’s detailed clutter.
In fact, Nolan has never possessed the elegant economy of Spielberg or Kubrick. One scene attempts to recreate the patient, tortuously long docking sequence we see in “2001”, with Zimmer’s score sounding droning and repetitive by design. Nolan pitches everything at such high stakes that it remains intense, but the scene is missing the clarity that would make the moment in “2001” so memorable.
Nolan’s attention to detail really does get the better of him here. Only briefly near the film’s climax does “Interstellar” distance itself from the constant stream of exposition, and even that becomes a fairly predictable idea that has presented itself as a paradox across numerous other sci-fi films.
Though Nolan is no longer a young filmmaker, “Interstellar” finds him venturing into the unknown and still growing as a filmmaker, taking his ambitions and scope to new heights perfectly suited for a space sci-fi. His story ventures into his own black hole of confusing rules and riddles that try to make sense out of the spiritual and unfathomable, but “Interstellar” is exhilarating enough that we still manage to fly out the other side.