Interstellar: Feeling Machine

When you say that someone has “done their homework,” you mean they know what they’re talking about. Christopher Nolan (directing this movie and writing it with his brother, Jonathan) knows what he’s talking about. When someone in Interstellar brings up the inertia of celestial bodies, time refraction across horizons of anomalies, and tesseracts, they bring it up as someone researched on the subject and prepared to explain it to you. In fact, they will explain it to you, in as much detail as you need to comprehend the action, sometimes with whiteboards, always with laborious expository dialogue (one scene particularly is directly lifted from Event Horizon, a film Interstellar isn’t worried about outdoing intellectually even as it plagiarizes it). But we’re used to this sort of thing: mental mortals need the help to wrap our minds around a movie as ambitious as Interstellar. This movie really is ambitious.

But what does “ambition” really mean? The way it’s used to describe a work of art is often only in the positive: we look at art that “must” have required ambition, to be as great as it is. Yet ambition applies just as much to art that overreaches. Yes, Christopher Nolan knows what he’s talking about as far as the science is concerned: I’m positive he wouldn’t have made the movie otherwise (he even brought on theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant). There are method actors: here’s a method director; perhaps only Kubrick has been as self-obsessed, though Nolan strikes me as someone with the hope of being seen as the method of the masses in disguise. He’s a nice-guy narcissist. Nolan proves that this knowledge of science can be as aesthetically effective as it is dramatically burdensome. His visuals are amped up by researched details, yet his emotions and themes become superficial when spoken into existence with the forced clarity of a lecture on black holes. Interstellar prides itself on its star charts and terminology. Yet in something as simple as two people having a conversation, the Nolans are completely out of their depth.

I often see Interstellar compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey so I want to define the limits of that comparison. Kubrick created a depressingly rational universe and subjected us to it. The cosmos passed before us and we made of it whatever we could; it contained many possible takeaways about the universe but none so strong as the fact that it’s cold. Interstellar does the opposite of this. It passes us before the cosmos – it shows it to us and asks for our assessment on the way out. Nolan coordinates epic cosmic elements into a description of the emotions we have for each other; the desolation of a frozen planet is our desolation; the very spaces of anomalies are based on the patterns of our imagination. To Nolan, science fiction is a Trojan Horse for a story about love. This doesn’t automatically make it less good than 2001, but it is as similar to it as it is to Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, which is a movie that uses science merely as a stepping stone to build a tacky theme park as a monument to intellectual togetherness (more than one scene, such as the one in both movies involving fathers giving a modern revisionist school a hard time by way of a maple syrup drawl, feel like the progeny of the same storyboard). Nolan hopes this assessment of our feelings will turn out to be a poem, but it’s more like a mystery shopper’s feedback of a retail line. It’s full of judgment and absolutely no wisdom.

The reason that Interstellar fails to emotionally cohere is not in its technical specs: it’s a technically marvelous film. Its problem is that despite having the ambition to be about the love that defines the human experience, to the point of making it a literal concept in its universe, it has little of it in itself. It makes love real, but by putting it on the periodic table. Perhaps the reason the film is obsessed with it in the first place is that the movie was originally a Spielberg film: that’s the right director to reduce the vastness of the cosmos to the love that a father has for his daughter (you’d have left thinking Roy Neary was the one who built the tesseract). Spielberg sees the schmaltz in our stars. He would have been able to show us his great love -- a knobby alien botanist showed more than Brand (Anne Hathaway) can with a whole teary speech on the subject. “Maybe it means something more," she splutters, "something we can’t … yet … understand. Maybe it’s …. some evidence …. some … artifact of a higher dimension we can’t consciously perceive.” She's not speaking metaphysically: she is directly addressing the script of Interstellar, which is about literally discovering this dimension and announcing the discovery in these terms. This is a lecture, not a theory (even though it has the tone of one for the sake of convention). Many things in a Nolan script intend to be symbolic but nothing is ever abstract (this is why Inception was perfect for him -- it took his natural limitation and translated it into canon).

Without Spielberg, Interstellar feels like its main feelings were grandfathered into a project made by a master technician who did his best to make room for them in speeches like these. I could imagine Nolan being more suited to something more mechanical or much closer to the cold technicality of 2001; even the scenes acted with the most emotional intensity in Interstellar seem to have a tax broker behind the camera (he films the love speech for instance from two still camera angles - A and B - with a teary face filling the screen for each, switching for their dialogue, never bringing them together). The fact that I’m watching this for the first time in 2019 after I’ve seen First Man, The Tree of Life, and A Ghost Story does Interstellar no favors: Chazelle found the same message of love in the glance of a real person looking at dust and thinking about his daughter; Lowery and Malick found the total universality of the human experience in a journey across time that spanned only one house.

The journey to that moon or from that house was made to seem a thousand times farther, and more dangerous, and more important, than Nolan’s journey to the literal end of the universe. Nolan makes a story about love, but it’s rigid, plainly defined, meticulously explained. First Man is a think piece on devotion; A Ghost Story is a singularity of human feeling; The Tree of Life is an expression of love across the entire human experience, not merely across one grand gesture of sci-fi designed to explicate the subject. These films are expressions of our time on earth; Interstellar is more like the Excel spreadsheet version.

Nolan’s issue with making a movie on such a large scale is that he is reluctant to use the camera to tell the story, in the same way that a man proud of his car is reluctant to carry too much stuff in it. Despite his obsession with real photography, down to the millimeter of the film stock, he defaults in his scripts to bashing you over the head with what he’s saying; he drives the nice car to look nice but hires a rickety pickup truck as an afterthought to carry the story. No one in the industry has as much passion for film, and yet makes movies so much like a workman. It’s why everyone talks about the incredible effects sequence of the truck flipping in The Dark Knight or Ledger's animated face but no one reminisces fondly about the romance in that movie, which produces significant feelings but only (presumably) to Batman. Love in that movie amounted to Batman shouting his girlfriend’s name from pursed lips. The same energy is why Interstellar looks amazing and yet still tells its story like a TV special.

Consider a scene on the porch steps of Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) farm. He’s sitting with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and they share a moment that perfectly demonstrates the Nolans’ clinical method of forcing meaning into a scene.

Any screenwriter can craft a situation out of dialogue that captures a character’s beliefs, mood, and worldview: all they have to do is write them saying those things out loud. It takes a great screenwriter to do this using only talk, the things that people would actually say to each other, and perhaps greater ones still to do it with body language only, by crafting a situation where the characters are given an opportunity to show us what they believe. A great actor needs only eyes – this is true of screenwriters as well. This is what makes a movie come alive.

So imagine being in the writer’s room. We have this scene on the porch. The goal of it is for Cooper to express his feelings about the human race and what he thinks about where they’ve ended up. How do we communicate this? The Nolan brothers can’t think of anything beyond the words, which is to screenwriting as bean-counting is to a vacation (it thwarts the mood). They write Cooper saying,

It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers … We used to look up and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.

Notice what this does not contain: any details about this near-future world or situations for Cooper to react to organically so that he might demonstrate his view. It is simply the desired lesson, pulled out of context and literally read to us, no differently than if we were peeking in on a script-reading or studying the events of the film in a school textbook.

Consider this possible alternative: a scene centered on Cooper’s look, facilitated by McConaughey’s stellar physical acting, as he watches dingy people dismantle a spaceship to repair a tractor. Then I could write the meaning of the scene into this review because it was demonstrated in action and in acting and fits into its symbolic scheme. But I don’t have to: the meaning was turned into words and simply spoken at us in a way that recalls the old cowpokes lamenting the death of their generation. This old style of filmmaking might be worthy of applause in another situation (one that ironically emphasized our tedious existence, for example, in which a forced monologue might be poetically funny). But remember that in this movie even these tired conventions are treated with blistering solemnity; it will ultimately try to make the human experience worth saving, a goal which would ring truer if the movie strived to contain some of it. Talk is an art, and every single line in this movie is a speech.

This is a problem for Interstellar’s whole runtime, down to the absolute wire. Cooper is still struggling to explain all of Nolan’s ideas about the tesseract and the future of humanity even as he’s being bombarded by amazing visuals in the most awe-inspired scenes (they are clearly inspired by awe; we will have to debate with ourselves alone whether we think they are also awe-inspiring). He can barely catch his breath with all the plot details that he has to spew out. That’s the sign of a screenwriter that doesn’t trust us.

Can you imagine Dave Bowman jabbering this much beyond the infinite? In your mind, replace his staring eyes, the swathes of music, the visuals standing up for themselves with awe that you can feel, with him talking into his headset to HAL in 2001, as Cooper talks to TARS:

Every moment. It’s infinitely complex. They have access to infinite time and space, but they're not bound by anything! They can't find a specific place in time. They can't communicate. That's why I'm here. I’m gonna find a way to tell Murph just like I found this moment. Love, TARS, love. It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph. It is quantifiable. It’s the key.

There’s much more than this small snippet. McConaughey is perfect for this movie’s theoretical impression of itself: the frontiersman extrapolated into a cosmic certainty. But there are times when the script overextends him to the point that he might as well be George Clooney proselytizin’ on the condition of his coif, a character defined by the actor's persona more than anything else. The amount of the film’s script notes that he is forced to verbalize is astounding. The silent film comedians used to challenge themselves to make gags with as few placards as possible. Nolan seems to challenge himself to make themes with as few moments of silence as he can.

This is why characters and their interactions in Interstellar feel so inauthentic: they’re all so “movie-like,” so spoken into existence that they become unbelievable. Of course, the interactions in 2001 weren’t full of banter, but that film had so little of them that they became a signpost to its cosmic worldview. People didn’t talk because they didn’t have much to say. Interstellar by contrast has way too much humor not to have way more, and way too little for it to be effective. When McConaughey or the snarky robot called TARS (Bill Irwin) quip at each other, it’s like swiveling into another script for a second. Not one time does the humor ever feel warranted against the gallant awe that the images pull off with seamless precision (I’m getting to them, I promise).

This problem isn’t limited to humor, or to any one aspect of human interaction. The idea that Cooper and Brand are in love because of the events of this movie is true in the same way that the sky is grey because a colorblind man says so. Nolan tells you what he intends, and that’s the only truth we have to go on. These characters seem like cogs to him, like they’re tools to get between plotted script points. That is literally what they are; if pressed, they would acknowledge this in literal terms.

Here’s an example of dehumanization that hit me really hard. A time anomaly causes one member of the expedition (David Gyasi) to age decades ahead of the others: we see him wringing his hands with lonely angst when the rest of his crew returns after what to them was only hours. He’s been alone for a quarter of a century. It was one of the most gut-wrenching scenes, in theory, of the whole film.

Yet there’s no conversation between him and the others, no moment where we get a read on his condition or his struggle. The people aren't important variables in the script's equation: the man has experienced a trial of wits and fortitude worthy of an entire film (I imagine that Moon happened on that ship while Cooper and Brand were gone), and Nolan writes it without even one scene devoted to it. Then he kills this character off in a scene justified by yet another of his silly blockbuster plot devices before the man gets a chance to have these emotions dramatized. He's blown up by a bad guy, whom we discover with the same eloquence of locating a secret kingpin at the end of a James Bond film. Nolan conceives a movie about the cosmic enormity of human affection, he devotes a team of artists to render up his love dimension in meticulous detail, and yet he writes almost three hours’ worth of it with a tenth of the human experience of the spaghetti dinner at the beginning of Alien. This character had a crisis we did not see, a trial we don't care about, and dies for the sake of a manipulative villain reveal and an absurd fight scene, things which Nolan goes out of his way to make time for. That reveal was the moment I lost my expectations for the rest of the film. Imagine if Kubrick thought that what was lacking from Dave and HAL’s relationship was a punching match.

Of course, even if they talked like humans, I’m only fifty percent certain I’d have heard it: the dialogue in this movie is drowned in an ambiance of creaking metal and velocity sounds. The soundtrack is loud, loud enough to make my home speaker system pop and smoke (for real – this is because it’s mixed so unevenly that I couldn’t hear the dialogue without cranking it up to a level that broke my speakers when they entered a black hole). It happens often enough to qualify a nitpick as a criticism. Subtitles are practically required.

The only reason you may not want to use them is if they distract from the visuals, which are infinitely more entertaining. Hoyte van Hoytema once again shoots a beautiful movie with so much attention that the beauty seems fleeting, which only adds to it. His perspective of outer space is similar to his view of Los Angeles in Her: he takes beauty and finds the longing in it. I believe he may be responsible for the affection some have for this film; in IMAX, I imagine Hoytema was the belle of the ball (it's easy to forget the dreary conversation you had at the punch bowl if you're focused on watching the dance). He’s also the choreographer of Interstellar’s best scene, which might be the best sci-fi short film I’ve ever seen.

The crew goes down to that planet with the time distortion effect, where an hour on the surface equates to seven years for the rest of the universe. The desolate photography of the waves on its watery surface, the enormity of the elements, communicates the vastness Nolan aims for when he turns people into a mouthpiece for his thesis, in those other scenes where they sit around in office chairs deciding what their existence means. This scene does it without words. The time difference means that what’s at stake for Cooper is the age of his children when he returns: a detour could mean missing their entire lifetime.

All of a sudden, banter, and human error, and caution, have a terrible price attached to them. The suspense is mind-altering in this sequence. The terror of the result, the true crushing sadness of their unpreparedness to face the cosmos, is the only time I ever felt truly humbled by Interstellar. McConaughey humbled me with his performance in the next scene, watching the video messages of the lifetimes that he missed. His physicality overwhelms the Nolans' crude concept of sadness -- a frame of crying repeatedly filling the frame -- with sheer willpower. McConaughey's a trooper, no doubt.

I wish that Nolan was as humble making this movie as Cooper was observing it. If he had been, his script might not have the audacity to contain stage directions like, “zero-G tears catching in her eyelashes like melted snowflakes,” even though it can’t figure out how to make a simple conversation sound like human dialogue. The movie’s most crucial error may be in pacing: once we start jumping back down to earth to see what Cooper’s daughter (Jessica Chastain) is doing, the immersive tension of the explorers’ isolation, the enormity of their task, completely fizzles out. At that point, they have to talk us through the double plot. It’s that structure that makes the talk stand out, but the structure itself is why the movie jolts out of alignment halfway through. It cripples the film.

At first, I was entranced by Cooper’s mental struggle, calculating the years of his daughter’s life while he tries to save the planet, listening in on a dying earth through the messages his family sends him across time. But once we see her again in the present, I lost the desire to see them reunited because the film loses the energy of their emotional separation. It’s like Nolan forgot that the characters don’t feel the same things that we do, when he reduces the daughter’s role in Cooper’s emotional motivation to a footnote as soon as we see her again. Even his final reunion with her is mechanical and foregone, with little of the emotion of when he watched the video messages.

By cutting away from space, Nolan sacrifices his immersive tone for plot; he gives scenes that once felt desolate the pacing of any of those astronauts vs ground control movies about missions in our own galactic backyard. Heavy, cataclysmic action will cut to someone putting a book on a shelf and then back to the spaceship, something which the movie intends to be poetic. When it's time for the plot to be "solved," the adult daughter is given so much power over understanding the events around her that if Interstellar was a Mel Brooks film, she would have pulled the film's script off the shelf and read it first, to be able to extrapolate so many specific plot details from so little information. It's the symphony of convenience that all sci-fi becomes when its concepts run away from its logic. It's parody with the seriousness of a eulogy.

Interstellar occasionally achieves 2001-levels of visual grandeur: the time distortion planet sequence is an Astounding Stories novella all on its own. But if you stripped out the technical achievements, its gravitas becomes baffling surrounded by so many forced declarations of purpose and melodramatic jibber-jabber. Its look is made for luxury but its moving parts are made for TV. Breaking the tension of outer space with awkward asides on earth ultimately makes even the most dramatic scenes feel as rehearsed as Hathaway’s lines (she reads everything like she’s writing a thesis on the subject, which stands out even more obviously against McConaughey, who is a virtuoso at acting like no one’s told him yet which movie he’s in). Chastain is woefully miscast as Amy Adams, having no capacity to act in any way that does not exude ego; here she comes off petulant, not the human I’d choose to represent humanity but maybe a better choice than she realizes. Hathaway, despite her glowing rhetoric, means well. When could less have ever been said of her? (When could more?)

A thoughtful director can rehearse meaning into meaninglessness, even in a film that ambitiously tries to juggle time, space, and the human experience all at once, such as Lowery's or Malick's. Nolan does it by cheating with his words: he realizes that he can do it all if he makes the concepts so broadly discernible that they can be managed without being demonstrated, such as when he makes the daughter character smart enough to be his blank check on reality: she’s his escape clause for getting out of his own plot. To make up the difference, he blasts emotions in our face in stereo, resorts to another closeup of tears, another pushy explosion of sentiment that has tricked those vulnerable to its effect into accepting exposition dumps and engine noise as an avant-garde romance. I don’t doubt the difficulty of conceiving Interstellar, one of the most complex juggling routines I’ve seen in a blockbuster in recent memory. But Nolan’s writing is the equivalent of solving it by juggling balloons instead. He makes it really easy on himself. The best sci-fi is much less afraid to be hard.


Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Pictures/Legendary Pictures

Cast & Crew

Christopher Nolan

Jonathan Nolan

Christopher Nolan

Cooper Matthew McConaughey
Amelia Brand Anne Hathaway
Murphy Cooper Jessica Chastain/Mackenzie Foy/Ellen Burstyn
Mann Matt Damon
Donald John Lithgow
Professor Brand Michael Caine

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