Often after seeing a major release from the likes of Christopher Nolan, my first inclination is to defend the work. Without question, when it comes to Nolan, my critical sense is in what I would term ‘High Art’ mode. His films have their various flaws and his technique is at times clunky, but I have my theories for why this is the case and why these are insufficient for disputing his greatness as a director. Chris Nolan, often with his brother Jonathan Nolan in the writer’s seat, makes ambitious and praiseworthy overtures towards bridging the gap between mainstream, big budget fodder and a more sophisticated artistic vision. Naturally, this brings out the trolls, contrarians, and the hyper-critical.
Soon after The Dark Knight was exalted by critics and audiences alike, there were detractors who felt a special need to temper the conversation with a “hey now, folks, hold your horses.” Some did it tastefully and brought appropriate realism to the consensus of what Nolan’s work means in the public conscience and consciousness. Others were in full on take-Nolan down-a-notch mode, and invariably their go-to zinger went something like, “Nolan is no Kubrick”; delivered as though they’d been personally insulted. It’s easy enough to respond to such contempt by saying, “well no shit.” Neither are The Black Keys any sort of Led Zeppelin, but they are still pretty damn great. It seemed to be a commonplace demonstration of intellectual grandstanding following Inception for someone to write or tweet “Inception wasn’t THAT mind blowing, I understood the WHOLE thing” or “the reason your mind was blown was because of the Earth sized plot holes you didn’t catch onto, so you FELT like it was deep and epic! But if you were smart enough, you’d know better.”
So before delving into my own critical breakdown of Interstellar, I’d like to address the issue of minds being blown and glaring logic loopholes. Firstly, spotting plot holes doesn’t always entail that you were the smarter viewer. On repeat viewing of Nolan’s films, which are often packed like puzzles, it becomes clear that he and his brother are very particular and most questions are answerable or purposefully left ambiguous. I will admit that his pacing and degree of explanation is sporadically suspect; an issue of editing and cutting down to digestible size I imagine. But simply because I’m unsure exactly what transpired in a scene, or because I didn’t gather why so and so did such and such in scene ‘A’ or ‘B’, doesn’t give me free rein to accuse a director or writer of laziness or speak of those who enjoyed viewing it scornfully.
Secondly, when it comes to Nolan’s work, viewers run a high risk of becoming prisoners of the moment. I know this was true of me when it came to The Dark Knight Rises; which in retrospect I now see as being Nolan’s most flawed effort, paling as compared to TDK. However, when I first saw it I was convinced it was superior; that he’d taken his TDK template to that next epic level. I was a POM to the IMAX experience and the mythic/epic Chris Nolan overtones. TDKR had a certain level of hubris, the auteur attempting to elevate the pulpy comic book action movie to the plain of legendary. To Nolan’s credit, this vision was mostly realized. But, on additional sit downs with TDKR, I started noticing its glaring blemishes. Nolan’s shortcomings became more readily apparent: a telegraphed twist, clunky and disengaging action sequences, Shakespearean and dramatic flare occasionally drifting into silliness, pacing issues, and distracting editing. But let’s remember why the susceptibility for being caught up in Nolan’s magic exists in the first place; he indeed makes magic on the screen and often evokes transcendent and sublime emotionality.
So, I went into Interstellar with my bias detectors as fully in check as I could muster. But I still possessed the sort of giddiness that a youthful me had whilst attending Jurassic Park or Return of the King for the first time. I was stoked. So as I hunkered down for the feature presentation, I was of two minds. Despite Nolan’s flaws, he still creates awe inspiring movies that equate to what I would only describe as ‘spiritual’. With Interstellar, some of his directorial tics show through again, yet, in the IMAX setting is wholly engaging in the ways that Nolan is known for. This is why I go to the theater. These are the kinds of movies I hope for and rarely ever see.
Most movies are just that, movies (crude and entertaining). Christopher Nolan still adheres to this ambition of making FILMS; not simply moving pictures that assist the popcorn going down more smoothly. He often manages to deliver on both fronts. Interstellar, however, might alienate the more casual tenants of weekend features. More than any of his other projects, the Nolan brothers are firmly in the driver’s seat and were given ample amounts of leeway to try the patience of standard movie goers; not only in its mood but with its near 3 hour length. Movie goers that are likely more accustomed to the Marvel comic freneticism, hokey one-liners, and a predictable cadence of rising conflict, climax, and clean resolution. This isn’t a criticism of movie going audiences as much as it is an acknowledgement that a certain style of filmmaking is going extinct, and Nolan refuses to let it die. Of this I am grateful, because that style is a beautiful thing.
From the get go, another brilliant score from Hans Zimmer sets the tone for a journey that is grand in scale. The aesthetic of the film is clean and noticeably free of obvious digital doctoring and clutter. The setup for the premise does require patience, but I didn’t feel any annoyance watching it unfold. A number of plot devices are left unclear, and at times might frustrate. Here, I’d suggest, is a known problem for Nolan in general. In an effort to save some of the big reveals, we are kept in the dark maybe too much. Conversely, he is prone to expositive info dumps that are unusual for wide audience releases. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks felt that they were sitting through a science lesson that, even though laden with dialogue, left them scratching their head for having not brushed up on their cosmology and astrophysics. I didn’t have a problem here, but I’ve taken an interest in these subjects most of my life . This isn’t a tooting of my horn, I readily admit that Nolan could have done better explaining some stuff.
As Interstellar takes off into space, Nolan’s nods to Kubrick’s 2001 are so obvious that it can hardly be levied as a criticism. He is PURPOSEFULLY paying tribute to particular aesthetic touches from one the greatest sci fi films of all time. He has said himself that “you can’t pretend 2001 doesn’t exist when you’re making Interstellar.” But these are mostly visual and not tonal or thematic similarities. The storytelling and manner of how the plot unfolds is almost entirely unique to Nolan with the exception of what I would term Interstellar’s ‘monolith moment’. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan felt the need to inject humanity into this epic space opera and also grants the audience a sleek resolution, rather than leaving them like a quivering fetus in space contemplating their existential insignificance.
I anticipate that some will say the resolution was predictable, cheesy or too tidy. Without giving it away I can still express understanding of where these criticisms would come from. I had my moments of skepticism and I wasn’t in love with the ‘monolith moment’ myself, but the epilogue of the film largely erased my doubts. I left feeling respectful of how Christopher Nolan chose to solve his little puzzle. He’s one of those artists that seems deliberate and calculated enough that I trust his choices without over thinking whether I completely agree with it. This allowance of artistic latitude when it comes to exacting scrutiny is a conscious choice, and honestly it has made most movies and shows more enjoyable for me. I have spent too many days being prudish and pretentious in pursuit of something searing to say as a demonstration of my intellect. I think it doubtful that anyone else could have managed a better denouement without just leaving the end ambiguous, which is often the typical route taken by art house or more idiosyncratic filmmakers of the Lars Von Trier variety. There is a reason those movies often don’t get wider releases. They might be cool and interesting, but they’re weird, even awkward, and they often conceal their intentions and message to a maddening extent.
Interstellar is not for everyone and that doesn’t mean it’s not still great and admirable in most respects of these words. Lovers of the Dark-Knight-Nolan are going to get something worlds apart from those installments. The Inception crowd will have its patience tried as Interstellar is light in the action department. Where it tries to create tension with action, the movie slips considerably. A middle act devolves into an awkward astronaut fight that felt forced while also attempting to overlay poetic flourishes that frankly didn’t work. But this was brief and the film then moved onto its epic finale. This is mostly a character drama set in space that saves the bombast for the key moments. The meanwhile-on-earth plot gets significantly more screen time towards the latter end of the picture, and the editing choices with that were at times clunky, frustrating, and less engaging.
I would suggest this film be witnessed in the full IMAX glory, but I imagine it’s still great in other formats. Chris Nolan is one of the few filmmakers actually choosing to utilize the IMAX cameras during principle photography, so the entire geography of the screen is covered for most of the running time — no doubt looking spectacular. The non-IMAX intercuts are in a narrower aspect ratio, noticeably darker and less vivid; perhaps bothersome to purists or perfectionists. I await the day that the IMAX cameras and film are more affordable and versatile so Nolan can just have the entire experience be properly wide and tall, as the ambitions of his films demand it. But I’m also hearing that the format might altogether be retired, and this could very well be some of the last times we can witness this preferred Nolan medium.
Some will go in expecting life altering and world changing cinematics. Many of these folks will probably prisoner-of-the-moment their way right to that desired conclusion. And more power to them, it’s awesome to feel like your life was altered and your world was shattered and reformed in a 3 hour span. Others will go into it expecting epic action and coolness, and I imagine some of these cravings might be left unsatisfied. There are also those who will attend looking to depreciate Nolan’s stock with a how-dare-anyone-compare-him-to-Stanley chip on their critical shoulder. Admittedly, there are poetic and romantic touches that Nolan paints with that sometimes come across more silly than intriguing; but he hits far more often than he misses. I’m not going to let one badly delivered Matt Damon pontification spoil the experience. And yes, Matt Damon is in this movie…I’m not getting my Matt’s mixed up.
Let haters hate and allow some people to have a fleck of bitter taste ruin an entire heaping pile of delectable, satisfying, intellectual and creative desserts. This is the way of the modern movie goer and hyper-critic: to feel like they are owed what they want or expected. Those who don’t get it will haughtily levy labels like “overrated” and “pop sci-fi” against Insterstellar more as an expression of their dislike for Nolan and people who revere him. There are relevant criticisms of this and his other work; that they are “pop” or “silly” are not some of them. I also anticipate that the media narrative will paint the response as more polarized than it actually is. But there will be yay-sayers and naysayers, as immutable a fact as time itself…wait, is time immutable??…
I for one was satisfied to a large extent. There were a handful of moments that created that undeniable upswell indicating that I was witnessing greatness. I wouldn’t want to belittle that with minor grievances. Christopher Nolan has done for the medium in its early 21sty century form what is otherwise not granted by major studios to most other filmmakers. This sort of freedom and ambition should be applauded, even when it doesn’t match all of our expectations. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a smattering of Michael Bayesque CGI orgies, Judd Apatow knockoffs, and overextended franchise money pits; with the occasional bright glimmers like Edge of Tomorrow or the Hungers Game series. Even those often lack the same ‘high art’ aspirations that Nolan and his team clearly hold themselves to. Color me fooled or hoodwinked by the magic, but I see the sophistication present in his craft as being real and achieved, not some hallucinatory mindtrick of cinema. Go forth and enjoy, and do not over think all the over thinking I just did with regards to Christopher Nolan’s Insterstellar. PEACE