Interstellar is the type of movie that only a director like Christopher Nolan could make at the peak of his success. It’s the type of grand, sweeping, thoughtful epic that scares off studios unless you’re a filmmaker who could seemingly make $700 million at the box office by farting on celluloid. At the same time, it’s also the type of film that could only be made by a filmmaker who has been given so much power that no one is willing to question any of his decisions. If you’ve seen Dark Knight Rises, then you’ll know exactly what that means in both the good ways and the bad. There are astoundingly beautiful sequences and also some incredibly boneheaded dialogue and plot holes big enough to fly a spaceship through (which literally happens at one point). It’s an alternatingly frustrating and enthralling blockbuster that should be seen on the biggest possible screen available simply to revel in the remarkable technical accomplishment, even if that same screen will also make the problems that much easier to spot.
Matthew McConaughey stars as a former astronaut turned farmer. You see, an unspecified world war induced tragedy has essentially plagued the entire planet with a global dustbowl. Resources are dwindling by the second, so farmers have become more valuable than engineers and that’s exactly how McConaughey wastes away his adult years, now a single father to a pair of precocious teens. Then one day his daughter starts noticing strange things happening in her room. Initially she thinks it’s ghosts, but soon patterns emerge in the phenomenon that McConaughey recognizes as binary code providing coordinates to a secret location. When he gets there, the location turns out to be the secret home of NASA who are working on an extra secret mission led by Michael Caine and his daughter Anne Hathaway. With Earth’s death imminent, they’re looking for alternatives and thanks to a wormhole in our solar system, there’s a gateway to a new system of planets that might offer salvation. McConaughey is asked to pilot a mission to the new system, exploring the planets with the hopes of either returning home to bring everyone else with them or colonizing a new planet with frozen embryos to kick start humanity elsewhere. So, he gets on a ship leaving his children behind for what could be decades and could be forever. That covers roughly the first act of the story and revealing more would be unfair.
It’s impossible to watch the movie from that point on without comparing it to Stanley Kurbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The narrative is similarly episodic and it also shares images, ideas, themes, characters, and even plot points with that immortal classic. However, Nolan isn’t aiming for a movie that’s nearly as mysteriously philosophical. Nope, he’s aiming for a big sweeping popcorn epic that will challenge brains without leaving anyone behind. This is hard science fiction with dialogue frequently used purely as a means of simplifying complex theories. These theories are explained and re-explained to the audience to the point of exhaustion at times, with the actors thanklessly spouting speeches they could never even hope to make sound natural. Another clear point of comparison is The Abyss, which tried to mix hard science with big action and soft heart sentimentalism. That’s a combination that feels equally awkward here. There are sequences when all of Nolan’s tricks and ideas mix together beautifully. Timelines as cross cut to mix together multiple climaxes that combine stunning images, visceral action, stinging emotion, brain-busting ideas, and ear-tingling music simultaneously in a manner that will thrust you so deep into your seat that you’ll devolve into a pile of goo. Had Nolan managed to make a version of Interstellar that lived up to its tremendous peaks throughout, it would have been a masterpiece riding the line between popcorn pleasure and art house reverence. You can see what he was going for and the experiment was worth it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite get there. Not by a long shot.
No matter how many stunning moments that Nolan puts together here, there’s just no denying that Interstellar is kind of a mess. It’s a supremely ambitious project with too many spinning wheels for him to align them all. When the movie isn’t working, it can be accidentally comedic because Nolan’s distinctly dour tone leaves no room for irony. It’s got some of the finest movie moments of the year and some of the worst, but thankfully the good at least outweighs the bad. If nothing else, the near limitless resources at the director’s disposal leads to some astoundingly large spectacle that is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Seen in IMAX, many of these sequences simply have to be viewed in a state of open-mouthed awe. There’s no other way to respond. That demands to be seen on the largest screen possible (even though Nolan must have been cringing through Gravity last year given that Alfonso Cuaron managed to beat him to many effects in a much more accessible and powerful production).
As for everything that goes wrong, well the degree to which that ruins the movie comes down to expectations. If you’re a movie nitpicker for whom any flaw will spoil the whole project, then chances are this will be unbearable. However, if you’re capable of appreciating flawed movies for their strengths then there is much to love. Think of it this way: What Inception was to The Dark Knight, Interstellar is to The Dark Knight Rises. It’s Nolan operating on the same oversized ambition as his Batman threequel and hitting n’ missing to the same degree, just in a more personal project. In a perfect world, Nolan could take years to develop projects like Kubrick and ensure that puzzle box stories all click into place (as well as hire someone who can write dialogue, etc.). Unfortunately the blockbuster business is more dependent on meeting release dates than perfection and Interstellar was clearly shoved into production with a script about a draft or two away from completion. There’s still plenty to love, you just have to find a way to deal with the hate.