My standard for science fiction movies is rather simple: I want to see something I haven’t seen before.
Perhaps that standard should be higher, especially in regards to story over special effects. But above all, when I go to the theater, I want to be dazzled. I want to see something relatively original, something not obviously derivative of designs and ideas seen in previous movies. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy so much. I was really impressed by its creative spaceship designs.
Of course, Guardians also had great characters and a compelling story. Without those, it would have seemed like a Star Wars knockoff and ultimately been an ambitious failure by Marvel to step outside the superhero genre.
By this standard, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is fantastic. The spaceship that Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and crew fly toward Saturn and into a wormhole that will find other worlds for the human race to inhabit may not have looked as cool as Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon or Peter Quill’s Milano. But with its interlocking pods that spin to create gravity, the Endurance was based on scientific viability. Nolan — with the help of physicist Kip Thorne — applies those parameters to virtually everything in the film.
Does he succeed? Some, such as Slate’s Phil Plait, feel that Interstellar‘s science falls far short. Others like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — who was pretty tough on the scientific accuracy of Gravity last year — was impressed by the filmmakers’ attention to detail.
In #Interstellar: The producers knew exactly how, why, & when you’d achieve zero-G in space.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) November 10, 2014
How important that is depends on your view, naturally. Would taking liberties with how physics apply to space travel interfere with your ability to enjoy a film? That’s an awfully high standard to hold a film to, especially when there are other considerations such as story, character and pace that a film has to serve. Yet saying that you shouldn’t think too much or entirely suspend your disbelief when watching such a movie lets writers and directors off the hook.
It does seem fair to expect the brothers Nolan (both Christopher and Jonathan, who wrote the screenplay) to make the science as real as possible because part of the film’s promotion has been touting its scientific accuracy. Kip Thorne’s name has frequently been dropped as a stamp of approval or certificate of authenticity. Yet there does seem to be a point where one has to accept that he or she is watching a movie, not a documentary. Eventually, the imagination does have to take over.
Of course, being faithful to science and avoiding the fantastical doesn’t necessarily make for a great movie. In a different tweet, Tyson alluded to Interstellar‘s biggest problem, saying that no published book would help you understand the film’s plot. This is supposed to be where Christopher Nolan’s name (or Jonathan’s) is supposed to provide the certificate of authenticity. But as the two demonstrated with The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, sometimes they can take on big ideas that are too large to wrestle down and control.
In this regard, Interstellar reminded me of 1997’s Contact. (Incidentally, McConaughey was also in that movie. Maybe he never got over Jodie Foster being the one to go into outer space and had to get one of these movies for himself.) For two-thirds of the film, the sense of wonder and anticipation created pulls you in as a viewer. Rarely have I felt such a strong sense of “What is going to happen next?” But when the story reaches its climax and Foster’s character reaches beyond what we know into what we imagine, it falls short and can’t help but feel like a disappointment.
I had a similar feeling here. The build-up is more satisfying because it deals more with science than philosophy or religion. (Yet Contact also takes a world view that Interstellar inexplicably ignores. Is the United States the only nation concerned with the Earth dying and basically turning into Iowa, where only corn grows? Europe or Asia doesn’t have any interest here?) And we get the payoff of seeing the other worlds that exist on the opposite side of the wormhole, resulting in some incredible environments and visuals.
But are we going to see any aliens on these worlds that can sustain life? How is this movie going to end? Does the resolution live up to the anticipation the rest of the film creates? Ultimately, I’m not sure it does. Once such a story reaches the limits of our imagination, is it impossible to fulfill what we hope we’ll see? Yet that’s the hope and expectation placed on Nolan here, and I don’t think that’s unfair at all.
Nolan’s film is more concerned with the science (especially Einstein’s theory of relativity), and frequent explanations of what is or will happen creates clunky dialogue that holds back the actors. Robert Zemeckis was more interested in the abstract with his story. What did the characters believe they would see? What did they want or expect from the aliens making contact? How important was faith and religious belief in being representative of the human race?
However, since science can only tell us so much, eventually gaps have to be filled in either through fantasy or some attempt to apply the ethereal to reality. While Interstellar doesn’t address the role that religion and faith play in helping to explain the unexplainable, it does propose that human feelings and emotions are forces that set us apart and push us beyond what science tells us is possible.
That idea might cause some eyes to roll and lose several people along the way. Personally, I don’t think this choice is a dealbreaker because it’s consistent with the rest of the story. Nolan doesn’t just pull this out as some deus ex machina to pull the movie out of a storytelling corner. As with everything else in the movie, there is an attempt to explain how this is happening. Whether or not you buy in will probably determine how much you enjoy Interstellar.
I went in expecting to be disappointed, based on the critical reviews Interstellar received during the past few weeks. Welcome to the Christopher Nolan backlash, in which a director that so many writers and critics had built up as our next great filmmaker has now shown some storytelling flaws with his past two efforts. That’s the price of success. I consider myself a big fan of Nolan — I took him directing three Batman films as a sign that the universe wants me to be happy — but also felt that perhaps I was due for a letdown.
But Interstellar didn’t let me down. It’s not a great film, though it certainly has such aspirations. I wouldn’t even call it Nolan’s best. (The Dark Knight gets that title from me, with Memento a very close second.) But he still deserves praise for his ambition. Not many directors are making films like this. Only a select few enjoy the sort of prosperity that allows them to do essentially whatever they want. Maybe that’s hurting Nolan a bit, as he no longer has to listen to the voices that may tell him when something isn’t working. Being a ruthless and honest self-editor could determine whether or not he truly becomes one of the filmmaking greats.
For now, however, movies need someone like Nolan taking big swings and aiming for the fences. Interstellar may have landed on the warning track, but perhaps because Nolan didn’t connect as well as he could have. I’m still eager to see what he does the next time he steps to the plate, especially because Nolan is continually willing to challenge himself as a filmmaker.