Ambitious and overflowing with ideas, the latest from Christopher Nolan shoots for the moon but lands… somewhere in Cleveland.
Release date: November 7, 2014 (USA)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Running time: 169 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
There’s an old saying: “Aim for the moon; if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” Putting aside how astronomically incorrect that is, I’ve always found the sentiment misguided. It suggests that the more difficult the task, the better off you’ll be regardless of outcome. But human endeavor is the opposite: If you aim for the moon and miss, you’ll freeze to death in space. If you aim for Cincinnati and miss, you’ll just end up in Cleveland, which – even though it’s Cleveland – is still preferable to death. That’s why sports like figure skating include a “degree of difficulty” component in scoring: an athlete should get credit for even trying the hardest moves.
While watching Christopher Nolan’s latest behemoth Interstellar, I found myself asking, “Should we give extremely ambitious films the same “difficulty” credit even if they don’t deliver?” In short: I don’t think so. A film that aspires to say something transformative about the human condition but turns out mediocre is still just a mediocre film. Sure, Taken and Bridesmaids attacked much easier topics than the ultimate fate of our species, but those films achieved what they aspired to do. Interstellar – for me – did not.
The film’s set in a near future that sees earth barely habitable for humans. Crops won’t grow, governments are gone, and we’re struggling to survive. Matthew McConaughey plays former astronaut/engineer/scientist Cooper, who – like most people – is now a farmer. The first 45 minutes are the best of the film, as Nolan paints a portrait of a dust bowl dystopia that’s as plagued by cynicism as it is the “blight” that kills crops.
Cooper is a widower raising two kids with the help of his father-in-law, who defines Cooper’s as nothing more than a “caretaker generation.” Even the teachers in this world are cynical: they teach kids that the moon landing was a hoax the U.S. perpetrated to bankrupt the Russians. The teachers’ reasoning is that giving kids an example of pragmatic strategizing is more useful than filling their heads with no-longer-possible dreams of space travel. This is one of the only genuinely original ideas in the film and it was thought provoking.
Interstellar is at its best when it’s lamenting our society’s cynical malaise and lack of ambition via sci-fi exaggeration. This makes sense, as Nolan’s career has been an exploration of cynicism. Memento was about whether we lie to ourselves to make ourselves happy. (A cynical “yes.”) The Prestige asked whether we must give up our humanity in order to achieve greatness. (An even more cynical “yes.”) Inception asks: can our subconscious and thus our very grasp on reality be manipulated by technology and sold to the highest bidder? (A resounding “yes,” regardless of what you thought the ending meant.) And weaved between these was his most hopeful, optimistic endeavor: The Dark Knight trilogy, a superhero series wrapped around a meandering Socratic dialogue on whether society is so irredeemable it must be destroyed and restarted from scratch. These movies were so successful partly because they were each a cynical “yes” for the first 90 minutes only to pull out a hopeful “No, people are worth saving!” in the end.
To be clear, these cynical propositions and often-cynical answers are why I love Nolan’s work. He embraces the darkness, which makes it much easier to be truthful.
Interstellar sets up its particular cynical proposition in an on-the-nose fashion. The space mission to find a habitable planet and save humanity has a plan A (move earth’s inhabitants there), and a plan B (repopulate using frozen zygotes while earth’s population dies). It turns out that trying one may doom the other, so the familiar question of whether humans should be saved takes the forefront with Cooper’s desire to reunite with his daughter complicating things.
I think some people will say this is a sci-fi masterpiece, but as a student of sci-fi, I have to disagree. The science is solid at the start but gets wonky by the end and the way the film plays out its only major scientific mystery will disgust true sci-fi lovers. This is no 2001, no Solaris… it’s not even a Contact. It has some beautiful sequences that build suspense, but Nolan’s usual ingenuity with structure is nowhere to be found in a film that is long enough to need it badly. Unfortunately Nolan’s knack for bringing new ideas to the blockbuster is also missing, as most everything here has been done before and better.
Don’t get me wrong: I love ambitious filmmakers and I love Christopher Nolan’s work and hope he continues to be able to make any kind of film he wants. I don’t think trying difficult things is foolish. But be ready to fail. After all, why do we fall? To learn to pick ourselves back up.