Interstellar (2014)

Posgter for Interstellar

What to say about Christopher Nolan? His films always leave me with mixed feelings (other than Memento, which I loved at the time, and Insomnia, which I hated), and articulating the mixture feels like a chore. On balance I’d say the mixture is more positive than negative, and thus I’ve seen all of his films except the first one. However, there’s a stodgy, overblown quality to all of them that always leaves a bad aftertaste in my mental mouth.

Interstellar is the story of humanity confronting the existential threat of an ecological disaster called the Blight and looking for the answer via a space trip to a distant galaxy. It’s an ambitious, large scale science fiction film graced with some amazing visual vistas from outer space, inside a wormhole, on bizarre alien planets, and inside/outside time itself. Interestingly, the scenes set on blighted Earth looked muddy and dull on the Pacific Science Center IMAX screen where I saw it. Maybe that was a deliberate choice to contrast the dull-as-dirt limitations of the planet with the grandeur of infinite space, but I’m thinking something was wrong with the image, because it made faces blurry and indistinct too.

One of the things about Nolan’s later movies (since the first Batman film) that drives me up a tree is the hushed, anguished, portentous tone with which so much of the dialogue and the narrative is delivered. Everything — the stakes, the risks, the accomplishment — is HUGE AND VERY, VERY IMPORTANT!!!! The seriousness of Interstellar is leavened with some slightly nerdy but well-judged robot humor, but my personal taste always leaves me wanting more absurdity and sarcasm and less heroism. That said, this one is probably more successful for me than Inception in connecting the high concept to the personal melodrama. The finale was very powerful, I thought, even at its most implausible and perfunctory, and there’s one moment where the protagonist, Cooper, realizes (along with the audience) that he isn’t on a planetary surface like he thought he was that is a beautiful, perfectly executed combination of playful humor and science fictional sense of wonder. Beyond this horizon, indeed.

David Bordwell has written persuasively about Nolan’s skills with narrative structure, and Interstellar, while less tricky and elaborate than Inception, does a very nice job of connecting the dots set out at the beginning to those in the climax, which is a big part of the reason the finale is so emotionally satisfying. Getting between the dots is a bit of a slog, but the attention to structural detail pays off in the end. I find it hard to connect with Nolan’s thematic concerns, which seem overly grandiose to me, but he keeps me coming back with his flair for spectacle and neat story ideas. In a year that has seen a large number of very good and idiosyncratic science fiction films (Snowpiercer, Under the Skin, The Congress, The Zero Theorem), Interstellar isn’t one of my favorites, but it ranks up there with Guardians of the Galaxy as a more old-fashioned populist adventure story with plenty of thrills.

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