Thoughts on Interstellar


On Wednesday night I got to go see Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Interstellar,” on IMAX in a 70MM film print. This is a big, big movie, but not in the way that we’ve come to think of big movies—there’s a tremendous gap between “Interstellar” and the blockbusters that dominate cinemas in the summer, and almost as large of a gap between “Interstellar” and the Oscar-bait epics that start rolling out towards the end of each year. Nolan’s film is a work of both ideas and of spectacle and for the most part it successfully balances both, which is quite rare.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a movie that is going to please everyone; there is a lot that’s wrong with “Interstellar.” But for the most part I was very much taken with it. Over the past day or so I’ve struggled to put together a coherent essay from my impressions of the film, but given how little time I have these days, I ultimately copped out and decided to throw out a bunch of random bullet points, in the perhaps vain hope that getting some thoughts out there is better than none.

  • It’s been well-publicized that Nolan intends for “Interstellar” to be seen on film, and on IMAX, whenever possible. This is the first movie I’ve seen where I can say that those technologies made the experience palpably better than they would be otherwise. There are some IMAX shots that are stunning; not just of space and other worlds, but of Earth too, specifically of cornfields—who’d’a thunk it? They were just breathtaking. And the picture quality of the nearly pristine film print was so much warmer and more inviting than anything that I’ve seen from digital projection. It’s a reminder of how far digital has to go yet.
  • “Interstellar” is not just about space travel, but about the dream of space travel, and how vital that is to us both in terms of fulfilling who we are as a species and in terms of our long-term survival. After watching it, it suddenly became obvious to me that many of Nolan’s films are about dreaming. Not just “Inception,” which was specifically about the architecture of the sleeping world, but also “Memento,” which was about a waking state made dreamlike by a physiological condition; “Insomnia,” which was about what happens to the soul when it is starved of sleep; and “The Prestige,” whose big plot reveal is a kind of circular nightmare. Even his Dark Knight trilogy has the feel of a long fever dream punctuated by horrors.
  • I’ve watched almost everything that Matthew McConaughey has done since the beginning of his so-called “McConnassaince,” and almost without exception I’ve found them all to be overrated and self-conscious. The same goes for his work in “Interstellar,” but it was the least distracting of all his performances to date, and reasonably effective. The nub of this movie is the relationship between McConaughey’s character and his daughter, who become separated from one another; I was genuinely moved by the way McConaughey seemed to inhabit the skin of a pained father.
  • Christopher Nolan gets a lot of flack for being a very pedestrian filmmaker, one whose ambitions outstrip his skills. I think that criticism is overblown and in my mind this movie should solidify him as an extraordinary director (though many will still disagree). “Interstellar” is full of extraordinarily inventive and breathtaking cinematic spectacles—all with genuine dramatic weight—that very, very few other filmmakers could bring to life. I can’t think of another contemporary director who has so frequently surprised and amazed me. He stands almost alone as someone who is making movies that are truly cinematic experiences, something that is sadly becoming a thing of the past.
  • On other other hand, Nolan does have an unfortunate aversion to ambiguity, and that causes his films to regularly slip into the pedantic or the maudlin. There are times during “Inception” that the film feels too overdetermined, too tidy, and sentimentality is too abundant. The last act of the “Interstellar,” in particular, resolves the various emotional crises that have been set up too neatly and broadly for my taste. The characters, who were so vitally alive for most of the movie, suddenly switch into a lifeless, automated mode in order to expedite the resolution.
  • The most obvious film that “Interstellar” brings to mind is “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The comparison isn’t necessarily flattering, mostly because “2001” wasn’t afraid to leave things unanswered where “Interstellar” is almost obsessive about explaining everything, even the unexplainable. But I don’t think Nolan has anything to be embarrassed about when these two movies are mentioned together; few films are as ambitious as “2001,” and “Interstellar” clearly is, and it largely works.
  • Speaking of similar movies, “Avatar” also comes to mind, and in my opinion Nolan’s film is leagues beyond it. Cameron’s 3D extravaganza was drastically overrated and its massive box office masked how insubstantial a movie it really was. It was set on a distant planet, but it was less about imagining mankind exploring other realms than it was about imagining what contemporary technology could do on the movie screen. “Avatar” was ambitious in a small way; “Interstellar” is ambitious at a whole different scale.

Finally, even at a running length of nearly three hours, there is so much good stuff in “Interstellar” that I’m eager to revisit that I would gladly go see it again. I hope lots of other people agree. For all its flaws, we’d be lucky to have more movies with the unbridled ambition and dedication to imagination that “Interstellar” has in abundance.