I went into Interstellar with mixed feelings. Prior to watching it, I had heard things ranging from Interstellar captured the spirit and feel of old hard science fiction novels (for ill and good), that the sound mixing was abysmal, and that the film was initially a Spielberg project that fell to Nolan to direct and ultimately fell apart in the home stretch as a result.
Ultimately, I think my feelings on the film can be summed up with the following:
“Saw interstellar. It wasn’t good or bad, but mostly bad.”
I enjoyed my experience looking at the film more than I did engaging with or listening to it.
Nolan works best at creating films that misdirect and create a sense of mystery. His movies seem to be vacuum sealed, having all sense of sentimentality sucked out before being packaged and released. We watch Memento, or The Prestige, not out of a desire to follow the emotional journeys of his protagonists. We watch to unravel the mysteries of his narratives; his protagonists serving more as tools to deliver clues and exposition than characters with emotional lives. Interstellar develops into a hard science fiction film with the promise of staying as such before evolving yet further into a meditation on humanist metaphysics and the nature of love as a thing bigger than us. This is a transition that the film, as a product of Nolan’s helming, cannot survive. Try as it might under the weight of an oppressive, and aggressively mixed Hans Zimmer score, the film cannot land its sentimental finale.
The film feels like a fusion of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of Contact. It started off with an extended sequence set on a dying, anti-intellectual USA, struck down by a crop jumping blight. History books have been rewritten to push students away from science and engineering and into farming in a last ditch effort to produce food for an increasingly starved human population. There are hints of desperate military activity (a military drone flying aimlessly, brief mention of the US government attempting to bomb other nations out of existence so they can focus on only feeding US mouths), but the majority of the on Earth run time is set up for ultimately underwhelming emotional through lines that will get into spoiler territory, but if you’ve seen Contact, you may guess where the film is going in the end. It is in this moment that the film also begins setting up its more humanist underpinnings, as well as making more overt allusions to 2001. Humanity is pointed in the direction of an artificially placed wormhole by an unknown, possibly alien benefactor, gravitational anomalies that communicate in Morse Code and Binary in Interstellar, and the Monoliths in 2001.
The earthbound sections of Solaris served as a test of character, barring entry to all but the most dedicated. What lay in wait was a heady exploration of mankind’s interaction with itself, its neuroses, the unknown, and things much bigger than itself. In ways, Interstellar tries for much the same, while where Solaris was a sobering exploration of humanity’s inability to comprehend an intelligence that was entirely other and much vaster than it could handle, Interstellar posits in all seriousness that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space”, that Love is a fundamental force, and that Love will direct and shape the course of human evolution. As a Spielberg project, I can imagine this would have been more successful. As a film that promises a hard science fiction romp through quantum physics and realistically rendered wormholes, it feels like a betrayal of the spirit of what preceded it.
Nolan approached the sound mix for the film in an incredibly deliberate way. He wanted the audience to experience moments in the movie as the actors in the scenes would have. This has lead to people complaining about diagetic and non-diagetic sound drowning out dialogue in an attempt to craft emotion. In the case of the diagetic sound of a space craft launch drowning out the dialogue, I can understand. However, there were moments when Hans Zimmer’s score was mixed so loud and so aggressively that it began to sound more like a wall of white noise than a film score. Nolan may have approached the film like an impressionist, but it seems like he didn’t quite understand that other films utilising impressionist sound design did not drown out the dialogue, and further did not feel the need to fill themselves with dialogue either. His supposed impressionist and “Experimental” film relies more on dialogue to fill in spaces than other such impressionist films, resulting in the problem of dialogue being drowned out in the first place. While it may not be an entirely successful film, Beyond the Black Rainbow utilises its visuals and score to create an utterly unsettling atmosphere of control and dread.
Interstellar‘s major thematic arc is the presence of Love as a fundamental force that can transcend time and space, and both Cooper (McConaughey) and Brandt (Hathaway) are motivated and guided by love to complete their mission. What comes across as a bit problematic is the film’s portrayal of this love motivated decision making. Brandt is motivated by her love for one of the initial astronauts sent to survey possible habitable worlds. She is given possibly the worst monologue in the film, and is ridiculed for even considering love as a factor in her decision making. However, Cooper keeps insisting on returning to be with his children, he lectures others on what a good parent he is, and the film goes a long way towards portraying his motivations and his love as admirable.
The film also felt weirdly episodic, as if 4 stories from a science fiction anthology were stitched into an unsatisfying whole. At 169 minutes, Interstellar is a long movie and its narrative being broken up into segments served to make the film feel longer and more disjointed than it needed to be. Editing and transition decisions near the film’s conclusion made it feel like the film was reaching a climax, before building to another climax, and then another climax, before finally coming to an end. A 3rd act twist and subsequent cross cutting between the mission and the film’s Earthbound characters served only to artificially heighten tension in an unnecessarily generic way rather than in one that foregrounded the film’s thesis about love. A section inside a tesseract reminded me so strongly of 2001’s finale that it drew me out of the experience. Of course, your mileage will vary on this.
As for what I enjoyed about Interstellar, it was really good to see a major Hollywood production make large use of miniatures (3D printed and exceptionally good looking), and being shot on film contrary to the increasing industry wide move to digital. It lent the film an appropriately old school vibe, which was kind of cool, really. The miniatures lent the film a physicality that is missing in contemporary sci-fi cinema.
The film was gorgeous to look at. The technical brilliance of the visuals alone is reason enough to watch Interstellar. A sequence involving approaching and eventually travelling through a wormhole is probably the film’s stand out, but that is not to say its other set pieces are any less visually appealing, even the ones I don’t feel landed narratively.
TARS and CASE were the best drawn characters and it was interesting to see a film explore non-humanoid robots, while addressing the concessions which would be made to allow humans to feel comfortable interacting with them. It reminded me of GERTY from Moon.
What I hope to come out of Interstellar is for Miniature use and practical effects to be utilised more frequently in Hollywood, and I hope that 3D printers will potentially make that viable again.