Yes, 'Interstellar' Is Pretentious - but That's Why You Should Watch It

Christopher Nolan's spectacular film is filled with frustration, anger, and guilt, and also strives for acceptance and even redemption.

Interstellar Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan; with Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace, William Devane

One of my methods for evaluating a science fiction movie is a primitive one, and I’m not proud of it: When a movie deals with quantum theories and uses the word “quantum” as an adjective; when it involves theories of time and dimensions, black holes and wormholes, the black holes in my own scientific education emerge, and my brain shuts down. (The concept of wormholes, I’m embarrassed to say, I had not heard of before watching “Interstellar,” the new picture by British director Christopher Nolan.) If a science-fiction movie that has all those components in it – and Nolan’s movie throws them around as though they were everyday household terms – and still provides a plot I can follow and even find compelling and poignant, clearly that film has something to offer. “Interstellar” does, in spades.

Because “Interstellar” was made by Christopher Nolan, who gained a cult following thanks to “Memento,” the Batman/Dark Knight trilogy, and “Inception,” reactions to his latest film will range sharply from adulation to disappointment, the latter likely to take the form of an assault. My own response is somewhere in between. In many ways, “Interstellar” is the most presumptuous sci-fi picture since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” from 1968. But the two movies cannot really be compared, because Kubrick’s tore away from all the reigning narrative formulas of its day, while Nolan’s space epic has a fairly traditional plot kernel – one that is valid and important in today’s reality, but traditional nonetheless.

“Interstellar” is yet another movie about what happens after an ecological apocalypse, or at least in the face of a rapidly approaching one. We are in the future, several decades ahead of our own present. Earth – represented, as usual, by the United States alone – is dying, unable to provide food to its dwindling population. The only crop that can still be raised under the dust storms that sweep across the land is corn, and that, too, is running out. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a widowed farmer raising his son and daughter on his own; a former astronaut, he still dreams of the vast expanses of space. NASA has apparently halted its activities, but then a new discovery is made: Apparently there is a wormhole in space that can provide access to another galaxy if one can only overcome gravity, which is the fifth dimension (or at least, that’s what I understood without reallyunderstanding). Cooper is chosen to go into space and explore the possibility of moving the earth’s population through the wormhole to that other galaxy, where it might make a fresh start. Cooper’s name, as well as the nickname “Coop,” connect him to Gary Cooper, one of America’s steadiest heroes in the classic Hollywood era. Traveling with him are a robot with a sarcastic sense of humor, and Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a scientist and the daughter of Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), the man who sent Cooper on his mission after figuring out how to overcome the obstacle of gravity.

Cooper lives on a farm with his late wife’s father (John Lithgow), with whom he leaves his apparently indifferent son and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), with whom Cooper has an intense bond. “Interstellar” is one of those father-daughter pictures: filled with frustration, anger and guilt, it also strives for acceptance and even redemption. This provides Nolan’s movie with some of its emotional power, even if (in contrast to Cooper and Murph’s relationship) Amelia’s connection to her father seems like a schematic, unnecessary addition. (The same could be said of Amelia’s romantic history, which the screenplay – co-written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan – adds but does not really develop.)

“Interstellar” is 169 minutes long, and while at some moments it does lag, I watched it with almost constant interest, mainly thanks to the visual aspect. The latter is a paradox: Like previous space epics, “Interstellar” is a spectacle, but it does not savor its own visual magnificence even when it shows us impressive vistas of earth or space. There is almost zero heroism in Nolan’s movie, which does not romanticize its subject matter; on the contrary, even. Its factual dryness aims for a melancholy tone that deepens the result and keeps it from soaring into forced poetry. The same melancholy also makes the film almost entirely humorless (with the exception of the naughty robot, and we’ve known since “Star Wars” that robots are more entertaining than human heroes). The seriousness adds to the sense of presumption, which the movie cannot always justify. 

Still, for all its pretentions, self-importance, excess, paradoxes, mysteries and unresolved questions, “Interstellar” offers a rich viewing experience. As happened with “Inception,” viewers who like that kind of thing will be able to develop elaborate interpretations of the movie. Others, myself among them, will prefer to regard it first and foremost as a work showing the vision of a director whose talent is not in question, even if his gifts are not always put to perfectly satisfying use.

If we’re thinking of comparisons, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is actually a less interesting case than a more recent film, Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 “Gravity,” which at 91 minutes could have been fitted twice into “Interstellar.” Both movies are about the desire to get back home, to find solid ground, and in that sense both represent the unsettled sensibilities of the reality around them.

Cuaron did so using an abstract, focused allegory, which eschewed an agenda for existential messages; Nolan’s movie pursues the same goal using a space epic, one that borders on the American family melodrama and is packed with all kinds of messages, most of them not very productive. Both attempts are interesting; and while I still prefer “Gravity” to Nolan’s movie, “Interstellar” offers a satisfying experience for all those interested in contemporary filmmaking, its relation to older traditions, and the ways in which it represents the spirit of its time.