Review: ‘Interstellar’ Combines Astrophysics And Magical Thinking

The Singularity Is You!

Interstellar is about saving the people of a dying Earth by trying to solve the mysteries of space. It has simultaneously far too much exposition and not nearly enough. And how could it not? There’s enough to explore here for at least three separate HBO serieses. You’ve got a dying Earth in the years following some kind of Dust Bowl-esque cataclysmic event, where life has largely gotten back to normal but where dust storms are a fact of life, science is frowned upon, and a supernatural force is trying to send McConaughey’s daughter messages through her bookshelf (I could watch an entire Leftovers-style series just about this). Add to that the idea that the world is dying, a fact Michael Caine delivers in about 1.5 mumbly sentences, as if to say “Shhh, don’t get hung up on this part,” then the space travel, the wormholes, the black hole, alien planets, space fights, artificial intelligence, the singularity… It’s too much. It’s WAY too much. It tries to cover three or four planets, 100+ years of Earth time, and up to five dimensions (I’m still unclear on whether there were four dimensions or five, I think the fifth one might be love) — in ONE MOVIE. It’s both foolhardy and ballsy, and you find yourself laughing at it and admiring it in about equal measure.

Say what you will about Christopher Nolan, no one else out there is making $165 million special fx extravaganzas that actually feel like a vision, and not just someone trying to give you what they think you want to see. Overhyped? Maybe (also, guilty), but it’s a noble kind of hype. People line up to see Christopher Nolan’s vision, not his take on their favorite story.

One thing to know about Christopher Nolan’s vision is that it’s very dorky. You can feel him getting wild-eyed and animated whenever he’s trying to articulate some phenomenon of quantum physics. And when he does make the occasional stab at humor, it’s with all the awkwardness of a calculus professor telling a knock-knock joke. It can be endearing in the same way too. Aw, Christopher Nolan isn’t good with feelings and he knows it! It’s so cute! Look at him blush as he tries to create human connections between the characters!

Space-time is the Nolan brothers’ sandbox in Interstellar, and it’s at its best when it’s using the story as a way to illustrate the most out-there concepts of astrophysics – black holes, singularity, relativity, why Matthew McConaughey is so handsome. The nature of this kind of science is so unfathomable to the human brain that we need to constantly create analogies. “If singularity is the pearl, the black hole is the oyster,” goes one line. Likewise, it’s one thing to hear that time moves slower nearer a black hole, but another to see how that might affect humans and our miniscule life spans. True, a character clumsily makes this exact point through dialog, and Nolan has already used the relative-time concept as a narrative device in Inception, but his passion for this kind of science is contagious. And who wouldn’t want to see an episode of Cosmos where Matthew McConaughey explains the universe like it was the chassis on his Lincoln?

While Nolan seems most at home worshiping science and using his characters only as much as he needs someone there to explain a “gentle singularity,” he once again creates a preposterously knotted plot. Trying to resolve it inevitably forces him to go beyond the known universe and imagine what else might be. And what do we find once we cross the limits of human knowledge, in Nolan world? Well, it looks a lot like religion. Humans fly right into the teeth of the universe’s greatest mystery only to discover that they were the center of it all along. If Prometheus was “what if you met God and he didn’t like you,” Interstellar is “what if you met God and he was you?” What if your own daddy issues were literally the most important thing in the entire universe? (The Big Bang was your dad’s sperm hitting your mom’s egg, and so forth). The science worship starts to look a lot like self worship. The fundamentalist right could have a field day with this one.

Poor Anne Hathaway supposedly came out of her self-imposed pout hiatus for this, and the Nolan brothers saddle her with easily the film’s worst scene, where her no-nonsense short-haired biologist character introduces a theretofore unknown love interest and sparks a Beckett-esque tete-a-tete about the scientific value of love. Dude, what? We just watched you crash land on an alien planet and survive a thousand-foot tidal wave, you think we give a shit about your boyfriend drama? If she took a year off because people didn’t like her before, she might have to sit out the next five after this one. I still like her though. She’s got moxie, and pouty lips.

There’s always an on the one hand/on the other hand dynamic with Nolan. The best thing about him is that he inspires you to imagine, to dream far beyond the limits of your daily universe, to think magically. The worst thing about him is that he forces you to think magically, because his pathologically convoluted plots don’t really work if you don’t. There are just so many “wait, what?” moments that you eventually start to submit and obey. “Fine, just tell me what happens next.” For a story inspired by staring up at the stars, you never get much time to ponder. You’re always rushing to the next conflict with preposterously dire consequences. So, on the one hand, high stakes, emotional investment. On the other hand, a quasi-fascistic relationship to the audience. Thrilling action, exhausting plot, and so on.

Chris Nolan is not the kind of storyteller who charms you, who you can imagine shrugging and saying, “But hey, what do I know?” He’s the kind of storyteller you imagine staring intensely off into the middle distance, chin between thumb and forefinger saying “What is the meaning of life, you ask? That is a good question, I will find this out for you,” and then blasting off in some kind of steam-powered hydroplane he built in his garage.

I can understand if that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, or if it comes off bloated or pompous, but I think that’s just the way Christopher Nolan thinks. Dude’s wackadoodle, like a model airplane hobbyist reading Stephen Hawking on too much Adderall. He has his quirks and pet plots, but I’m always fascinated to hear his latest dispatch from the edge of sanity.

GRADE: A for ambition, B- for execution. Call it a B. Go see it regardless. (in 70mm IMAX, the way I saw it, if you can)

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here, subscribe to the FilmDrunk Frotcast.