Interstellar: When a Good Movie Goes Bad

(Image Credit: Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar arrived in theaters in November 2014, a science fiction epic by the critically acclaimed director of Memento and the Dark Knight trilogy. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine and focuses on a journey through time and space to save humanity from extinction due to a worldwide outbreak of blight destroying crops and depleting the planet’s oxygen. To save the world, McConaughey leads a NASA mission through a wormhole to another galaxy, looking for a suitable planet to be the next home for people.

Interstellar received mostly positive reviews upon its release, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times declaring the film full of visual dazzle and thematic ambition, “a sweeping, futuristic drama driven by grief, dread, and regret.” Other critics deemed the film “a unique and mesmerizing experience” and “a cosmic adventure story with a touch of the surreal and dreamlike.” It eventually received the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and made $677 million worldwide, the film serving as both a critical and commercial success and cementing Nolan as one of the great filmmakers of the twenty-first century and endearing him further to his rabid fan base.

There are a lot of things I like about Interstellar. It is a breathtaking film to watch, with impressive imagination going into designing the “interstellar” worlds. Nolan experimented further with 70mm, with several scenes in Interstellar filmed with Imax cameras, before eventually deciding to use the format for an entire film. While some criticize the music of Hans Zimmer for being overly bombastic, I believe it works in this film, helping to convey a sense of the grandiose beyond our imagination. Like DunkirkInterstellar is a great film when it comes to technical composition, with cinematography, music, production design, and visual effects coalescing into a film that is truly a visual experience in the same manner as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, still one of the seminal works in the science fiction genre.

Though impressive as a technical achievement, movies are judged based on their narratives and performances along with their production. It is in the storytelling that Interstellar falls short of being a great film. Far from being completely ridden with clichés or being incomprehensible, Interstellar has an engaging storyline that completely falls apart at a very specific point in the film. Before revealing the precise moment Interstellar derails, there are two aspects frequently cited as complaints against the film that do not work against the narrative.

Time Dilation

One of the critiques levied at Christopher Nolan, whether in jest or not, is that many of his films “mess with time,” featuring nonlinear structure or cross-cutting different stories to let the audience experience the same chaos the characters are feeling or to catch the movie viewer off guard. MementoBatman BeginsInception, and Dunkirk all employ some element of nonlinear storytelling, a motif in Nolan’s filmmaking in the same manner as banter dialogue at a table in Tarantino films or general terribleness in Raja Gosnell films.

Interstellar features a rapid progression in time, but grounds it in the concept of “time dilation” in physics. When McConaughey and the team arrive on the first potential planet, they note that the gravity is significantly greater than on Earth, warping time to such a degree that one hour spent on the planet would equal seven years on Earth, making completing the mission quickly of utmost importance. Things go awry, and the delays cause twenty-one years to pass on Earth. Even if the viewer does not have a background in physics, this does not derail the movie, it is simply a plot device to make the situation more dire. Moreover, it allows McConaughey’s daughter to age into adulthood and become more useful in solving the gravity equation that has stumped Caine’s character for years. Though involving hard scientific concepts, the time dilation simply advances the action and adds greater consequence to the actions of the characters.

Scientific Jargon

Interstellar relies on scientific realism, specifically the ideas of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, to set the narrative in motion, opting for a science fiction movie grounded in realityas opposed to the futuristic technology and fantasy elements used throughout the genre. Concepts like gravitational waves, wormholes, and black hole cosmology owe to Thorne’s work, and Thorne himself laid out guidelines before consulting on the film:

First, that nothing would violate established physical laws. Second, that all the wild speculations, and there certainly are some here, would spring from science and not from the fertile mind of a screenwriter.

Thorne, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Michio Kaku were very pleased with the film’s adherence to scientific realism, grounding itself in science rather than fantasy. But, to adhere to this format, there are many instances throughout the film where the plot stops so the characters can explain the science to the audience, showing that Nolan and the film’s crew indeed “did their homework.” Again, this is a lot of hard science, but like “messing with time,” it does not detract from the movie. The use of science gives the film a personality much different from many other science fiction films; the fact that the people of Earth have few options due to our limited knowledge of physics makes the conflict more critical than if we could simply travel at the speed of light to another galaxy. Moreover, like the time dilation, the audience doesn’t have to know the equations and theories behind the science, just that the characters are in a grim situation and have limited options to save humanity. Scientific realism gives Interstellar style and personality much different from films like the Star Trek, Star Wars, or Alien series, with abstract science highlighted by technical mastery to produce a visual masterpiece.

And, then it all falls apart

Though well made from a technical standpoint, with a lot of thought and care devoted to the visuals, cinematography, and science, Interstellar completely falls apart in its third act, resulting in a film that is simply “good” even though it had the potential to be great. After completing a “Heart of Darkness but in space” arc in its second act, McConaughey and Hathaway are stranded in a barely functional space station hurtling toward a black hole. Hathaway resolves to go to the final potential planet carrying fertilized human eggs, “Plan B,” while McConaughey launches into the black hole Gargantua, allowing the space station to move in the opposite direction based on Newton’s third law of motion. Rather than being ripped apart atom by atom due to the gravitational pull of the black hole, McConaughey enters a tesseract, a five dimensional space that allows him to move through time as a physical dimension, in order to reconnect with his daughter and relay information from the black hole and complete the gravitational equation to bring all of Earth’s people through the wormhole into the new galaxy.

The scene in the black hole fundamentally derails the movie, undermining the previous elements of scientific realism and relying on “the power of love” to resolve the central conflict of the film. McConaughey’s actions in the black hole represent a shift from established to more theoretical and speculative physics, with humans from the future able to perceive five dimensions supposedly responsible for creating the tesseract. Furthermore, McConaughey can supposedly communicate with his daughter because of his love for her, as “love is able to transcend time and space.” Because we are able to love people despite the distance as well as loving people who died, it is love that allows McConaughey to connect with his daughter despite being in another galaxy. Though mentioned briefly, this is not a theme that carries throughout the entire film. In a movie so reliant on realism and scientific relations, resolving the conflict of the film through emotional connection is a jarring shift that deviates from the previously established themes and atmosphere. As movie critic Bob Chipman stated,

Interstellar actually still wants to be about humanity, human beings, families, emotional connections, and, well, feelings. Which means, its actual thematic underpinnings could not be less suited to Christopher Nolan.

Though the director behind many beloved movies, Nolan is not known for emotions being at the core of any of his films, with style, imagination, and technical wizardry superseding heart. This is not necessarily a bad thing, after all many of Nolan’s movies are still very good , and not every work needs to focus on an emotional core. However, to suddenly rely on emotions to solve the crisis of humanity breaks from the rest of the film, likely a relic from the original draft when Steven Spielberg was set to direct. The “power of love” as the savior of humanity is certainly noble in conception, but contradicts the rest of Interstellar, resulting in a movie that ultimately doesn’t know what it wants to be. Certainly a technical achievement, an experience worth watching for the imagination and design, Interstellar’s narrative shortcomings prevent it from being a great film despite having the potential to be one.

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