Interstellar: Feeling Machine

As both director and co-writer with his brother, Jonathan, Christopher Nolan is well-researched when jumping into the vastness of science fiction with Interstellar. It is not a task he took lightly, summoning not only his admiration for Stanley Kubrick, apparent in his entire technology-driven filmography, but also the advice of theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne. He wanted Interstellar to be effective, yes, but he also wanted it to be correct. When characters bring up the inertia of celestial bodies, time refraction across anomalous horizons, and the inner workings of tesseracts, they do so prepared to explain them to the audience with careful precision. In rooms full of scientists, characters deliberate over whiteboards with a grade school teacher’s verbal tiptoeing (as though we are also in the room), turning even the vastest galactic mystery into exposition. The Nolans seem hyperaware that their difficult task was to make a film they hoped would be complex with the budget that also required it to be a mainstream success. The result accidentally makes the two seem dichotomous. Its technical execution is a bright spot, but even its warmest truths constantly threaten to become glares.

The film begins with easy, convincing conservatism. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) muses that people are not ambitious individuals anymore. He screws his face up at the historical revisionism in his daughter’s history class and slumps onto a porch with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) to give the first passage of the film’s homey sermon:

It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers … We used to look up and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.

Despite the appearance of intellectual complexity, the Nolans do not allow any member of the audience to miss these vital points. They seem to treat mystery as a luxury they couldn't afford with an audience so big, a crucial decision in their creative process that ultimately defines how Interstellar feels to the people that it was theoretically designed to impress the most. Instead of showing Cooper observe and demonstrate this theme, perhaps in a scene in which he severely watches as men dismantle a new engine for the scrap to rebuild their tractors, the Nolans puppeteer him to say exactly what is on their minds. He does it with the heavy-browed drawl that a cowboy might have lamented the state of his town in the old Westerns before going “patooey” into the nearest spittoon. Even the most tired conversations in Interstellar are repeated with the seriousness of a eulogy. There is no talk in the film; there are only speeches.

The Nolans are in total control of this first act, showing the audience everything it needs to know in a way that feels significant, even the first time around. This includes Cooper’s lovingly combative relationship with his “just like her father” daughter, named Murph (Mackenzie Foy). But their control loosens the more elements they add, beginning with the first vital shift in believability: the introduction of NASA’s secret base. This discovery leads to Cooper becoming an astronaut as casually as someone getting on a train, waving goodbye to their disappointed family on their way to the big city. The pacing of this transition is so jarring that it ends up being a prophecy of Interstellar’s continuing (and worsening) balance between the script’s poetic-severe platitudes and the on-screen action, which would not be less jarring in a plucky Disney piece (Brad Bird borrowed a lot of this opening for the first act of Tomorrowland, a glossy work-together fantasy starring Tim McGraw in the McConaughey part). The main trend throughout the Nolans' script is that the more extravagant the scientific setting, the more cliched the narrative becomes.

Their passage into the black hole, for instance, while it begs a question of convenience (they seem as surprised to find it right where they need it as Cooper was to find a secret NASA), is a shudderingly investing sequence, in visuals and sound. Hoyte van Hoytema gives Nolan the canvas to create the feelings he’s looking for, on the celluloid Nolan never leaves earth without, with Hans Zimmer causing the mesh of the speakers to bow with unnerving power. Then with annoying insistence, the film’s sensory experience is interrupted by drama, or what the Nolans think is dramatic, as if a feeling of wonderment is not satisfying until they explain it.

The camera lurks around Anne Hathaway, her eyes coercing themselves to mist, as she explains her theory of cosmic love. “Maybe it means something more," she splutters, as the frame slowly approaches her, "something we can’t … yet … understand. Maybe it’s … some evidence … some … artifact of a higher dimension we can’t consciously perceive.” Even limited to the emotional realm, the scene would be eye-rolling enough (somehow, the Nolans thought that the audience would need to be convinced that love is more meaningful than a social utility). But significantly, she is not talking metaphorically: she is directly addressing the script of Interstellar, which will eventually be about the characters discovering this literal dimension and announcing the discovery with the forced precision of resolving a science teacher's predictions for their potato battery. This scene is Interstellar’s true tolerance test. If you’re still invested after that speech, nothing will shake you from its orbit.

This relationship the film has with the audience, displaying glacial, significant visuals while accompanying them with the tritest drama imaginable, trying to "persuade" them to take serious emotions seriously, is not Hathaway’s fault, nor is it a one-off problem in the cosmic love sermon scene. It is Interstellar’s undoing as its screenplay continues to do everything it can to take the concept of making us seem interesting because we can travel the cosmos and achieve the opposite. It makes the cosmos seem trite because it contains us.

A planet of ice and cliff faces, with an illusion of visual refraction that makes it look like the arctic version of the city that folded on itself like a crepe in Inception, is a mind-altering image. Yet on this planet, Cooper and another astronaut (uncredited for spoiler reasons, though the only spoiler is the casting) have a discussion of plot devices that would fit in any of the dumbest episodes of Buck Rogers or Lost in Space. Their journey into the infinite, with mounting uncertainty about their mission and their place in the universe, continuously cuts back to Cooper’s grown children (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) quibbling about their father’s fate with the immature persistence of the misty-eyed high school bickering in Smallville. When faced with a visualization of a tesseract, undoubtedly cross-referenced with Thorne’s immense experience for the utmost visual accuracy, Cooper expels exposition on the most literal level imaginable to explain to the audience how the visuals relate to the “plot devices” rather than just let them feel, and be, as epic as they are. Leaving earth behind in an expanse of space and time and communicating the true isolation of their journey into the unknown should have been this film's primary mission. Instead, by continuously cutting back to the adult children, even the most cosmically important discussions have the tempo of figuring out who’s the father of a baby in a soap opera.

The astounding potential of the film’s visual experience (“astounding” as it was used in the old science fiction magazines) is constantly strangled by the broad imprecision of this drama. This is never clearer than in how the scene on the ocean planet is developed and resolved. On this planet – it’s a solid, angry sea, grey and cold – time passes more slowly than it does for the rest of the universe. Cooper and Brand’s bickering, even their incompetence, suddenly has a cost measurable in lifetimes. In their sterile life-craft, confidently sleek and high-tech, bobbing on the sea, they pray that their family will still remember them when they finally escape. Their mistakes in that scenario make up the film’s most effective beat of tension, a real example of their ambitions coming with a cost.

When they return, the crewman they left behind (David Gyasi) has aged decades. His story is worthy of a whole film (it might have had the emotional heft of Duncan Jones’ Moon), yet the script discards it. Nolan avoids emotional consequences by killing this character with a plot device in a random aside, with all the ceremony of a minor villain’s opening preamble in a bad Bond film. That whole situation reveals a tangible loss of cohesion between the feelings intended by the screenplay’s holistic technical experience and the drama on an actual human level. McConaughey humbled me with his performance in the next scene, watching the video messages of the lifetimes that he missed. His physicality overwhelms the Nolans' crude concept of sadness – a shot of crying repeatedly filling the frame – with sheer willpower. But one scene cannot cover for a broken dramatic premise, which discards the characters who paid emotional prices with the plot devices that give the others their armor to survive the rest of them.

The tangible conflict of purpose between the film’s technical means and the screenwriters’ emotional intentions are partly explainable with a fact of the film’s production. The idea for Interstellar was originally intended for Spielberg, who is the sensible choice to reduce cosmic ideation to simple family love (Spielberg sees the schmaltz in our stars). When Nolan goes after the same feeling in Interstellar as Spielberg brought to A.I. (an idea written by Kubrick, coincidentally), he creates an impression of being symbolic that is constantly thwarted by being literal. Brand’s “love dimension” is not a philosophy – it’s a functional place that the third act of the film has to re-explain for the plot to resolve. Cooper’s love for his daughter does not save mankind figuratively – he literally gives her the “device” that saves the world. At no point does the film have more feeling than it has explanations for “what” that feeling is. As a result, these characters spend a relative eternity together in the cosmic struggle for human existence, and yet the drama has less believable humanity than when the characters order pizza in E.T.

Are Cooper and Brand in love? Accepting the events of this film as a romance feels like admitting the sky is grey because a colorblind man says so. The script is upfront about its intentions, but this is not the same as being convincing. The romance flops because the Nolans include audacious stage directions in their screenplay like, “zero-G tears catching in her eyelashes like melted snowflakes,” yet even the simplest conversation feels scripted by a robot. Every “reveal” has the forced impulse of a first draft idea, from the twist of an astronaut’s true allegiance to the Michael Caine character’s offhand and unconvincing turn towards villainy. At no point is it quite believable that this character did the wrong thing under the circumstances, with the information he had at the time, though the people around him treat it with teary certainty just because they have more plot devices to work with. “Emotion” is not a continuum of dramatic developments in this film. It’s just one of the headers on its Excel spreadsheet.

Ironically, the emotions of the film’s literal living machine ring true (or just as true as the humans’ in comparison). Compared to every robot in a blockbuster in the last decade, TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) is a shining example of balanced design, made from simple black slats that are elegant, left-brain-functional, and a personality that strikes a good compromise between being relatable and “quippy.” He’s bogglingly believable, HAL with legs and a few improv classes (he looks like one of those metal brainteasers you might buy in a science museum giftshop). Interstellar is not a drab or humorless film, but it also doesn’t strain itself to be thought of as “funny.” Tone is something that it understands far better than most other sci-fi blockbusters of its decade. The robot is an example of it being handled well.

Yet this doesn’t prevent the script from deflating its powerful images with cognizant, pointless jibber-jabber, motivated by exposition rather than humor. At the end of Interstellar, I kept thinking of the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when Dave Bowman passes through the Stargate, probably the clearest turning point for science fiction cinema from the artificial to the surreal. Nolan is indebted to that sequence and at times nearly equals it in visual splendor. The way light, shadow, and particulates hit the lens, you may actually feel weightless. In 2001, Dave comes out of the warp into the film’s final situation, the room at the end of the infinite, which may represent his mind, the aliens’ world, or an abstract for all human history. Crucially, it’s never explained – this is what gives it its mystifying allure. The feeling of that final act of Bowman’s journey is synonymous with the possibilities for intellectual power in sci-fi cinema. The Nolans must have been thinking of this scene, as well as of Solaris’ serene melancholy, when they created the third act for their own journey beyond the infinite.

Interstellar’s version of this scene shows Cooper floating through the halls of the tesseract, which refracts the rooms of his old home into infinite honeycomb chambers, color and space stretched out into strands of light. But as he drifts between corridors of light and sub-light, finagling plot devices to make the third act function, he begins expelling exposition and does not stop for the entire sequence:

Every moment. It’s infinitely complex. They have access to infinite time and space, but they're not bound by anything! They can't find a specific place in time. They can't communicate. That's why I'm here. I’m gonna find a way to tell Murph just like I found this moment. Love, TARS, love. It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph. It is quantifiable. It’s the key …

This is just a small instance of the amount of dialogue required to explain this scene to the audience. I couldn’t help imagining how impotent 2001 would have been with that treatment (the film originally ended with self-important narration that Kubrick chose to remove for the sake of the film’s feeling of cosmic ambiguity, a decision Nolan should have emulated even more passionately than its visuals). Interstellar is down to the absolute wire at that point, yet Cooper can barely catch his breath between visual transitions with all the plot details he has to justify. The Nolans use the minutest, most obvious exposition imaginable to represent cosmic truths on the grandest conceivable scale. The result is Cooper at the edge of known existence exploring a visualization of a tesseract, created by future humans to give him the tools to communicate the secrets of interstellar travel to his daughter in the distant past, executed with the relaxed pushiness of a TED talk. It takes a story explicitly designed to make humans seem important and makes them seem hopelessly contrived.

Even with high melodrama, films like The Tree of Life and Arrival succeeded in connecting the cosmos to our most passionate emotions. Those films played with time and even narration with distinct clarity, in a way that made plot devices seem spiritual rather than artificial. The triumphs of those films are comparable to Interstellar’s shortcomings on both sides of the emotional scale. The creation of the universe is more inspiring in Malick’s film than any scene the Nolans craft between parents and lovers in Interstellar. And Villeneuve’s treatment of a mother’s love in Arrival feels more cosmically significant than Nolan’s materialization of a quantum tesseract at the edge of the known universe.

Nolan has always been an advocate for film technology yet often thwarts his potential in the medium with advocacy. Over the last few years, he’s become increasingly vocal about preserving the theater experience, which has clearly always been important to him – his films stake their quality on aural and visual fidelity. As a result, his movies are often more interesting than the average blockbuster, especially when viewed in a theater. However, as much as he advocates the technical hugeness of the big screen experience, he wrote Interstellar with the dramatic sensibilities of the small screen. He reduced its universal constants to quibbling and its themes to bleary speeches that regurgitate the screenplay’s intentions in literal terms worthy of the lowest melodrama. The more he expanded the universe, the more it felt reduced.

To paraphrase an interview he gave in The Guardian after the release of Interstellar, Nolan believes that those who let his films “wash over them – who don’t treat it like a crossword puzzle, or like there is a test afterwards – get the most out of the film.” When compared to his statements about analog filmmaking and the traditional theater experience, it’s easy to see Nolan as a director at least as passionate about the experience of just watching the film as he is of telling great stories, stories that can be pulled apart, tested, and enjoyed intellectually. In Dunkirk, for example, his theory worked beautifully – the film's structured technical experience can wash over you and become like a beautiful mental machine. Analysis is possible but not required. When Cooper says, “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are …” I can’t help wondering if Nolan is also talking about his experience as an explorer of cinematic technique, his love affair with the analog.

But with Interstellar, he put this philosophy to work on an experience that is not merely technical. It also includes a humanistic, cosmic melodrama, which by every conceivable standard of dialogue and character writing is cripplingly amateur, more so when contrasted with the high-mindedness of the film’s intentions. The result is a hostile user experience – a film that asks the audience by design to assess, unravel, and discover its mysteries while reminding them with its shortcomings that the passive experience is the more enjoyable one, for a director who insists that analysis is the viewer's mistake. In the context of that interview statement, it seems like he doesn’t want his viewers to treat this film like a crossword puzzle, but crucially, he still wants to give them one. He wants the film to get credit for being a mystery without it getting blamed for being unrewarding to solve.

This is how the film ends up with blasts of emotion as loud as its rumbling cosmic entities, as it accompanies natural wonders with another teary closeup or pushy scene of exposition to pass off characters reading literal script notes as an avant-garde epic. The virtues of the technical experience, even as immersing as they are in this movie, thus become a way to reward intention without challenging execution. Interstellar sets out to create a heart-warming ode to excellence in humankind, a love story that extends beyond time and space, constructed from feelings presented with no less than cosmic import. For that, it deserves some credit in the modern blockbuster environment. Yet it resorts to the most primitive emotional communication to pull it off. It has the shell of one of the giants of the genre. It's just a shame that it sees us as it does, as potential explorer-heroes with the hearts of loving fathers and the intellects of great inventors and the graceful romantic allure of a race of Speak & Spells.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

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