Humanity reaches across space, time, and the human mind to find its next home
Christopher Nolan’s space opera Intestellar isn’t content with being a roller coaster through space, although it certainly has its share of thrills; it’s clear that it aspires for more, but its insistence on asking questions about humanity and its future was perhaps a bit more ambitious than it was able – or willing – to go.
And yet, that ambition is indeed palpable throughout. There are moments of startling beauty, incredible vision, surprises, and, yes, ideas. But what’s left for our imagination?
Taking place sometime in the near future, Earth has been ravaged by a blight that has left the planet dusty and nearly incapable of supporting life. With humanity on the verge of extinction, we look to the stars to find a new home that can support us by sending a spacecraft manned by a team of explorers, including reluctant former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and stoic scientist Brand (Anne Hathaway). That journey takes us through wormholes, black holes, onto beautifully exotic planets, and into the far reaches of the human mind. All of the characters – both those traveling across the galaxy as well as their loved ones left behind on Earth – bring their own baggage and secrets, as space and time rub against each other in unexpected ways.
The action is thrilling and visceral, emotions resonate at just the right tone, and there’s the inescapable sense that this is all Very Serious Stuff. Nolan’s films have always been epic affairs, both in the monstrously deafening bass of their scores as well as the gravitas of every shot and character on screen. The narrative is complex and multilayered, and if Inception proved anything, it’s that Nolan is a master juggler of coherent stories that can span multiple dimensions simultaneously.
But we approach this film already knowing it’s the work of capable and talented individuals, and we’re left with the feeling that it could have been more. It feels like we’ve been here before, that we’re revisiting mostly familiar territory, and, worst of all, that all the lofty ideas never reach their full potential. The end of the film leaves us without a single question left to the imagination; no doubts, no mysteries, and certainly no profound ideas left to chew on. Every answer is provided. Every string is tied. This is The Dark Knight Rises in outer space.
There have been many comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and rightly so; they are both breathtaking visions of the future, filled with beautiful space vistas, cryptic messages from beyond, and contemplations about the nature of humanity. They both aspire to transcend their genre to make bold statements about what it means to be human, how we interface with technology and how that changes us, and speculate on our destiny. But where 2001 gives us metaphor and fever dreams, Interstellar gives us an epilogue and sentimentalism. 2001 makes you think, and wonder, and begs you to try to understand it; it still alienates and baffles people to this day. Interstellar will offend no one.
Christopher Nolan is that rare director who has been applauded by audiences and critics alike, who combines risky ideas with escapist spectacle and still somehow ranks in box office dollars. That has afforded him the luxury to choose his own projects in a time when it’s virtually unheard of to make big budget films that don’t play it safe, and certainly not ones that aren’t based on well established properties. One of the few other big Hollywood director to be afforded this luxury? Stanley Kubrick, director of 2001. And Kubrick used that luxury to choose his own ambitious films with huge budgets and virtually no studio tinkering. He pushed the envelope, tried – and sometimes failed – to bring his complex visions to reality, and openly admitted that the big box office successes early in his career made it all possible. Paths of Glory and Spartacus gave Kubrick the freedom to do whatever he wanted, and Batman and Inception gave Nolan that same luxury.
In that way, Interstellar is just as much the story about Christopher Nolan as it is the future of humanity: where does the auteur who is allowed to do whatever he wants go from here? If Interstellar is any indication, Nolan’s universe is a walled garden of ideas and imagination that is far too grand to leave any room for interpretation. This could’ve been his masterpiece, but it decided to play it safe in the end.
Score: 8.5 out of 10