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The cosmic imagery in this movie is as good and as grounded as any yet done.

Interstellar is a film I probably shouldn’t be reviewing yet. Being three hours long and a Nolan film, there’s a lot to unpack here. Maybe not as much as some had hoped, and certainly it doesn’t feel insurmountable now that I think on it, but definitely a lot all the same. People are already talking about how divisive and love-hate this movie is. I kind of get that. At the same time, I think it’s being overstated and collapsed into how much interest and baggage there is around Christopher Nolan himself. Interstellar is a very highly anticipated film and it’s difficult to imagine how it could have lived up to the general ephemera of expectation, let alone the more wary and critical attention of a person who goes into it with thoroughly managed expectations. In case it’s unclear, that’s me.

As mixed a bag (of mixed messages, haha!) as Interstellar is, it still deserves the utmost discussion and consideration. It’s the themes and execution of which that deserve all the attention and that, admirably, are causing most of the hullabaloo. Though Interstellar features more pure cinematic joy than most movies stacked on top of each other, meaning Nolan is really competing with himself and the ghost of Kubrick as always, it is also his least accomplished “original” (as in, not tied to Batman) film on various levels. There is a strange (narrative and technical) bumpiness to this movie that made me feel many times that I was watching something unpolished, something not fully bathed in the precise and cautious attention that made Inception Nolan’s singular masterpiece. Interstellar cannot hope to unseat Inception but when it’s on, it’s so fucking on that it’s uncomfortable to focus on the flaws and mixed messages that sort of undermine the full effect of the movie. But that’s how she goes, and a film that has interesting flaws is often just as interesting, if not more so, to review than one that goes off without a hitch or just falls flat on its face. However, it’s hard to stop thinking about how frustrating this movie’s mixed messages are once you’ve started down that path.

I will also say, before I really get into this, that my specific problems with Interstellar don’t really fall into the same overall lanes as most of the criticism I’ve been reading. If I had to sum it up I’d say this is a movie that falls short of the potential heights it frequently reaches. It’s a film where many sequences and moments transcend some of the nagging consistency issues that plague too much of it. It’s a film that ends somewhat disappointingly not because the message or manner are spoiled, but because the ending feels like it shies away from itself, afraid of being one of those misunderstood movies with an ending that overstays its welcome. And that really defines this movie. Interstellar is at odds with itself, frequently showing us something and then saying something else, bringing up ideas and themes and then abandoning them into a kind of half-explored stew.

But it’s still better than Prometheus. They should put that on the back of the bluray.

Spoilers aren’t impossible, they’re necessary.

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Unlike in Inception, parenthood is not an abstraction or metaphor but something more fully inhabited.

Interstellar takes place (too much of the time) on an Earth a generation or two ahead of our time. In this near-future setting, dust storms and food shortages plague a massively depopulated planet. People seriously consider the possibility that another generation or two is maybe all humanity has left before dying out on a world that no longer wants them. Contrary to what some are saying, given the Nolans’ apparent politics, Interstellar sidesteps the question of human-caused climate change and prefers to leave that implied. This doesn’t feel political so much as practical, a narrative choice that leaves this movie open to as large an audience as possible. That said, there are too many scenes where the efficacy of science as a way to solve problems and see the universe is lauded for me to seriously believe that the Nolans are climate-change deniers or that they expected that breed to be down with this movie so long as no one blamed fossil fuels for our problems. I mean, NASA is basically an underground resistance movement in this movie, secretly funded by the government to save the world. That is kind of badass.

Anyway, the world has gone all corn-shaped and it seems like no one is going to do anything about it.

But Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) isn’t just anyone! No, Cooper is a former NASA pilot who has become a farmer like most Americans in a time where the government cannot fund any other projects but food production. One by one, crops fall victim to a “blight” until only corn is left. And believe me, there is some surreal irony in the notion that corn is the only food left to feed America. In secret, NASA develops a project based on “divine intervention” from some kind of being or beings that use gravity like electricity, making a nice tunnel into space-time for us to explore. On the other side is a new galaxy, one with many potentially habitable worlds. Of course, it seems our intrepid astronauts have to literally land on them to figure out they are single-biome death-worlds but hey, at least they’re exploring space again! Once Cooper figures this out, through a chain of events that also seem too providential to be coincidental (cuz they’re not), he’s invited by an old mentor, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), to join the team. If this all seems too convenient, it’s because it is. But don’t worry, that’s intentional.

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The key relationship is the father-daughter one.

Interstellar spends a lot of time on Earth. I’m not sure how well this time is used as the first act seemed to drag a bit to me. Most of the time spent is paid off later in the film, however. The baseball game echoes through time to the coda, and all those scenes with Murphy (younger version played by Mackenzie Foy) are vastly important to the thematic and narrative arc of the film. It’s not like this time is wasted, but it definitely felt like it could have been shortened.  Most of the point seems to be having Cooper set up the theme that humans, or mankind as the species is known in some circles, have abandoned hope and given in to survival conditions without the transcendent power of aspirations to rise up above the dust and so on.

The problems associated with Brand’s mission are basically a matter of time. Cooper leaving means he will be leaving his family behind for an indeterminable amount of time. Everyone hopes it’ll be enough to save the people still on Earth, but there’s a DNA-based colonization plan in case that doesn’t work out. Early on, Interstellar does itself and its audience credit by dealing with the incredibly huge stakes on both global and personal levels. Not only this but it deals maturely and seriously with actual problems, to the best of our understanding, with space travel whether interstellar or not. As the movie progresses, these problems and conflicts go from theoretical issues with relativity to very real ticking clock scenarios.

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After all, we do see a lot of dust and corn-based foods!

Some will complain or at least point out that not a lot of Earth is actually seen in the film. We’re expected to buy into the horrifying eventuality of complete population collapse via the strength of the performances and the minimalist world-building touches and references supplied to us. I’m not sure how this choice sits with me since I think the approach works and I respect the gamble. The time spent on Earth with Cooper complaining about the end of adventure means that we do get a solid sense of what the world is coming to, as represented by the American cornbasket in which every character lives.

Even though it maybe takes too long, eventually Interstellar lives up to its title and the small crew of the Endurance gets off the planet and out into the stars. It’s difficult to describe the awe and majesty of the space sequences, but they are actually sort of few and far between. That said, Nolan does treat us to some concepts and images that we’ve never really seen in movies before. And he does it with his usual panache for infusing dialogue with informative exposition. It’s not as fun to listen to as the expository banter of Inception, but you do find out that wormholes ought to be imagined as three dimensional orbs rather than big funnels and that is fucking cool. The space sequences are some of what works best in Interstellar. No bullshit, they are some of the most beautiful sequences of their kind. Nolan is maybe gunning for Kubrick, but he proves less patient. These scenes may be gorgeous, but they just don’t linger long. Gotta get back to the farm where people can look at dirt more. I kid, but you’ll see what I mean.

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Told ya.

On the other side of the wormhole, some of Interstellar‘s technical problems begin to really surface. Let me preface that notion with some elaboration of what I mean by technical. I don’t mean cinematography or lighting exactly, but certainly the same kinds of things. Filmmaking craft on the technical level, I suppose. A critic better versed could no doubt identify and isolate these factors more effectively, but I’ll do my best:

Similar to some of the incredibly questionable auditory choices he’s been making lately (Bane’s voice, for instance), the way sound works in this movie just baffles me. Interstellar‘s score, by Hans Zimmer of course, is undeniably beautiful with its Philip Glass-inspired organ and sheer fucking grandiosity. But maaaan is it ever obnoxious. You remember the unignorable BWAAAAAM? At least that was used only to punctuate moments in Inception. In this movie, huge bass and organ music overloads way too much dialogue. People in my audience actually covered their ears, it was so brutal. It’s possible that the theater had their levels off or some damn thing, but I’ve seen reports that the score overlaps the dialogue and makes a lot of it inaudible elsewhere so I doubt it very much. This audio problem also extends to that dialogue, where Nolan makes the frustrating decision, for whatever reason, to have not one but two robots with similar voices that are so white-bread-male that one can seldom tell which is speaking or if it’s actually Doyle (Wes Bentley).

Part of what makes this so fucking frustrating is that the robots, TARS and CASE, are very interesting characters and supply much of the levity and even heroism in the film. Unfortunately, Interstellar never deals with whether these are modular (they have programmable “humor” and “honesty” levels, for instance) artificial intelligences that should be treated as people. They kind of are and they kind of are not, down to the needs of the script. They feel like cynically maintained holdovers from an earlier version of the script, where their personhood would be explored as part of the fundamental questions raised by the inclusion of the similarly maintained-not-quite-abandoned “they” that created the wormhole and made the whole story happen.

Beyond the audible, there are also many shots focused on character’s faces, mostly McConaughey’s and Hathaway’s, where the footage is fuzzy and soft-focus, almost as if it’s slipping out of HD or has been retouched to hide fucking blemishes. Again, I don’t know if it was a theater problem but I highly doubt it. Just what happened with all this? Why is this movie so unpolished that it’s louder than ten Michael Bay movies and the two leads occasionally look like they’re in a softcore porno?

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These are some of the coolest and weirdest robot designs in cinema history, of course.

This strange, abandoned ambiguity sort of permeates the film. I mentioned earlier how the politics don’t actually seem to be at all an issue here. If anything, Interstellar is as pro-science as you’d expect such a movie to be. However, there’s a lot of leftover stuff and unanswered questions. There’s also a scene that is mind-bogglingly weird, unless you read this movie as a full deconstruction of the Great Man myth, including the meritocratic, individualist fantasy of modern American culture. I’ll get to how the rest of the movie deals with that later, but for now let’s talk about that fucking faked lunar landing scene.

Early in the film, Murphy gets into trouble at school for bringing an old textbook that states the lunar landing happened. In a PTA meeting, Cooper treats the teachers with contempt as they explain not only that Murphy is focusing on “nonsense” instead of the day to day reality of trying to adapt and survive on a world with less and less, where farmers are needed more than pilots or engineers. Cooper, our surrogate by this point, is so caught up in himself and his adventurer ethos that he can’t see that they are telling him practical truths about their world. The textbook thing makes more sense as more world-building is done, revealing that this is a world where society has abandoned any other great project beyond simply feeding a dwindling population. But he also scoffs at their assessment of his son, a kid who enjoys farming and is statistically destined to be a farmer. Their perspective here is one of social goods and self-compromise for that purpose, something that is strongly associated with communism or socialism by Westerners. Any clarity here is undermined by stuff the film does later. In this scene, the teachers seem like the bad guys because they want to take away Cooper’s son’s shot at a future where he gets more choice than the world can really afford. This scene is kind of a values test, really, and it’s interesting how Interstellar calls back to the ideas in it both to deconstruct them and reaffirm them.

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Case in point.

Later in the film, when Murphy fails to convince her brother (Casey Affleck) to help her save his family from a dust-related lung sickness, she burns his fucking crop. He’s just totally trod upon by these saviors, whether he’s right to stubbornly hold onto the life he knows or note. Despite the fact that the teachers were ultimately, to their knowledge, right to suggest that farming is pretty much more useful than engineering, Interstellar says “fuck farmers” to the fullest extent that it can. Because science and engineering do ultimately save the day, it’s almost like no other practical response to a dying planet has merit. Sustainability? What’s that? This in itself is not really a flaw or issue, because this movie’s quality isn’t really down to how it explores ideas or social issues and whether or not I personally feel aligned with it. The real issue is that it creates the abandoned sort of ambiguity I’m on about due to the fact that the NASA mission into the wormhole isn’t really the solution either, but a sort of overly elaborate pathway to it. After all, Cooper realizes later that he never should have left and his emotional realization of the pain his choice has caused runs parallel to the generally, but not technically because the mission does have to take place for the world to be saved, useless nature of Cooper’s whole mission and his approach to it. He’s the swinging dick space cowboy, who does the “impossible” because it’s “necessary” (stupid line almost derails the film’s best scene, by the way). Yet, it’s his physicist daughter who solves everything and fixes the world. Or so we’re told. It’s still apparent that the answers aren’t actually “out there” in the end, but centered on Murphy’s scientific advances back home.

The real problem with ambiguity in Interstellar lies here, at the central external conflict we’re watching the heroes try to forestall. The world needs saving, whether by finding a new planet or by “solving gravity”, a vague seemingly pseudo-scientific mission that involves figuring out how the 5th Dimensional beings that opened the wormhole in the first place use gravity as both a way to communicate and as a way to control the environment. To do this, the beings (more on them later) create a loop where Cooper must travel into the wormhole on the futile quest for a new world only to conveniently, through various events and twists and turns, wind up in a black hole and a fifth dimensional construct where he can influence his daughter’s understanding of… the problem so that she can “solve gravity” and save the world. Not find a new one humans can travel to and colonize mind you, but localize the solution as home-grown. But what the fuck does this mean? We never find out how Murphy (adult played by Jessica Chastain) saves anything, or what “solving gravity” ultimately means. If they ever say it in the movie, it’s during the many scenes where the score is too fucking loud to hear anything. I suspect that they left it ambiguous on purpose, deciding that all that really matters is that the equation (the riddle) is solved, everything actually meant something, love is one of the great unknown forces yet to be fully understood by science (and the film makes a more interesting point of this than you’d believe), and on some level the world/humanity are safe!

Or, on a more optimistic note, it occurs to me that the ending is ambiguously suggesting a couple of things about our attitude toward the planet and to space. It may be saying yes, the answers are out there and we should prioritize exploration and emphasize our “higher” calling as adventurers and explorers, but also that we can’t ignore where we come from and we have to be patience and persevere at home because we also owe the planet something. It should be clearer based on the facts that Cooper does have to go to space to get back to Murphy in a way that helps her solve the riddle, and that the riddle does get solved and saves Earth and humanity in a more localized, stewardship-sensed way.

The ending is, in general, too short and too afraid of going on for too long. The specter of A.I. and The Return of the King hangs over long denouements in movies, such that they’re too often in too much of a hurry. When Cooper inexplicably wakes up in space years later to find his daughter an old Ellen Burstyn with a whole clan around her, you have to wonder about the meaning of it. Instead of showing the value of catharsis over logistics, the way the whole of Inception posited, we rush through the reconciliation scene and have Old Murphy telling Cooper to GTFO and save Brand from the futile mission no one has been able to save her from until now. Earth is safe, humans live in space stations to some extent, so the space adventurer is back on and thanks for all your help.  Moreover, the abandonment of this moment means that we’re supposed to achieve our final catharsis where exactly? In the very minimal development of a bond between Brand and Cooper? Marvel movie love stories are made from less, it’s true, but come on! Did I really watch a movie with an emotional core firmly rooted in this relationship only for the most perfunctory and anti-climactic send-off imaginable?

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MATHEMATICAL.

Now obviously I have reservations about the way Interstellar executes its cursorily (for Nolan) puzzle-box plotting and its thematic underpinnings. That said, the emotional reality of the choices the characters make and their full consequences is never far from the focus of the film. Because of this, the actors get to carry most of the weight of the increasingly abandoned themes. They are all doing pretty good work, particularly McConaughey on whom the bulk of that weight really rests. This makes sense, given Nolan, and this is a character that is thematically consistent with the likes of Dom Cobb or Bruce Wayne. Cooper is a rugged individualist, a hero, and a stark contrast to the kind of masculinity presented by Dr. Mann (Matt Damon). He’s, left to his own devices, as ready-made a cinematic hero as you could want.

But thankfully, Nolan is not happy to leave it at this. Though Interstellar again fails to unambiguously execute the full thrust or implications of its flirtations with its own themes, it does undermine that Great Man myth to at least some extent. Cooper’s perspective is rewarded by the fact that the movie’s whole story rests on a deus ex machina specially constructed for his daughter, but it’s obvious that his arrogant sense of adventure is not sufficient, and may be totally naive in spite of its uses. The solution, again, is not fully in the stars but just as much back at home.

Not only this, but Interstellar contains a somewhat sneaky point or two to get in about masculinity in general. Unfortunately, the point is somewhat undermined (there’s that word again) by the constant tacky references to “mankind” and the fact that Chastain and Hathaway’s characters are given noticeably less screen-time than the significance of their characters should mandate. If Cooper is the rugged individualist and Mann is the sniveling intellectual, archetypes that we can run with pretty far in a dichotomous exploration of masculine ideals and fears (all men want to be Cooper, every man is secretly afraid to be Mann), Interstellar uses them to show the ways that masculine-associated logic, perseverance, and arrogance cannot themselves be depended on to save the world. Feminine patience, intuition, and emotional reasoning (as exhibited by Brand and Murphy) are also required, and potentially superior. This is in the movie, folks. I’m not reading into it. I don’t think it’s appropriate to associate states of mind and ideals to genders, but I’m not Christopher or Jonathan fucking Nolan am I?

There are simply too many ways that Murphy is the real savior, that Brand is ultimately right about space and time and love, and that Cooper’s bravado and Mann’s cowardice are shown to be equally meaningless for me to be just reaching here. Moreover, the visible sexual undertones of the docking sequences (visual: docking arm is phallic, airlock is vaginal down to trinary labia analogues, dialogue: “it feels… good” and “come on baby, come on”) in contrast with the highly advanced Cooper Station (an enclosed, womb-like space that represents the final salvation of the human race) solidify the presence of this subtext. But how fully formed is it? Not enough that I don’t find myself a little frustrated by the male-default perspective evinced by the movie as a whole. Perhaps it could be read as a passing of the torch, a call to science and engineering to invite and support a more intuitive perspective. Of course, the cavalier association of these ideas and states of mind with gender is problematic on its own. Of course, the fact that the movie ends not on a note of emotional reconciliation between Cooper and the daughter he wrongly abandoned, but on a true-to-Cooper moment of individual heroic adventure somewhat flies against my whole thesis here.

You can kind of see why this is frustrating.

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The two most heart-breaking, best acting scenes are fully McConaughey’s.

That said, there’s a comfort with male emotionality on display here that I have to applaud. Cooper cries a bunch in this movie, allowed to show the deep pain he feels at the time loss with his kids and at the legacy of his arrogance. In one scene of manly tears, Matt Damon creates a bond and a sympathy for his character that utterly transforms what could have been an overly predictable and obligatory “coward betrays heroes” sequence into something much more profound, sad, and powerful. It’s expected in a scene like this that the hero would kill, even inadvertently, the betraying villain but Cooper shows no interest in vengeance or even pacification. He is always trying to reason with Mann, rather than trying to hurt or kill him. Mann’s the one who uses violence to solve his problems, implying an intuitive feeling that violence and anger are primarily derived from fear.

Coupled with the docking sequence, this moment at the cusp of the second act is where Interstellar finally fires on all cylinders. With the exception of that one fucking stupid exchange between Cooper and TARS (or Case… who can tell?) where he says “it’s not impossible, it’s necessary” or whatever. Honestly, that kind of bravado is just cringe-inducing by that point in the film, where the cracks in Cooper’s whole deal have begun to surface. Having said that, the docking sequence is still the best sequence in the film. I never thought anything would outdo the space-based tension and physicality captured in Gravity but Interstellar gets there (while still being the inferior of the two) barely a year later.

Later, Cooper has yet another cringey (for different reasons) discussion with TARS whilst locked into the 5th dimensional construct that I guess everything in the movie happened for him to get to. He starts spouting insightful ideas about what’s going on and who’s responsible to TARS, with more than one cry of “don’t you get it yet?”. It’s almost like Nolan is reaching through Cooper to the audience and saying “My movies don’t need infographs you fucking cretins”. It’s very weird, very insecure, and somewhat undermines the awe that this sequence should have inspired. Left to itself, you’ve got as impressive a visual representation of a mind-numbingly abstract construction of exotic physics as I can imagine seeing brought to life. You may be too busy wondering why TARS is even in there, though. Why do the 5th Dimensional Beings, who created this space for Cooper because his love can manipulate gravity and therefore reach across time while they can’t, need TARS there? How can TARS, presumably a weak AI, even perceive this? Is it just to have someone around for Cooper to talk down to? But why does he need TARS when he’s really telling us, the audience, how it is?

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Another source of frustration: the unexplained geography of the new galaxy/star system… why would they try to inhabit a world near the accretion disc of a fucking black hole?

In spite of my *slight* frustrations with the ambiguity layered onto this movie like a greasy dollop of butter, I loved so many individual scenes and sequences that I can’t help but feel like a second viewing of Interstellar (and some more discussion) will settle me into a more definitive perspective on it. If I used numerical ratings, this review would probably be one of those ones that scores in the high but reads like it should be lower. To me that means that I need to see this movie again. I promise this is not a disingenuous review, though. Those narrative and technical issues I point out are very much present. The ending is indeed weakened, like many other thematic branches of the film as a whole, by its failure to commit to what it seems to be saying.

That said, there’s something about the concept of cinema that Nolan truly gets and delivers, to varying degrees, each and every time he puts something out. He does things in this movie that are fundamentally stirring, beautiful, and awesome. It goes beyond eye candy and on to rock that magic place where the audible, the visual, and the receptive parts of our brain that don’t have convenient sense organs attached to them, all meet. Inception remains his masterpiece, but Interstellar is no slouch even though it slouches.

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