“Interstellar” has become the fodder, already, for numerous online and in-person discussions. Most reviewers disliked Christopher Nolan’s newest film—some critics hated it; others were very skeptical of its science and plot. The average watcher I’ve talked to, however, loved the film: its wildly beautiful cinematography, its sweeping intricacy, the emotional depth of McConaughey’s character.
Personally, I feel somewhere in the middle: I appreciated the depth and intricacy of Nolan’s project, but was skeptical of some of its premises, disappointed by the film’s lack of thoughtfulness in some areas and excess of sentiment in others.
First, there was film’s premise: we are leaving the earth, and never returning. But why have we come to this point of no return? Why is the damage done to the earth so irreversible, that we have decided to merely abandon it? This underlying premise of the film is never fully questioned or supported—it’s almost glibly accepted by the film’s protagonists. Yet this makes the entire film feel lost: like an abandonment, a placeless and pointless voyage. Most great works have a core, roots, a homecoming. This film, however, is all about the fact that humans do not have a home—indeed, they were never meant to have one. As McConaughey puts it, “Mankind was born on Earth … but we were never meant to die here.”
This premise drastically weakened the entire film. McConaughey implies that “caretaking” (for the earth) is lowly and ignorant, that “worrying about our place in the dirt” is secondary to invention and pioneering — thus turning the principle of stewardship into the idea of “settling” for something less than greatness. The movie implies that “sticking” to place is backward—we see this in the way educators have altered textbooks to remove space travel and other pioneering ideas. Though we are never given a holistic idea of what has happened to the earth, it’s implied that our work on earth is a sorry, anti-intellectual sort of groundedness.
The film also appears to be decidedly progressivistic. Its trajectory is one of human transcendence: moving beyond our current squalor and ignorance into enlightenment. The whole idea of generational progressivism seemed to be quite central to the plot. You have Caine’s character, flawed and biased, passing along his ideals to a more-enlightened daughter. And then McConaughey’s daughter ends up being incredibly brilliant, the beacon of a new era, a new generation of humanity. We are moving from backwards earth-dwelling, anti-progressivist figures, into a more-enlightened and rootless future.
Ultimately, this made the movie feel more trite and stale than mysterious or moving. As Steven Greydanus wrote for the National Catholic Register, “The climax confirms Nolan’s status as a puzzle-maker rather than a poet, a technocrat rather than a visionary.”
However, it’s worth noting that the film suggests some mystery: take the fact that, despite the supposed utilitarian correctness of the idea that our explorers should just “start over” on some foreign planet, abandoning earth-dwellers to their fate, both Hathaway and McConaughey are determined to save their families and friends on earth, no matter the cost. They won’t accept the obliteration of the earth. The ruthless utilitarian ethic of Matt Damon’s character is rejected completely. This ties into one of the film’s larger and more thoughtful premises: that love is transcendent and inexplicable, that it ties us across time and space, defying the bounds that usually separate us.
This gave emotional depth to McConaughey’s character arc, especially, but also to Chastain’s. Love, the movie claims, can defy the bounds of time and space: it defies our physics, our science. Some would call this overly sentimental. And it is, perhaps. But it also suggests some interesting thoughts about the nature of human relationship and why love means so much to us—why it means more to us, even, than survival.
Many reviews I’ve read get very tripped up over the scientific contradictions within the film. Yes, it’s true, planets could not exist that close to a black hole. The time warp in the film (one hour for Hathaway and McConaughey = seven years on earth) is totally exaggerated. And yet, as a friend pointed out, this scifi film is heavy on the fiction, light on the science—it wears a mask of scifi, but it seems to be more fantasy than anything else.
That said, there were still some notable plot holes that will probably continue to annoy me: why is it that, after decades of separation, McConaughey and his daughter spend mere seconds together before saying a final goodbye? This makes no sense—especially since the entire film is built around their relationship and the love they share. Of course, Nolan’s 3-hour film is egregiously long, but he could have cut something else to make this scene a bit longer, a bit more moving.
Unlike some of Nolan’s best work, which deals with deep ethical questions and the problem of evil, this film feels rather escapist—both literally, in its movement away from the earth, and in its humanist ethics. There are no truly “evil” characters here: only troubled circumstances and delusional or “confused” people. And this makes the film feel more smarmy than profound.
But “Interstellar” has already spurred a lot of great discussions—about love and its ability to bind us together, about human existence and our attachment to place, about the nature of vocation and family. This seems to be a sign of goodness, if not greatness, in a film.