I want to be honest up front: I went into Interstellar with almost impossibly high expectations. There are two reasons for that. The first is that Interstellar is a Christopher Nolan film, and while I certainly don't think that Nolan's films are perfect, he's the only working filmmaker that I can think of who has the financial freedom to try to explore potentially unwieldy concepts on a blockbuster scale. My hope was that he would thread the needle one more time and manage to make a movie that felt epic without surrendering to the predictable script conventions of the epic-film genre.
The other reason for my extreme optimism came from a prediction I made last year. After I saw Her I wrote a long essay comparing it to 2001. Specifically, I was comparing the way that they both created plausible worlds where human beings confront artificially intelligent machines as a way to make the viewer question what being human means, and I was contrasting Her's almost overwhelmingly emotional tone against 2001's almost completely detached tone. The ultimate conclusion of that essay was that if you found a way to combine the two movies – to make a movie that was both human-sized and cosmic, heart-felt and yet objective, grounded yet visionary – you would create the ultimate science fiction movie. I didn't know much about Interstellar's plot before I saw it, but I did know that it was about a trip through a wormhole and also about a father's love for his daughter, so I hoped that it could be that ultimate sci-fi movie.
Indeed, Interstellar is a story that is tries to balance the intimate against the infinite. It's about a young father named Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughy) who is called upon by NASA to explore some planets that might be capable of supporting human life. It’s a mission of dire importance because Earth’s atmosphere is becoming too nitrogen heavy and all human life is in danger of suffocating if it stays on Earth. Much of Cooper's time in space is spent trying to understand nearly impossible physics problems and escaping incredibly deadly threats to his life; when he’s left to himself he can’t help but think about the lives he’s left behind on Earth, and whether the sacrifice that he's making is worth it.
So the question is: does Interstellar pull it off? I know it's a ridiculous question to ask... But is Interstellar the ultimate sci-fi movie?
Sadly – but unsurprisingly - the answer is no. The problem is not with the spectacle side of the story: all of the space exploration stuff is great, managing to mix scientific ideas in with action set pieces in a way that doesn’t degrade either. No, the problem is with the smaller side of the story: a lot of the time that the movie tries to invoke the human spirit it can feel pretty hokey. I'm sure there were dozens of drafts of each of the speeches that tried to explain the physics of wormhole travel to make sure that they would be accessible to the average movie goer, but the speeches that try to explain Cooper's love for his daughter lack that level of polish. I understand that it's probably almost impossible to convey a parents love for their child in words, but I can't think of a single time that the word “love” was used in Interstellar that didn't strike me as being greeting card level cheesy.
Coopers relationship with his daughter would be less problematic if it was more intimate, but she holds a grudge against him for abandoning her for almost the entire movie. I can understand feeling hurt for awhile after he leaves, but at some point she needs to realize that he didn't leave her for the same reasons why most deadbeat dads leave their kids, he left her because he had to try to save the human race. Her refusal to give him the benefit of the doubt makes her look incredibly ungrateful; at a certain point her relentless stubbornness makes it hard for the audience to love her as much as Cooper does.
Still, if you can get beyond the hype, away from all of the unfair comparisons, and overlook the film's cheesier sections, what is left is overall very good. The visuals are often breathtaking, the actors make the script work even when it’s a bit too exposition-y, and although the film does start slow, it builds to a nice crescendo. Left completely on it’s own, it’s a solid puzzle of a movie, one whose cosmic concepts are just simple enough to be followable on the first go through but just complicated enough that you'll get the feeling that a second viewing might make it's cosmology a bit clearer.
However, while I can commit to calling it very good, I do think it is a little bit shy of greatness. Nolan threaded the needle between a blockbuster and an art movie, but he didn't quite thread the needle between being the impassioned and the impersonal, putting all of the engaging problems on one side of the ledger and underserving the other. I understand that being mad that he only managed to do three impossible things at once instead of four is probably a bit harsh – but like I said, I had high expectations.