There’s a point in Christopher Nolan’s latest installment of his 3D Puzzle film franchise where you’re holding on to every word for dear life, as if one elusive sentence could leave you adrift and floating in the narrative’s margins, not knowing how we got to Matthew McCounaughey spelunking around in five dimensions. That moment comes around the ENTIRE FIRST 2 ½ HOURS…at least after the first 15 minutes of old-men-drink-beer-in-rocking-chair-and-complain-about-the-world-ness.
In Wesley Morris’ perceptive review of Interstellar, the Grantland staffer remarks, “Nolan believes cleverness is the same thing as audacity. He thinks that the click of realization is profound, that it’s the key — when, really, it’s just the gears of a giant machine locking into place.” If a storyteller’s main objective is to construct an elaborate world that all makes sense with a “click of realization,” then, for Nolan, what must precede this moment is an onslaught of exposition. Exposition is a storytelling device to inform an audience about a world they are about the live in for a couple hours. But in films like Interstellar and Inception, exposition is confused for storytelling. We are thus, held at arm's length emotionally. Instead of exploring a world with Interstellar’s characters, we are constantly being told what the world consists of. That is, until he reveals to us what the world is about, logistically.
In other words, Nolan’s films are meant to reward audiences for keeping up, for feeling like they “got it.” Which, I take as an affront. This type of storytelling is an attempt to reinstate the author in a world in which the author is dead. It is also a maneuver that reflects how Nolan thinks he should be regarded in contrast to his audience: above them. If you can come up with a convoluted alternate reality or future that will engage a sense of wonder and provide a playground for developing new rules, then commission a renowned physicist or scientist to root these new rules in existing, yet confusing, logic, and then explain your rules to an audience over the course of 2-3 hours in digestible terms wrapped in technically sound images bookended with an emotional crux, then you can ensure viewers will think your movie is smart and now they are smart for being able to keep up with you.
When a film reflects an attempt to reinstate auteurship, more often than not, it conflates “good” with “serious.” Contemporarily, Nolan might best embody that unfortunate confluence. In fact, Interstellar lacks humor to the point of having to implant a robot with humor. Like, seriously, it’s in the narrative: they program the robot to be funny. Instead of being humorous, the film gives off an air of high culture. It’s apropos that Interstellar opens on a bookshelf of classical literature. Though the shelf has narrative relevancy later in the film, Nolan’s oeuvre seems to imply that classical literature and music are for smart, elegant people, while the messy internet is suspiciously absent from this near-future. No one is Facebooking or Tweeting. In the future, people will quote a Dylan Thomas poem so often it loses any meaning it might have once had.
As annoying as all the incessant mumbo jumbo exposition is, I could deal with it if I had characters and emotional stakes to get wrapped up in. But judging by the film’s character names (Coop, Mann, Brand) it’s entirely possible Nolan forgot he wasn’t just filming a multi-million dollar math equation. However, like I stated, there is an emotional crux to Interstellar. Coop (McCounaghey) and his daughter Murph (…I know) happen upon a secret NASA station (Hey! That’s where Coop used to work!). Not by accident though, because dust fell on Murph’s floor in weird formations (that she was convinced was done by a ghost) that Coop interpreted to be in binary code. He also understood this binary code to reveal geographic coordinates. So they drove there and found a super secret NASA station.
Long story short, Coop is convinced to man a controversial but immensely important spaceship because although he’s been a retired NASA pilot-cum-farmer for years, this is the type of movie where lines like “You’re the best pilot we ever had” are delivered with a straight face. I’m guessing if we also checked Coop’s test scores, they’d totally be “off the charts.” Anyway, he has to take care of this flight for an indeterminate amount of time. This means he has to leave his children, mainly just his daughter, with their grandfather because you guessed it: Coop belongs in Nolan’s ever-growing Dead Wives Club. His absence tears Murph apart, and in turn, at the periphery of Interstellar is a facsimile of a father-daughter story. Unfortunately, due to Nolan only being interested in emotional bookends, this relationship is distilled through so many tropes it ends up looking like a Xeroxed copy of an Amblin script. And apparently, the film was initially supposed to be helmed by Spielberg, which is unsurprising given the struggling father of America’s Heartland that Interstellar opens up with.
Regarding the father-daughter subplot, there is a fascinating moment towards the end [SPOILER ALERT] when Coop is in the fifth dimension, behind the bookshelf watching Murph. He knows her future and if he could just speak to her, he could save her life. But he can’t; he’s behind a bookshelf, in another dimension. I immediately recalled an early sentiment Coop relayed to Murph about the helplessness parents feel at the expense of their children’s future (something like that…it’s a long movie). Though coded by Coop’s logistical problem –trying to save the world- this seemed like one of those perfectly poignant moments that only sci-fi has the ability to cultivate. It was a metaphor about a father’s complete inability to protect and save his daughter, the one thing Coop said he wanted to do as a parent. It was reminiscent of some of the most emotional sci-fi moments from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But then Nolan eradicates any such emotional reading by dwelling on the world’s logistics and how Coop is smart enough to figure out how to save the world for his daughter despite its opaque configuration.
Coop’s raw intelligence, fearlessness, and resourcefulness completely dominate Interstellar. Similar to a film like World War Z, Coop’s natural wherewithal makes him superior to the super smart and talented team accompanying him. The rest of the team is slowly pushed out of the story one way or another to make room for Coop’s individualistic heroics. Despite the fact that he needed the team to explain what a black hole was by folding a piece of paper in half, the film suggests that Coop’s physicality, gender, passion and ingenuity are the fabrics most fit to save our planet. Interstellar follows an unfortunate tradition in film that discards teamwork and cooperation amongst organizations and folks for the sake of uplifting one man. He is the wheat; they are the chaff. Of course, it’s also worth noting that he was the only white male on the ship who didn’t have his eyebrows perpetually furrowed.
The aforementioned 2 ½ hours of exposition lead to a weird moment where Murph ends up solving the most important equation in the history of the world that Nolan thought was fit for a 15 second montage. She is then given a lot of credit, diegetically, for her cunning efforts. However, everything Murph accomplishes in the film is merely a manifestation of Coop’s brilliance. She exists as a conduit for how great Coop is, and thereby stripped of any progressive characterization of her own. Likewise, the other important woman character (played by Anne Hathaway) is only characterized by two primary things: her speech about the transcendent nature of love (*facepalm*), and the fact that she, as OpVac editor Adam M. Miros called it, "cost them twenty years by dawdling about on Waterwold." The Nolans insinuate that she makes poor, uncalculated decisions and that her ovaries have afforded her a vocabulary to dispense about the laws of Love, while Murph can be really super smart as long as she keeps listening to what her dad tells her.
What’s maddening about Interstellar, as a whole, is how easily it reveals what I can’t stand about Nolan’s films. It is an amalgam of his problematic characterizations, tone-deaf emotional exploration, lack of humor, and self-appointed auteurism. My favorite Nolan film, The Prestige, is certainly marked by some of these qualities, but at its center it was a playful, charismatic film. But looking back, that film seems like a one-off in a catalogue saturated with a dreadful seriousness.