Interstellar: Nolan Goes Big
International film critic Wael Khairy dismantles the tendency to compare Christopher Nolan's latest blockbuster "Interstellar" to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", urging viewers to watch the film based on its own merits instead...
When a filmmaker as ambitious as Christopher Nolan decides to make a science fiction film about space exploration, people are bound to compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And while one can pinpoint where Nolan drew inspiration from the 1968 classic, the comparison is unfair, because anything less is bound to disappoint. 2001: A Space Odyssey is arguably the greatest film ever made, comparable to the works of DaVinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, and any masterpiece of art in human history. As such, pitting Interstellar against it even before its release date is bound to end badly for the film, which explains the mixed reactions it has received from audiences and critics alike.
I would go as far and argue that both films are polar opposites. While Kubrick’s film is vague and ambiguous, Nolan’s film follows a very direct storyline. The former suggests the impotence of humanity in the face of higher authority, while Nolan’s film is all about humanity conquering universes. In fact, humans seem rather small in Kubrick’s film, and some scene are downright scary, making the overall experience a divine one. In order for one to enjoy watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, the viewer has to de-programme themselves from the conventional way of watching a film, for experiencing it is more in tune with gazing at a painting or listening to a symphony. It is philosophical in nature and demands patience, whereas Interstellar is a scientific space adventure targeted to the blockbuster audience.
Kubrick’s film makes humanity seem insignificant in the vastness of space, while Nolan’s empowers human beings as potential conquerors of worlds. Both are undeniably successful at reaching what they seek as motion pictures, but make no mistake, they seek two extremely different things. I started my review with this long warning of what not to expect, because if you watch Interstellar with the expectations of witnessing the next 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ll leave the theatre fairly disappointed. Instead, I would suggest that the viewer embraces Interstellar for what it is.
Interstellar can easily be split into three acts. The first act feels like a post-apocalyptic version of Grapes of Wrath. We are pulled into a world where dust storms eclipse the sky. Farmers are the planet’s only hope, but even they can’t save the future, for crops are dying and food supplies are fading away within the thickness of dust. Nolan shoots this part of the film like it’s a documentary. Scenes are interrupted with interview-like shots of people talking directly to the audience. Here lies the film’s weakest point.
Interstellar feels like three different films have been stitched together without a definitive mise-en-scene or consistent thread linking all three parts. The first act has the look and feel of a heartwarming Great Depression picture; the second act plays like an action packed space adventure in the vein of Gravity, and the third act clearly goes for the brainy grandiosity of Kubrick’s 2001. While I enjoyed each act on its own, I would have hoped that the scenes flowed more smoothly from one act to the other.
That said, I could see what Nolan was aiming for with all three acts. The first act was all about getting to know the characters and establishing the strong father-daughter chemistry between Mathew McConaughey’s Cooper and Murph, played marvellously by both Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain in the later scenes. This act dragged a bit and the overall film would’ve felt less fragmented had it played like a prologue as opposed to an entire act. But the good news is that the film keeps getting better as it progresses.
The second act revolves around a search for an inhabitable planet, and here’s where most of the brainy scientific talk comes into play. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked with the Nolan brothers in making sure the science behind the screenplay rang true, and I must say I enjoyed watching Einstein’s theories being played out on screen. The black hole sequence is the film’s most awe-inspiring visual, and watching characters leap back and forth between the space-time continuums tickles one’s imagination.
Both McConaughey and Hathaway deliver good performances, with McConaughey occasionally stealing the scene. There are also two delightfully surprising cameos thrown into the mix, which shows how good Nolan is at keeping his cards close to his chest during filming. Hans Zimmer delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful musical score. Perhaps the score’s only flaw is its tendency to stumble over much of the dialogue.
If I had to nitpick, the weaknesses of this act would probably be the good-old generic explanatory action defect. Often filmmakers find it necessary to explain everything that happens on-screen to the audience, so we end up with characters spoon-feeding explanatory passages as the action is being played out. I can’t imagine understanding any of what was going on without hearing the mechanics and explanations behind what’s at stake, but the fact remains, it doesn’t really make any sense for the characters to speak out any of this to one another. Wouldn’t they know all this already? Who are they really talking to? The audience?
Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene revolves around a gigantic wave approaching their spacecraft. There is no denying, the scene is awe-inspiring from a visual standpoint. However, the logistics behind it is lacking. How can an ocean produce mountain-size waves from a body of water that is merely two feet deep? The depth would have to be at least twice as deep as the wave is high for this visual to make any sense. Maybe Nolan compromised logic to give his characters the ability to run, adding a bit of suspense. One could argue that it’s an extraterrestrial tidal wave and the physics behind it is beyond our understanding, but it did seem rather silly, or at least misplaced, given that the film otherwise tries to be scientifically sound.
I will refrain from going into the film’s third act, but I will say that it’s the film’s strongest point. In fact, if it weren’t for the third act, I wouldn’t have considered this to be one of the best films of the year, but it’s hard to argue against it. Interstellar ends in a way that’ll leave inconceivable images and thoughts rushing through your head. I may even go as far as calling the last hour of Interstellar the finest hour of cinema of the past few years. Without spoiling anything, I will say that Interstellar is about the passage of time in the blink of an eye. Our lives are over before we know it and we powerlessly watch the lives of others speed before our eyes. Our children grow up in no time, our parents grow old fast, and we find ourselves helplessly getting pulled into the continuously moving current of life. But the one thing that always triumphs over time and science is love.