Insterstellar holds together reasonably well as a film about people. A father is called to leave his daughter, and then tries to fight his way back to her; he is driven to travel to the edges of known space, and through time — through time — by his desire to save her or find her or both.
The setpieces are spectacular but the story never lingers on them for more than a few moments. Each ship or planet or weird space-time topology is just obstacle to be dealt with and forgotten about. This isn’t always obvious as you’re watching the film, just how small its story is, because everything on the screen in front of you is so loud and huge. The roaring and blasting and infinite vistas have the helpful effect of making all the foreshadowing and exposition, which would come across as dumb and blunt in a smaller/quieter/slower film, mostly tolerable. (Do not wait to watch this movie on the back of an airplane seat! Also if you haven’t seen it yet I guess stop reading, spoiler alert, etc. Try to find an IMAX screen.)
This is a film in which nothing is left to subtext. A character, at one point, says: “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” In an interview, Christopher Nolan’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, who helped write the script, said:
The film is about parents and their children. When I started writing it, I didn’t have any kids. Now I have a little girl who is a year old, so watching the film is a completely different emotional experience for me.
This is a film that tells you what it’s about, again and again. And it’s not about space.
This makes for a cohesive story but a strange piece of science fiction. The first third is dedicated to introducing characters, setting a grim mood, and establishing a backdrop of theoretical physics — which is fun, a little like reading or watchign Cosmos for the first time. Characters explain space-time and scribble diagrams and fold papers and convey, generally, the idea that the universe is big and weird and poorly understood, but that we’re finally beginning to understand what we don’t understand, where these gaps are, and what types of things we might find in them.
The middle third — by far the most entertaining — puts the explanatory groundwork of the first to use. It’s like a dozen disconnected chapters from different Arthur C. Clarke books rolled into one hour, with ships skipping off the cusps of black holes, first-contact scenes on weird and inexplicable planets, ambiguously conscious robots, Hard Decisions based on Limited Resources, and variable time scales. For a sci-fi fan this is pure candy — it’s just trope after classic trope rendered, in no particular order and at great expense, by an extremely competent technical filmmaker.
Which is why the third act is so jarring, when the movie suddenly narrows its focus back to its father-daughter story. The problem is that, by then, Nolan has set up actual physical mysteries — crude representations of real questions from the frontiers of physics — as problems that must be dealt with in the service of a human narrative. For Inception, which is structurally similar, this is fine: Nolan introduces a new fictional universe, with its own set of laws, and tells a story within it. In Interstellar, he borrows his universe from popular theoretical physics, and attempts to use its laws as a rigid narrative framework. These “laws,” however, are sparse and confusing weird and contradictory; they point in no particular direction and have no motives or purpose. They’re difficult to conceive of and even more difficult to deploy. They’re ragged and fascinating and vexing and, for Nolan’s tight and twisty storytelling, kind of useless.
It’s an abrupt turn for viewers, who spend most of the film watching characters deal with the reality of a cosmos that is much bigger than they are, and which fundamentally does not care, but who then watch this semi-fictional universe, in all its mysterious vastness, realign around the relationship between a couple humans from Earth. Interstellar suggests a science-fiction god of the gaps: That all these seemingly unknowable features of time and space and the universe are actually just expressions of humanity writ large; that if only we could look inside ourselves, we could fold all those dimensions together into a feeling. Which kind of… sucks? I think so! It’s such a weird, surrendering Ptolemaic turn. Why are we here? For us. Where are we? We are with us! Who are we? We are us.
Nolan has a tendency not to tell stories so much as resolve them. Insterstellar solves its own story, and in the process, solves the entirety of all things. It’s a movie about exploration and uncertainty and space and great distances with a suspiciously deficient sense of wonder; it’s exhilarating and full of ideas, but it doesn’t let those ideas bounce around in your head for very long. Nolan demanded that his fictional universe be both familiar and realistic and yet complete, and in the process made infinity feel claustrophobic.
Anyway, half-related: If Interstellar does well, and suddenly there’s more money for big huge space stories, here’s a show I would like to see. The world is ending, something about plants and blight and dust and fire. A bunch of ships set out to find new worlds, I guess there’s a wormhole, who cares — basically, the first hour of Interstellar could be the pilot. Then just explore. Spend some time on the water planet, on the ice planet, on the desert planet, on the rock planet, on the storm planet, on the slick boring sphere planet. (No aliens! Thanks.) Give the characters some time to live in these enormous setpieces. A first contact every episode, or even every season. Bring lots of robots (Interstellar’s TARS and CASE are excellent). Let the stories unfold there, with the mysteries of the universe as a backdrop. Let the people be people and let the cold uncaring infinity remain their eternal enemy. I would watch that!