Whatever else comes from Interstellar — a film I mostly enjoyed — it ought to erase the notion that Christopher Nolan is some kind of truly deep visionary filmmaker. With Interstellar, Nolan has attempted to make his own 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — I guess he wasn’t satisfied with referencing it in Inception (2010) — but he trips over his pop culture mindset by not trusting or pushing his audience. At best, what he comes up with is a kind of 2001 for the Literal-Minded — where everything is explained (even if the explanations are simplistic or dumbed down). Nolan isn’t content with showing us what happens; he insists on telling us what it is. The sense of wonder in Kubrick’s film is gone. Where Kubrick’s “star ride” simply offered us an evocative title — “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” — and let us figure out what we were seeing, Nolan wants to be sure we “get it,” and in so doing, completely loses the mythic, visionary, poetic quality of 2001 he was striving for. You want poetry? Nolan slaps Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” onto Interstellar — and then repeats it at alarmingly regular intervals. It is a complete misunderstanding of what makes 2001 a truly mythic creation and a great film.
And yet … Interstellar is not a bad film — just one hemmed in by Nolan’s PG-13 pop comfort zone. (Goodness knows, I’d rather see it again than Nolan’s plodding, self-serious Batman trilogy.) Oh, yes, it misses 2001 — it even misses the mythical quality of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007). But those are remarkable works that few science fiction films get anywhere near, so that’s not a disgrace in itself. I don’t even think Interstellar’s 169-minute running time works against it. (As my cocritic Justin Souther remarked, “I’ve seen 90-minute films that seemed longer.”) Nolan has at least made an intelligent, involving movie that is certainly worth seeing. It’s not like we have a surfeit of those.
In a way, Nolan has less made his own Kubrick movie than he has made a kind of Nolanesque Kubrick-Terrence-Malick mash-up. (With interview footage that might be cribbed from Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds.) That’s not altogether surprising, since the Nolan-produced Man of Steel (2013) had evocations of Malick. Nolan’s earthbound scenes — of which there may be more than are needed — play and look like Malick. His depiction of the world turned into an increasingly hostile giant dust bowl is somewhere between Dorothea Lange Depression-era photographs and Days of Heaven (1978) — while sticking to Nolan’s own (melo)dramatic sensibilities. This is not a bad thing. The atmosphere of these earthly scenes is effectively oppressive — so much so that the omnipresent dust is a palpable, choking thing.
The plot — that Earth is dying and mankind’s only hope lies in finding another habitable planet — sounds modern enough in its obvious parallels to climate change, but only the threat has changed. This is Sci-fi 101, but it’s workable. So is the idea of finding such a world by going through a wormhole — complete with simple explanation, of course. Even what happens is unfailingly interesting — if often derivative. What matters is whether or not all this is entertaining — and, from my perspective, it is immensely so. Within these confines, Nolan crafts more than a few suspenseful scenes. Even the film’s appallingly literal attempt at a star ride — complete with a lot of blather about three-dimensional representations of the fifth dimension — manages to convey the sense of enormity of what is taking place. (I’d prefer not to say too much about this.)
What is perhaps more effective — and interesting — about Interstellar is that it is the most deeply emotional film Nolan has ever made. Oh, sure, some of the film’s emotionalism is pretty corny stuff (in a film where our last remaining crop is corn, no less), but it never feels false. Even as poor old Dylan Thomas gets worked over for the umpteenth time, I fully believed that Nolan was buying into his own story — and there’s a lot to be said for that. I could go through the film and pick at what doesn’t really work — like its ambulatory, monolithic computer — but on balance more works here than doesn’t. It just doesn’t add up to the greatness Nolan seems to have wanted, which may be more a personal failure than a dramatic one. Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.