Yet because it is the work of Nolan, who has quietly become one of our more oddly divisive filmmakers, you will probably hear one of two things about Interstellar: that it is a mind-blowing act of God that cures cancer and inspires prose poetry, or that it is a total self-indulgent bust. Correction: you may hear a third, even less interesting perspective, that it has not met expectations for sweeping dominance among year-end awards, the increasingly tired rubric by which all fall movies must be scored. (It’s one thing to get this kind of gaseous prick-measuring from a blowhard like Jeff Wells; it’s another thing altogether when the Times gets in on the act.)
But what makes Interstellar interesting and noteworthy and at least a little bit great is that it’s none of those things — it’s a deeply flawed movie of expansive ideas and emotions whose reach exceeds its grasp, which is understandable, as it is grasping for a science fiction encapsulation of the agony of parenthood, the power of love, the meaning of life, and the inevitability of death. It contains more echoes than we’re accustomed to from Nolan: I caught whiffs of E.T., Alien, Contact, Moon, (obviously) 2001, and (surprisingly) Reds, but those are just the most transparent ones. As a result, it feels oddly pieced-together, less the sound of his singular voice, and that voice leans rather heavily on cliché, particularly in the opening hour (which has a bit too much of Matthew McConaughey gettin’ all misty-eyed and drawlin’ about how we’re supposedtabe explorers).
But there are interesting things happening even in that pokey first act, which is built on a simple but clever idea: what does a dystopian future, usually seen in cluttered Blade Runner-y cityscapes, look like in the heartland? And once McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and their crew launch into space, Nolan finds his footing; he seizes on the eerie quiet of their surroundings, creates stunning images (overwhelming on the big IMAX screen), and in several scenes, accomplishes something exceedingly rare in our seen-it-all cinema: a genuine sense of wonder. Meanwhile, its closing scenes are reminiscent — and look, I’m fully aware this is not a ringing endorsement for a great many viewers — of AI, where an obviously elongated conclusion ultimately arrives at a place of genuine emotion and power.
In those passages, and many others not worth spoiling here, Nolan is (forgive the schlocky shout-out to the narrative) exploring uncharted territory, and it’s thrilling to not know where he’s going, to see him taking these kinds of chances, sometimes unsteadily. He’s willing to fail here, rather spectacularly, and that openness conversely allows him a different kind of success. The phrase “points for trying” is often used dismissively, as though trying (and failing) isn’t part of an artist’s growth, as if we demand great work never lets the seams show, that makes it all seem to come naturally, that we must never see filmmakers striving for greatness and thus breaking a sweat. (You can read a lot of this between the lines of those outlying Birdman takedowns.)
Interstellar represents forward movement for a director who could very well have spent this year making another smooth, slick thriller like Inception or The Prestige or, God help us, Batman v Superman. Yet he made this instead, and it is a gorgeous, ambitious, risky, brainy piece of work. If it’s also clumsily sentimental and mildly overcooked, well, hey, points for trying.
Interstellar is out Wednesday or Friday, you figure it out.