Interstellar pushed many of the right buttons for me, primarily the big one labelled “Sense of cosmic wonder”. I was the kid who had a poster of the solar system on his bedroom wall for an embarrassingly long time; I loved anything to do with space, but I reserved a special love for space exploration, especially of the supposedly authentic kind. Sure, I wanted to fly an X-Wing, but that thought never felt as wondrous as that of NASA journeys, of the Apollo missions or the Space Shuttle. Wormholes and black holes? Accretion disks? Count me in.
That sense of wonder was definitely there when I watched Interstellar, and the film captures it well. What it captures less well, though, is human emotion – which is a problem, since for all its space age imagery the film is essentially about sentiment much more than it is about physics. It’s not the emotions themselves that are the problem; thematically, Interstellar uses its premise and setting to tell a very human story. The problem is that the Nolans are much better at telling a different kind of story – one that is conceptual, that tends to be about puzzles. At their best, the Nolan-directed and -penned films are interested in the feelings of their characters, but they don’t focus on them head on. Their protagonists are often emotionally repressed, in denial or simply unable to access or express their feelings, and the stories tend to derive poignancy from this inability. Interstellar, though, wears its heart on its sleeve. Its characters talk about their emotions, they cry quickly and freely – and while the actors are more than capable, they can’t overcome that the words they’ve been given are often clumsy, overly explicit, explaining things too much. The worst scene in this respect has a teary-eyed Anne Hathaway trying to impress on her fellow astronauts that love is a force transcending space and time. Done differently, written better and allowing for some ambiguity, this could work, but in the film it feels like a NASA-themed Hallmark card. Those moments very much suggest that when it comes to the Nolans’ dialogue, quite literally, the less said, the better.
It is this tendency to overexplain, to make things too literal, that hobbles some of Interstellar‘s central scenes as much as its clumsy handling of emotion. Late in the film, the story bends causality back on itself in a classically sci-fi way, but where Christopher Nolan often finds striking images for settings and situations, here they turn faintly ludicrous, and they fire rockets full throttle into silliness the more the protagonists explain what is happening. All fiction, including speculative fiction, engages in some narrative handwaving, leaving gaps with respect to what is happening or how precisely it is happening, because the exact mechanics are irrelevant to what the story is about. Interstellar, however, tangles itself up in knots by trying to fill in the blanks, when it should well have left alone. Trying to elaborate on what is happening, the expository dialogue is hamfistedly literal, drawing attention to what is arguably least important, and raising questions about its feasibility that shouldn’t come up in the first place. (One can only imagine a Nolan-penned 2001: A Space Odyssey, giving the Monolith a -logue to explain to Dave Bowman what the last 20 minutes meant.)
When I first saw the Interstellar trailer, I was intrigued, but I was equally worried that this would be Nolan’s Contact, an intriguing sci-fi tale that takes a turn for the sentimental: daddy issues in space. It isn’t quite that bad, and there’s a lot to like about the film. It is ambitious, it is often beautiful, and Matthew McConaughey has vastly improved as an actor since the giddy days of 1997. Interstellar is a compelling illustration of both the strengths and the limitations of Nolan’s filmmaking, though, and it is frustrating in how it could have been a better, more subtle and more convincing film. This isn’t a complaint along the lines of “Waiter, there’s some sentiment in my sci-fi soup!” I don’t think that hard sci-fi, or any sci-fi, needs to lose the human element. What it does need, though, is a human element that’s done with the same skill as the visual effects. Interstellar excels at showing us the surfaces of alien worlds, but its telescope is flawed when pointed at the human heart.