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A Gentlemen’s Discussion: Interstellar

Drew Haskins: Well, Tim, we have just seen one of the most polarizing films of the year with Christopher Nolan's Interstellar?, with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway playing astronauts tasked with saving a dying Earth. We both had rather different reactions to the film, so let's chat about it. You're a man of strong opinions. Give me your take.

Tim Campbell: I think your take on Interstellar being a polarizing film is totally accurate. I went into the movie with high expectations and was definitely a little bit disappointed. All in all, I would say Interstellar was worth watching, but I'm not sure that it lived up to the hype.

DH: I generally agree, but retrospectively I wouldn't say it disappointed me. Christopher Nolan is what we might consider a "name-brand" director these days–as in, you always know a Nolan film when you see one–and I think that Interstellar certainly fits into his established style and even genre trappings. My main quibble with the movie was its plot, which, to put it frankly, was nonsense. Interstellar, as with most Nolan films, fits into a traditional three-act structure of exposition, action and explanatory ending. I think that Interstellar is the least confusing non-Dark Knight Trilogy movie that he has ever made, but ?its plot just is not up to snuff with his other "original work." Nolan prides himself on writing his own stories and scripts, but he is not particularly adept at telling them. Conceptually, his movies always have an interesting hook–Memento with its amnesia and cyclical structure, Inception with its dream-hopping shenanigans and now Interstellar with its epic journey hampered by the relativity of time–but he has not yet been able to sustain these concepts for an entire movie. For me, the best part of Interstellar? was the middle act, as Nolan's vision of space, combined with his eye for arresting visuals, made for a truly riveting viewing experience.

??TC: I would say that I agree. Nolan's films always begin with a broad-scope vision, whether it is the ability to consciously enter other people's dreams or painting a vision of a blighted cityscape in the Dark Knight Trilogy. In both of these worlds, as in Interstellar, Nolan does a fantastic job of creating a visually striking environment that matches the tone of the story very well. Where I find that Nolan runs into trouble is when he tries to introduce "real-world" characters into these scenarios, which are, by their very nature, fantastical. I feel that in Interstellar this flaw is even more prominent than usual. Take for example Matthew McConaughey's character, Cooper, a former astronaut who was forced to become a farmer in response to disastrous depopulation in the future. For the first third of the film, Nolan takes pains to establish Cooper as a man who is both down-to-earth and self-reliant while simultaneously possessed of a scientific disposition and a myriad of hidden, high-skilled talents. Yet, in the second portion of the film, Cooper's character development is neglected completely as he is pulled into events that escape his comprehension. While each of these segments of the film may be riveting in their own way, there is no cohesiveness. This pattern repeats itself again and again throughout the movie, forcing the plot to proceed in a piecewise way and preventing a natural flow. Though he does an adequate job with creating relatable characters and an even better job of creating beautiful and compelling landscapes, Nolan should in the future try to integrate the development of the plot with that of its characters.

DH: Let's talk about the people behind those characters. Christopher Nolan is excellent at bringing out good performances in his actors, which is something that other blockbuster directors often neglect (looking at you, Michael Bay). The acting in Interstellar, which features a mix of returning Nolan collaborators and Nolan newbies, is thankfully as good as his other works. Of the returning players, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine stand out the most. Hathaway plays Dr. Amelia Brand, a seemingly all-business NASA scientist whose devotion to love threatens to sabotage the mission. She is very good in an underwritten role–she is wastefully sidetracked for the final third of the movies–and she registers the hurt, confusion and heaviness of being Earth's last hope at salvation very well. Despite the gloomy nature of the proceedings, Hathaway manages to add levity to the films with dollops of wit that briefly give the scenes on the ship some warmth. Caine is also great in a more developed part as Brand's father, the head of NASA tasked with saving the Earth from certain doom with equations and scientists. He is the most complex character in the film, and his guilt and resignation at not being able to use his massive intellect effectively shades the film nicely.

The new performers fare well, too. Besides Casey Affleck as the adult version of Cooper's son (you'd be forgiven for forgetting the film had a son–Cooper did, too) and Topher Grace as a scientist friend of Cooper's daughter Murph, everyone else makes a lasting impression. John Lithgow is perfectly stentorian as Cooper's father-in-law, and Mackenzie Foy does an admirable job as the young Murph by steering clear of the pitfalls of over-acting that plague so many other child actors. Wes Bentley and David Gyasi make wonderful use of their brief screen time as Cooper and Brand's acerbic crew, and Matt Damon might have the best role of his career thus far as an egotistical scientist marooned on an icy wasteland of a planet. Of course, the headliner of the film is the aforementioned Matthew McConaughey, who is simply excellent. Coop Cooper is not a stretch for his acting abilities, but he adds new depths to his classic "witty Western" character. There is a scene towards the middle of the film where Cooper watches a tape sent by Murph, and he breaks out into wrenching sobs tempered by pure joy at seeing his family again. It's a marvelous bit of acting, and one that cements Interstellar? as another triumph of the McConnaisance. The star of the show–and hands down the best element of the movie–is Jessica Chastain as Murph. Chastain is usually stuck playing batty screwballs like in The Help or regal ice queens like in Zero Dark Thirty, and it's no surprise that she does the best work of her career after being given a little humanity and warmth to work with. Chastain's Murph is a wonderful contradiction, beset by years of regret and hurt from her father's abandonment, yet possessed by hope for a solid future. She sticks in your mind much longer than the admittedly beautiful cinematography.

TC: Another aspect of Interstellar that's bound to stick in viewers' minds is Nolan's adventurous experimentation with hard science fiction. Many sci-fi movies these days are just action movies with unexplained futuristic technology, but Nolan clearly took pains to stay within the realm of scientific plausibility. As somewhat of a sci-fi geek, this was probably the best thing that he could have done with the movie, and the way that he addressed the topics in the movie were still approachable for less hardcore fans. The wormhole concept and playful use of gravity and relative time as a key plot device that worked both in favor of and against the protagonists gave Interstellar a great way to intellectually dazzle the audience while still demonstrating that the scientific solutions to the problems that the characters faced were based in reality. This way of approaching sci-fi allows viewers to ask questions and immerse themselves in the world that the characters are operating in, instead of distancing the movie world from our own and forcing us to suspend our disbelief. I think that this realistic approach, more than anything else, draws us into the story and universe of Interstellar, because we feel like what's happening on the screen could happen in real life, which makes the movie that much more compelling.

DH: It also helps that both the science and the fiction is rendered beautifully. Nolan has a flair for the visual, and Interstellar is no exception. We both saw this in IMAX, and I think that this is a perfect movie for the format. Nolan's vision of space is expansive and vast–he focuses more on the great nothing rather than the possibility of something–and his planets are gorgeous wildernesses. What this movie lacks visually, however, is a truly standout visual set piece. One of my favorite film moments of the century thus far is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's fight scene in the spatially warped hallway in Inception, which wows you with its fluidity and cinematic magic. Interstellar ?feels like an impressively mounted diorama by comparison. Nolan has populated this movie with good characters and fantastic images, but he neglected to build much of a movie around them.

TC: I agree completely, yet it was impressive how Nolan was able to create such striking but understandable representations of the heady concepts. And even though Nolan's ambitious goals prevented him from creating a cohesive unit, he does manage to tie things together at the end of the movie with a few well-placed messages. I, for one, rolled my eyes the first time that Anne Hathaway suggested that love might be a force that could cross the universe and time, thinking that Nolan would end Interstellar with a tear-jerking finale where love somehow manages saves the world (a message that would be a little too "John Lennon" for a hard sci-fi movie, if you ask me). Instead, Nolan presents the touching but relatively reserved idea that people are able to master their own struggles and come together through the power of love, in order to confront the otherwise insurmountable obstacles that nature presents us with. While this notion is still a little sappy, I think Nolan does a great job of not overstating it and ending on a positive and not too heavy-handed note–an ending that is definitely better than the open-ended brainteaser at the end of Inception.

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