Christopher Nolan has serious issues with gravity. In both senses of the word, gravity is the unifying force that holds together the dark universe of the caps-intentional Christopher Nolan Blockbuster, damning and defining his films in equal measure. For Nolan, gravity as a scientific phenomenon exists on-screen to be wondrously defied, or–at the very least–warped to the formidable will of his visual imagination. His worlds feature summersaulting container trucks, cities bending backwards like book pages paused mid-turn, characters floating weightlessly down a hotel hallway in a stranger’s dream. You see these things that can’t happen happen; you know you’re watching a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s potentially his single greatest strength as a filmmaker: an ability to make his audience question the givens of the genre, to reclassify filmmaking walls as doors. That’s how gravity positively impacts him as a filmmaker. At the same time, emotional gravity, defined by “extreme or alarming importance; seriousness,” is sans rival Nolan’s biggest, infinitely recurring flaw as a director. Nolan routinely fills the spaces between his technical wizardry with landfill-sized dumps of exposition, platitudinous dialogue, characters of painfully linear roundness. Far too often his films form a type of subtlety black hole, an all-consuming negative space from which seemingly nothing can escape. It’s a real problem.
Interstellar, the director’s newest, most enjoyably uneven work, does everything a Christopher Nolan Blockbuster expectedly should and shouldn’t do. The visuals stun while the editing confounds. Characters will momentarily reveal an untapped depth, then vomit an endless deluge of exposition for ten minutes. The multidimensionality of the world seems to depend on the one-dimensionality of its inhabitants. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is torn between saving the human race and being there for his daughter, the end. His daughter is angry at her father for leaving her, the end. Anne Hathaway is a (miraculously not annoying!) scientist, the end. Entire sections of this movie are hatchet-to-the-frontal-lobe dumb. If you don’t roll your eyes, check your vitals. But unlike the emptily clever Inception or the abominable The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar strikes a far preferable balance between the should and shouldn’t polarities of a Christopher Nolan Blockbuster. There is more, if not enough, of much-needed humor. At times, the script seems halfway aware of its own ridiculousness. It’s not exactly Olive Kitteridge in terms of subtly, but it’s maybe as close as Christopher Nolan is capable of being.
A lot of this is due to the most nuanced, self-aware character in any of Nolan’s films, the monolithic robot named TARS. In a not-hard-to-arrive-at alternate reading of Interstellar, TARS is the movie’s clear hero, a charming, dependable leader able to adapt to any situation in order to save the lives of the hapless humans who frustratingly surround him. TARS is a remarkable feat of character building (its levels of honesty and sarcasm are literally preset), it’s a demonstration of how intelligent writing can con an audience into investing where it wouldn’t otherwise. TARS looks like a frozen block of tofu, its only face is a screen of scrolling text, but its separation from Cooper and his crew is an event boasting tenfold the emotional impact than that of Cooper leaving his daughter Murphy. Christopher Nolan has built his career on showing us stuff no other director has before. The trick he pulls off with TARS is something audiences have seen before, from Lost in Space to Short Circuit to WALL-E, but it’s a trick we’ve never seen from him before. That makes it doubly surprising, and redeeming.
The final third of the film appropriately concerns itself with solving an equation that will allow humans to transcend gravity, to escape the doom this planet promises. The sequences that result are as visually and conceptually out-there as anything in 2001 or The Tree of Life, and their contents won’t be revealed in this blog post. Their alarming, wonderful weirdness should be viewed without preparation. After the past two entries in the Christopher Nolan Blockbuster canon, there wasn’t much reason to be excited about Interstellar. It would, and does, present the same joys and frustrations of his previous work, yet this time around the joys keenly outweigh the frustrations. Nolan is still far, far away from solving the equation for gravity, but he is closer than he has ever been before. Realizing the infinite possibility of his films may actually be a possibility. Here’s to hoping his next film is a little more intense about being less serious.
Final Strawberry Verdict: 4 Strawberries out of 5