Christopher Nolan is reported to have first seen Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” when he was seven years old. The experience was impactful, as Nolan then began to shoot films using his father’s Super 8 camera. By the age of eleven, he had determined to be a professional filmmaker.
It would be easy to conclude that Kubrick has been a heavy influence on Nolan’s career. As visionary as Kubrick was in his day, so has Nolan been in his. Beginning with “Memento” in 2000, Nolan has directed (and often written or co-written) a succession of provocative and critically-acclaimed films that have often pushed the envelope in terms of what movies can be.
In “Memento,” Nolan focused on a character who suffered from anterograde amnesia. To give the audience a sense of what this malady would be like (the victim cannot remember anything that has just happened), the film presents the character’s story in reverse chronology, leaving the audience as mystified by the events that are depicted as the central character would presumably be.
The film was a huge success, both artistically and commercially, and Nolan followed it with a succession of equally admirable, if not quite so mind-bending, efforts that culminated several years ago with “Inception,” a masterpiece that played with the idea of dreams as alternate realities and that left audiences guessing as to what really happened in the film’s climactic scene.
Nolan’s film-making career to date, now well into its second decade (he is 44 years old), has led many to view news of his latest effort with the same kind of excitement that greeted Kubrick’s releases (few and far between though they became). Thus, when news came out that he was working on a sci-fi project that could be this generation’s “2001,” movie buffs and critics prepared themselves for another momentous event in the history of cinema.
“Interstellar” does bear some similarities to Kubrick’s masterpiece, but they are not of the kind that suggest this film will rank as the most noteworthy of Nolan’s career. In fact, on many levels, the film is a disappointment, notwithstanding the obvious serious intent and purposeful effort Nolan took in making it.
(Spoiler alert: In what follows, I will be discussing details of the film that would spoil the first-viewing experience for many.)
One comparison that could be made between the two films is that both are arguably longer than they need to be. “2001” was deemed overly long when it debuted despite the fact that it was released with a built-in intermission (in those days, blockbuster films often had intermissions, especially when they were shown in reserved-seat theaters) and only ran for two hours and eighteen minutes. But it contained long stretches of balletic scenes that involved nothing more than a space craft docking to a space station (to the languid music of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”).
Nolan’s film is longer than Kubrick’s (by 30 minutes), but where the extra minutes in “2001” are mood-setting (and could be considered essential), some of the bulk in Nolan’s film is just excess. In particular, the opening segment that gets the Matthew McConaughey character to the hidden NASA headquarters seems completely unnecessary, if not confusing, since his arrival was apparently expected or at least desired by the agency’s leaders. And the entire sequence that is built around the Matt Damon character seemed, to me at least, entirely unnecessary to the storyline and the theme of the film.
That complaint aside, it is no doubt true that both films explore the unknown in terms of space-time travel and things like black holes and wormholes. But where “2001” used those concepts to project a philosophical vision, in “Interstellar” they are merely plot devices that create no small amount of dramatic impact, to be sure, but that also lead to some confusing resolutions as well.
How, for example, (big spoiler alert here) does the McConaughey character get back to the new planet (no longer planet Earth) on which humanity has re-established its population? The science behind this “return” is never explained, nor is it particularly plausible.
Of course, much the same can be said of the Keir Dullea character’s “trip” into the “Beyond the Infinite” in Kubrick’s film, but his travel is much more metaphysically based and much less dependent on astro-physics or theories of relativity. In fact, of all the criticisms of Kubrick’s movie, few attack the last act, since by then it is obvious that the science fiction aspect of the film is merely the vehicle for Kubrick’s metaphysical “message,” if such it was.
And that difference is everything in comparing the two films. Where Kubrick sought to suggest (if not embrace) a Nietzschian view of humanity’s destiny, Nolan appears content to wrap his tale up in a homage to love and family ties, which are undoubtedly crowd-pleasing sentiments, but hardly the stuff of ground-breaking cinema.
Where Nolan does succeed immeasurably in “Interstellar,” as might be expected, is in the craft of film-making. His film is visually appealing and dramatically engrossing. Just contemplating a futuristic planet Earth on the verge of extinction is enough to stir the interest of most viewers, and the thought that new worlds might be populated to save the human race is certainly an intriguing, if oft explored, concept for true sci-fi buffs.
And in both the McConaughey and Anne Hathaway characters, Nolan creates people who are believable and heroic, necessities in a film that depicts humans struggling to secure not just their own survival but that of the entire species.
So “Interstellar” doesn’t lack for a grand theme, and it certainly delivers as a sci-fi thriller. Whether the neatly wrapped-up ending will be as satisfying to critics, however, as it is likely to be to mass audiences is problematic. And whether mass audiences will endure the almost three-hour film with the patience that it requires may be more problematic still.
I expect that “Interstellar” will make some money, but nothing close to what “Inception” did, and that it will secure a few Oscar nominations in the technical categories but will fall short of any major awards.
Then again, that was also the fate of “2001.”