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Interstellar (2014)

[This review is an expansion of comments I made when I gave Interstellar a four-star first-impression rating at Letterboxd.]

After I got home from seeing Interstellar — I saw it in good old-fashioned 35 mm, not in IMAX — I had mixed feelings about the movie, and decided I would jot down a few notes. About 90 minutes later, I was still writing. It’s been a long time since a movie provoked me to write so much, since a big-screen experience inspired such a rush of thoughts.

When I look back on Interstellar, that experience of wrestling with it “on paper” will be a big part of what I remember. I still have mixed feelings about the film itself — it has many strengths, many weaknesses. But I don’t mind weaknesses in a film that gets me thinking so much about so many things.

Here is a revised version of what I wrote during those hours after the show.

Interstellar_Teaser_1-ShtWarning: As with most reviews of this film, this one contains spoilers. But I will warn you before they begin. For now, you’re safe from reading any.

Another warning: As the film engages theological questions, I cannot engage those questions without expressing some of my own theological inclinations and convictions. That is to say, while my views may aggravate some readers, I am only taking Nolan up on the challenges he has posed in this film.

Here we go.

The Set-Up

Interstellar follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a pilot-turned-farmer who grieves the death of his wife (past) even as he grieves the death of a dust-plagued Planet Earth (pending). Trying to raise enough corn to keep his family — a daughter, a son, a father-in-law (John Lithgow) — alive as something called “Blight” lays waste to the world’s crops, his dedication to science causes him to brush off his daughter’s insistence on visitations from a ghost.

But when a storm reveals something truly mysterious at work in her dusty room, he’s prompted to seek answers. He ends up connecting with a team of scientists taking drastic measures to find a replacement home for humankind. Humanity, says more than one authoritative character, was born here, but never meant to stay here. The film treats this like gospel. And so Cooper is bound for flight once again (surprise), blasting off toward — and possibly through — a black hole in search of habitable worlds. His daughter is not at all happy to see him go, especially since space is known to mess with time.

Expect amazing sights of celestial bodies. Expect clashes between space travelers whose capacity for hope and optimism varies. Expect a hint of possible romance. Expect the deafening roar of deep-space calamity and Hans Zimmer’s sonorous score. But be ready for some surprisingly provocative theological inquiries, and for a substantial post-screening discussion.

11 Quick Review-ish Thoughts On the Movie’s Pros and Cons

  • I have tried. But I do not understand how Matthew McConaughey — I’ve taken to calling him “the McCon” — came to be considered an A-list actor. His forced, raspy, half-whispered delivery — he sounds as if he was raised in a school library — is like an itch I can’t scratch all the way through this thing.
  • When in the first few moments of the movie I first saw Mackenzie Foy playing Cooper’s daughter Murphy, I thought, “Wow. She looks like a young Anne Hathaway. Does that mean that Hathaway will turn out to be, through some science fiction twist, an older version of this same character? A time-traveler, perhaps? A clone? What?” I became quite preoccupied with trying to solve a riddle… a riddle that applied to absolutely nothing at all in this storyline. It’s just a coincidence. My bad. Murphy looks like Dr. Brand, Dr. Brand looks like Murphy… no reason.
  • Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who do celebrity impressions in both The Trip and The Trip to Italy, have ruined Michael Caine for me. Caine plays an ailing old scientist here, and there’s a scene — you’ll know it when it comes — that I couldn’t take seriously because I just kept imagining how Coogan and Brydon will work that scene into their next installment in The Trip series. Again, not Nolan’s fault. I see too many movies.
  • TARS, the film’s impressive robot co-star voiced by Bill Irwin, is one of the most original and impressive of all big-screen robots. I found him even more likable and interesting than Dr. Brand.
  • Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack sounds like it was recorded by placing microphones inside of a pipe organ. But, unlike the soundtrack for Gravity, Interstellar‘s “big music” never overwhelms the movie, never insists on significance that is not already clear from what’s happening onscreen. Impressive.
  • My favorite moment in the film is one that looks like it’s been snipped out of 2001: A Space Odyssey: a spaceship floating away into the cosmos to the sound of a cricket’s chirp.
  • The appearance of a major movie star late in the film caught me so off-guard that I literally laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t alone — a good number of the other viewers laughed too, incredulous. That character, played by that ever-stalwart actor — It. Did. Not. Work. For me. At. All.
  • Scenes involving the delicate, dangerous operation of docking two spaceships together, and then disconnecting them, during difficult conditions… I just kept waiting for someone to use the phrase “conscious uncoupling.” Sometimes, my familiarity with pop culture can disrupt my moviegoing experiences.
  • It creates some compelling situations, but the film rarely stops talking long enough to let us think through the dilemmas that the characters face. In that sense, like its characters with all of their unsolved mathematical equations, it never quite solves the problem of gravity.
  • There are easy jokes just waiting to be made about a film that involves four-dimensional reality, being projected in 2D, populated by characters who talk a lot about their own three dimensions, but who remain one-dimensional characters.
  • Oh, if only the film took the time to let its scenes — whether they’re focused on family or spaceships, farms or black holes — develop and breathe, this experience might have resonated much more. I’m surprised and disappointed that Nolan, such an outspoken Malick fan, seems to have absorbed so little of Malick’s appetite for beauty and wonder. Instead, every scene in the film feels edited to within an inch of its life, perhaps to keep the film from running over 3 hours. In that sense, the film contains its own review: Watching a clumsy flight maneuver, one character sarcastically remarks, “Very graceful.” “No, but very, very efficient,” says Cooper.

Some SPOILER-Laden Thoughts on Interstellar’s Main Themes and Big Questions

[From here on, I’ll consider the theological implications of the film, which involves some vaguely spoiler-ish details about what the film ends up suggesting about the cosmos.]

I’m not the first person to think that Interstellar is for Christopher Nolan what The Abyss was for James Cameron. Even more so, Interstellar is for Nolan what The Fountain was for Darren Aronofsky. (And to some degree, it’s what Signs was for M. Night Shyamalan.) That is to say… Interstellar is a film in which I sense more than a great craftsman aiming for a blockbuster — I sense something much more than that: I sense an artist vigorously wrestling with The Big Questions.

And as we cannot “in this life” definitively answer Ultimate Questions (thus, the necessity of faith), Nolan, like any artist, must reach into the realm of fantasy in order to poetically suggest or entertain answers.

For the record, The Fountain is my favorite Aronofsky film. And The Abyss is my favorite Cameron film. That should give you a sense of my feelings for Interstellar, in spite of the various nits I’ve picked.

Most of the criticisms I’ve read of this film punish Nolan for settling on what strike them as cheesy, hokey answers. To that, I say, “You try it.”

Nolan has dealt with meaningful themes before. His remake of Insomnia dealt with the haunting power of conscience. Inception didn’t work for me, but it was obviously about matters close to the artist’s heart. The Dark Knight remains Nolan’s masterpiece, IMHO: an elevation of its genre into a near-perfect fusion of ensemble work, pacing, editing, and profundity, inviting us to engage questions about power, responsibility, and trust.

But Interstellar aims highest (no pun intended) by asking questions to which we cannot know the answers. And it has the audacity, humility, and unpopular wisdom to ask — in the middle of conversations about science — “What’s Love got to do with it?”

And how can anybody go there without wading into waters that are thick with cliches? I prefer this — art containing some measure of lines and metaphors that, through frivolous use and abuse, have turned sappy and sentimental — over the alternative, which is to shy away from those questions for the sake of being tough-minded, or cool, or whatever.

David Lynch, by the way, knows this well: The saving grace of his films is that he stares into the abyss, but he refuses to settle for horrors. He insists on entertaining the ideal of transcendent love, even though he deliberately turns up the sap when he does so, as if throwing up his hands and saying, “What do you expect? I, like the rest of you, am rather ignorant on the subject of Perfect Love, so I’m left with the same feeble, insufficient vocabulary of signs and symbols that poets have been over-using and exploiting for all time!”

I admire that Nolan exercises his right to sound a little ridiculous in his attempts to play a few resonant notes. Yes, this is the most sentimental and wishy-washy of his films, but I’m grateful for it. The heavy, hard, cold ponderousness of his other films have done what they can do in highlighting the darkness. Here, he wants to give us some glimpses of hope.

And while I think he’s mistaken in believing that all hope for our future lies within our own hands, within our own ingenuity, I do resonate with his sense that love is at the heart of the answer, and that these broken cosmos are speaking to us about love. I’ve heard some say that the film comes down in favor of mere survival as the highest priority, but I think the chapter that for lack of a better term I’ll call “The Fight Scene” pushes back against that. Interstellar points us toward conscience and its conductor, Love, and in order to do so it has to take a Twilight Zone turn. That doesn’t surprise or offend me.

Not-So-Tangential Comments about Interstellar and Faith

Indulge me for a moment in a personal tangent:

For what it’s worth — I believe that the light that “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together” (h/t Obi-Wan) is not our own invention, nor is it an impersonal Force (sorry, Obi-Wan) to be captured and exploited. I believe that the heart of it all is True Love, and that True Love is not a feeling or a resource but an Entity, one that cultures have given many names throughout history. It is Someone we perceive imperfectly (“through a screen darkly”), learn from, and imitate to one another in this broken human experience. Thus, our attempts to express to one another 1) the full nature of that Other, or 2) the experience of a union with that Other — something we have yet to fully experience — are always going to come up short, sounding clumsy and insufficient. We lack the vocabulary because we have not yet fully experienced it.

Still, better to try, and come up short, than to give up or turn cynical. I reject any conclusion that leaves us gasping “The horror! The horror!”, because, as better writers have asked, “If True Love never did exist, how could we know its name?” Those who arrive at a conclusion of emptiness are looking into themselves and their insufficiency rather than outward, to that Sublime Other from whom we are separated, who suggests himself/herself to us in the experience of beauty.

We are born with eternity in our hearts. Heck, even Kermit the Frog knows enough to sing about that:
“I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that I’m supposed to be…
Someday we’ll find it…”

Peter Gabriel sings about it:
“Oh, I see the light and the heat…
Oh, I want to be that complete…
I want to touch the light, the heat I see
In Your eyes….”

Many of us put it another way in church:
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed…
Then sings my soul…

Whatever you want to call this time/space mess we’re in now, we’re leaning forward in suspicion and anticipation that we will know a redeemed world, a redeemed existence, again.

My primary argument with Nolan is this: I don’t believe that we, in our brokenness, can achieve that redemption on our own. I don’t believe it’s something we’ll find by blasting off into the cosmos in a spaceship. We’re too broken, too naive, too foolish and self-absorbed. We need more than a redeemed world — we need redeemed souls. If we find an inhabitable world out there and take ourselves there, we bringing with us the greatest threats to our existence.

No, we need to hope that redemption can be given to us, not invented by us. At our best, we inspire one another toward a fuller apprehension of the truth by reflecting it to one another imperfectly in acts of love and grace, until at last the time comes for us to surrender to, receive, and become transformed by the fullness of Grace.

As Joe Henry sings:
“We’re taught to love the worst of us
And mercy more than life,
But trust me…
Mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow.
I live for yours [or “Yours”?]…
And you can’t fail me now.”

Interstellar‘s finale is a mix of sentimental but endearing wishful thinking and, I’m grateful to say, images and ideas that resonate with what I believe, in my immature faith, to be true: We see the full Truth now through a screen darkly (and Cooper does, in the climactic scene, peer through what looked to me like a literal dark screen). The higher intelligence at work, the Other, is portrayed in a way that conflicts, to some extent, with What or Whom I believe is above and within and through all things… but I am pleased to find Nolan suggesting that there is, indeed, an Other out there, an intelligence living in fuller dimensions than we currently do; and what is more, that a meaningful connection is possible through the work of mediator, a “bridge” (to use the film’s term), who pays a heavy price to stand with a foot on both sides of that divide.

Mythology, prophecy, poetry, and storytelling throughout human history have exposed a shared intuition that a bridge between this Entity and humankind, a connecting point — a “savior,” some would say — will be (has been?) achieved by one who stands with a foot on both sides of that divide. That figure usually goes through some kind of “death,” and the returns, transformed in some way. This is true even in, yes, The Fountain and The Abyss, and it’s true here.

Nolan’s film suggests that the savior or saviors will be humankind’s brightest and best pioneers. I’m not so confident in that.

I think the gesture comes first and most fully from the other side of the divide, entering into our world embodied as one of us. The original Artist’s great work is completed in the way that that Artist redeems and reconciles all of the childish failings of his immature creation until it is all mature, ripened, revised, repaired, and ends up greater than it began. Kind of like the work of a great Gardener, whose garden would spoil itself without his firm hand, his hard work, and his reconciling vision.

But hey, each variation on this theme — in The Fountain, for example, and in Interstellar — is rewarding in how it reveals new possibilities and tests past ones to help us see what stands. I’m intrigued by, and I admire, Nolan’s proposition. How often do we encounter such ambition at the movies?

Okay, that rush of insufficient description touches on what I believe, in my heart of hearts, to be true. I’ll probably get a lashing for “preaching,” but I cannot describe what this film stirs up in me without letting you know where I’m coming from. I profess in order that I might express with conviction how much I admire the questions in this film, and how much I admire its proposed answers, in spite of the degree to which they conflict with my own intuitions, my own faith.

This is what science fiction is for: it’s a way of pushing employing what we know to push further into the realms of what we suspect — a mix of hard science and heartfelt intuition, what some call faith: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

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3 Comments

  1. Esther O'Reilly
    November 21, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    Very, very nice catch on the “through a screen darkly” moment. Now I’ll remember that when I watch the scene again.

  2. JaredK
    November 22, 2014 at 12:44 am

    Thanks for your thoughts on this one. I felt much the same way. One point I found odd was that in the climax, it was the robot who seemed to suggest the Others were some sort of divinity, while Coop maintained it to merely be advanced humans of some kind, the best and brightest. It just struck me as ironic that the character without a soul seems to hint at faith beyond himself while the human maintains faith in his own powers of innovation. So yes, I suppose I was disappointed at Nolan’s stance that we can save ourselves.

    More thoughts to share I’m sure, but it’s past my bed time.

  3. November 22, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    I think your review pretty much nails the whole movie.

    However, I personally happened to enjoy the film a lot more, even giving it a 5-star score on Letterboxd and a 10/10 on IMDB. While The Dark Knight and Inception both compete together for Nolan’s magnum opus, I can say that Interstellar is Nolan’s most heartfelt film, and maybe that’s why I was so moved by it. Either I am too easily impressed, or Interstellar really was a worthy and excellent, if flawed and sentimental, movie and one of 2014’s best.

Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.