First things first, Christopher Nolan is not a particularly good writer. Generally working with brother Jonathan Nolan in their most archly self-important holier-than-thou register, their scripts reek of arbitrary complication and self-important puzzle-box trickery designed to bowl you over with highfalutin airs. He doesn’t have an acerbic bone in his body, and his films mask their non-personal nature by confusing better story with more story. Interstellar may be his messiest screenplay yet, shifting course every half-hour, developing certain ideas only to drop them almost completely because it saw something shiny in the distance. And then it has the gall to return to them later like they are the capper to a fully nourished, satisfying through-line when in reality they are simply shots in the dark. On paper, Interstellar is pretty terrible.
It is bittersweet then that Interstellar is also Nolan’s most visually sublime slice of sub-Kubrickian chilly awe-making yet made. Of course, he doesn’t do much with the visuals outside convey their sheer beauty (he is not, aspirations aside, Kubrick, for he could never really go down the rabbit hole of his own ego and caustic iciness to indict his viewers in the way a mad genius like Kubrick could). But even if the visuals “are” the point in a superficial, surface-level way, they serve that purpose wonderfully. A significant portion of Interstellar, in fact most of the film, exists only to show us Nolan the visual storyteller at his best, the visuals not so much revealing hidden depth in the script as they are busy being the depth all their own. It’s all deeply enigmatic, extracting meaning in empty space, but it’s also highly physical and “present”, largely because Nolan put so much effort into constructing physical environments whenever he could. I don’t want to go into detail about a good majority of them, for it would spoil some of the fun. Let’s just say the narrative structure of Interstellar is extremely episodic and almost feels intentionally structured to showcase different types of visuals, one style per location, as it cheerfully throws anything resembling narrative out the window.
The real surprise, however, is what Nolan does on earth. Without spoiling much, two of the film’s five-or-so acts take place on Earth, the second of which is absolutely the worst part of the film for reasons that have wholly to do with Nolan subsuming his visual prowess and rigor to his mechanical, stuffy, over-explained dialogue (the whole sequence, which goes on and on, does nothing else but expound on end as people talk and talk to the audience under the auspices of speaking to one another). Too many times in the latter portions of the film Nolan returns to this well, and it is always here where things play out like the lectures he usually writes where movies ought to stand.
The opening half-hour, however, is fairly amazing, slow and elegiac and presenting a lived-in side to the world Nolan hasn’t even hinted at since Memento fourteen years prior. Here, Nolan trains his camera on main character Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) day-to-day living with bone dry despair, wringing subtle beauty out of the deserted, aimless plains of the assumed Mid-West and haunting us with shocking restraint. Here, when Nolan isn’t so much interested in telling a story as showing us moments in a life, he approaches a human core like nothing else in his filmography. The best visuals in the film showcase not the heaving grandiosity of space or the amorphous hard-lines of tangible time Nolan envisions later on, but a car driving through a corn field, the beautiful pop of the greens saturated against the grimy, physical browns and grays of the world around it. The grass is the last reminder of humanity these people have left, and Nolan makes it ours too.
Within, the actors are mostly fodder for the real stars, the visuals, but they do their part to serve as cogs in a larger machine. The best performance, by far, is given by McConaughey, who shows no signs of stopping his recent winning streak or slowing down. Truth be told, it’s not much of a role, but he helps the film attain a human level, if only for fleeting moments. The other roles are there for those interested, but Nolan is not only not an actor’s director, but not a director especially interested in human characters in the first place.
Interstellar is a curious beast, hugely messy and indulgent in every possible way. If it succeeds in terms of grandeur in the broad strokes precisely because it is so messy, the specifics fall apart for the same reason. It aspires to some big names, not merely Kubrick but the only other auteur to really pull off a tone poem to space, Tarkovsky, and it fails on both accounts even as its failure bestows upon it a fascination lost to other more sedate films. Nolan’s seeming lack of concern or care about the script hurts immensely, but it’s a strangely humbling gesture for such an inhuman film, a sort of self-realization that if the script won’t work anyway, why bother with it? It’s freeing in an unexpected way, allowing Nolan to simply give us baroque beauty and be comfortable with it. I cannot wholly excuse the film, for it fails spectacularly as often as it succeeds to the same extent, shooting haphazardly and chaotically between big emotions in every possible way and with little regard for sense or form. It fails as a film but moments live with you long afterwards. That is worth something, even if the film as a whole acts against its successes viciously and unapologetically.