Interstellar: A Nolan-Sized Mess

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The cast and crew’s names went across the screen in as I coaxed circulation back into my lower body. The ringing in my ears (it was a very enthusiastic IMAX setup) subsided. Only one thought passed through my mind: Nolan has done it again. Depending on who you talk to, that could mean a variety of things. It could mean that he’s made a powerful, issue-driven blockbuster. It could mean that he’s made the flat-out biggest movie of the year. It could mean that he’s blown your mind for the sixth time.

Or, if you’re the writer of this article, it could mean that he’s taken another step along a path that’s starting to look like a bit of a downward spiral.

Right after The Dark Knight came out, I was as much a Nolan fan as anybody. Even now, the streak of artistic/critical/financial successes stretching from that movie back to Memento remains a marvel.  When Insomnia is your worst movie you’re doing something very, very right.

There’s a reason, however, that the phrase “too good to be true” has taken on the status of cliche. Hot streaks go cold, and visionaries lose focus. With the (still-good and instantly meme-able) Inception, certain problems began to show up in his movies. Things felt a little more exposition-y, a little less precise and provocative. Ironically, that movie planted a seed of doubt in my mind; Nolan was heading off course.

The Dark Knight Rises fared significantly worse in the public square, because it’s a significantly worse movie. Not a terrible one, but a noticeable step down. I don’t know how many people outright dislike that movie, but it was polarizing in a way that Nolan films hadn’t been. It’s certainly a movie with considerable virtues. It’s also, to distill a long review down to three words, a huge mess.

Speaking of huge messes…


Interstellar sees Nolan’s germinating issues take full bloom. Which isn’t to say it’s a movie free of any merit at all. The sheer scope of the production is as impressive as ever, and delivered with the same sort of casual panache Nolan has displayed for almost a decade.* He’s got some serious help, especially in the music department — Zimmer took a break from writing monotonous superhero foghorns to turn in a score that’s genuinely cool.

Between those two, and some other key players, Interstellar finds a number of moments where the ideas and music and direction all manage to line up, and you can glimpse a pale reflection of the glorious movie Nolan was trying to make.

It’s just that his bad habits keep it from ever being anything more.

One such habit is thematic incoherence or mismanagement. The Dark Knight Rises suffered heavily from this issue — if you’ll recall, that’s the movie where the titular Dark Knight actually rises TWICE. The movie manages to nod at the Occupy Wall Street movement, nuclear weapons, long-held dishonesty, and basic revenge without ever really finding its voice on any of them.


Get it? It’s a voice jo– ah, nevermind.

Interstellar is similarly afflicted. It has a number of interesting things on its mind, but rarely finds the time to explore them. I suspect some will find the brief mentions of this or that idea to imply a fuller treatment than I saw. Personally, I feel he’s never had a looser grip on the ideas behind the movie he was making.

In fact, when he’s on his game, his movies unfold almost like arguments. Go back to The Dark Knight and notice how each scene seems to respond, expand upon, or comment on the factors at play in the last one. The movie pits justice against anarchy in its opening reel and spends the remainder of its runtime sorting out the consequences.

None of the themes in Interstellar ring with that level of clarity. At various points, the movie appears to be flirting with a discussion of the nature of evil, what men will do to survive, the pioneer nature of the human race, and the tension between practical and exploratory science. Oh, and “what love is.” There are thematic hints, too, of things as grand as humanity passing its torch down between generations, to things as familiar as Murphy’s Law.** Interstellar is a collection of scenes from about seven really excellent sci-fi movies.


The other major problems with The Dark Knight Rises were muddled motivations and anemic justification for key story turns. Nolan had started down this path with Inception, which movie’s biggest problem is that we never really see Cobb and Mal’s relationship enough to understand what it was that he lost. Still, Inception has other attributes that mostly cover for this shortcoming. The Dark Knight Rises was where the confusion became a full-on issue.

Mainly, it was just hard to swallow that Batman — whose determination simply could not be broken in the previous movie — starts the movie as a retiree. It’s an intriguing story concept, and you can sorta justify it if you want to, but in the end it chafes with everything we’d been led to believe about the character up to that point.

A similar lack of attention accompanies the jarring romance between Bruce Wayne and Miranda. And then there’s also that amusing scene where the big reveal of Jim Gordon’s secret is Ban reading it off a sheet of paper, with Jim Gordon watching from a distant television.

Where The Dark Knight Rises was awkward and clunky, Interstellar is simply off from the beginning.


…Uh, this isn’t what it looks like.

The first thirty minutes of Interstellar sees Nolan throwing out story points willy-nilly, barely letting a worldwide famine sink in before asking us to comprehend a little girl’s haunted bedroom. And then there are coordinates on her floor. And then NASA. Now our main character is the best pilot for a voyage he didn’t even know about two days ago. Other people constantly tell Cooper that he’s a born explorer, that he’s torn over his children, but these motivations are rarely made manifest in the actual action of the story.

Not to keep flogging this horse, but it’s an awful lot like the scene where Alfred finally tells Bruce about Rachel’s letter. I mean, there’s technically information in the movies that can justify scenes like that (i.e. we do mostly know what’s going on), but “technically” doesn’t cut it with those sorts of big reversals or payoffs.

There’s smaller stuff like this, too. I mean, I don’t even know what the deal was with grown-up Tom.


Relevant fact: Interstellar was Spielberg’s before Nolan took over. It’s an interesting bit of background knowledge, because the story seems tailor-made for the kind of stuff Spielberg is great at. The tension between the brain and the heart, the story of an absent father trying to cross through time to see his kids again… Spielberg just knows how to make those kinds of contradictory ideas sing.

Nolan, though, is a different filmmaker altogether. His best movies (The Prestige and The Dark Knight, in that order) are about the corruptible hearts of obsessed men. He’s by nature a bit cerebral and distant; the strongest emotional pulls in a Nolan movie tend to be the tragic moments. He specializes in breaking down the dark drives of obsessed men. I’ve read a piece or two that wondered if the new, more hopeful Nolan isn’t a bit of a contradiction in terms.


A friend of mine — quite accurately — noted that the sequence featuring an invisible Cooper tearfully screaming at his daughter from behind a bookcase, and ultimately guiding her to the salvation of humanity by communicating it through Morse Code via the second hand of her matching watch, is the EXACT kind of thing that Shyamalan would have been mocked for weeks over.

Except for in a Shyamalan movie, this scene would have been the entire point.



In the end, Interstellar just doesn’t add up. The movie is just lousy with cool ideas, but they don’t cohere and none of them are fully developed in that signature Nolan way. It’s a shame, honestly, because the filmmaker who was batting a thousand from 2000-2008 is a guy I’d really like to see make another movie.

I really wanted this to be the one. The movie that could bend time to bring back the Nolan who began taking the world by storm in 2005. With Interstellar, it seems like that filmmaker is trapped behind a gigantic movie screen, shouting at the top of his lungs. And I’m not sure I know what he’s saying anymore.


*And, admittedly, with the same spatial confusion that plagues other action scenes of his. I was extremely disoriented during the ocean escape sequence, and not in a good way.

**The repeated references to Murphy’s Law are a particularly orphan idea, unless the anything-goes nature of the film’s climax is meant to use the principle as its justification.

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  1. It’s strange, I’m totally in agreement about the film being a bit of a mess. And usually a story with so many tangled themes that only sorta kinda pay off would really annoy me. But somehow, because Nolan made it such an experience, I still enjoyed the movie. Though it won’t have me coming back time and again like some of his others.

    And you’re right about the music. It played a huge role, sometimes even overtaking dialogue (that I’m pretty sure we were supposed to hear).

    1. i saw it in non imax and the sound was fine. and i agree with the overall experience being great despite it being a bit messy when analyzed in detail, like the article has. the difference between something shamalyan and this, is editing and pacing. the 2.5 hours never felt dragged out and went by quite quickly. watch signs feels like a marathon with little payoff, even tho the story itself is pretty good.

      however, for the casual watcher of nolan and not unfairly comparing it to indie flick momento…it was a really great movie and although not in full depth of one theme, the ones that are portrayed do touch each person differently. and for such a big budget movie that reaches a wide audience, with astrophysics topics that would make 95% of americans go wtf….i think it did a good job at accomplishing what it set out to do:
      – space and physics is awesome
      – it’s good to be smart
      – it’s good to love
      – human condition
      – human spirit

      so there’s a lil something for everyone. maybe if nolan had a “smaller” movie where a crazy theme can be fully explored, his fans would be happy.

  2. Ok so your review has really made me question if I even want to see this in IMAX let alone in any other theater. Maybe I’ll save it for rental one day. I keep hearing that it’s not worth the price of admission and that it’s more of a “mess” than a cohesive plate of wonderfulness. Which scares me because as @j_thompson_007:disqus already made mention, I can go back and enjoy many of Nolan’s other films but if this isn’t on par with those then I might not enjoy it at all.

    I’m up for anyone convincing me to go see it – but now that I’ve got two kiddos and no time to get my wife and I away – I’ve got to be very selective with my movies. Maybe Big Hero 6 is the better way to go.

  3. (Spoilers)

    Your review certainly addresses some problems with the storytelling in the movie. I was confused by the disparate themes and the sudden setup of the plot. However, look at the astounding scope of the story – I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the long runtime of the movie, but this story is an actual epic condensed into a one-sitting movie. Inside of three hours, we get from one of the bleakest futures we’ve ever seen on film all the way to humanity moving to a new house in another galaxy. The story covers a full, exhausting day for a couple of people, a few decades for another, and a whole lifetime for everyone else. We cover faster-than-light travel, three different worlds, and a freaking beautiful black hole.

    I applaud Nolan’s movie for capturing the wonderment of the universe that it’s so difficult to get people to act on in a practical way – think of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s statement after NASA canceled the shuttle program. Here we see humanity clinging to a literally dying planet and still having no motivation to discover what other worlds might be out there, and a tiny group of scientists with the curiosity and determination to save the entirety of their mouth-breathing species.

    If anything, my criticism of the movie is that it would have been better in installments as a few movies or even a mini series. The only other recent, mainstream sci-fi property I can think of with this much scope is Mass Effect, and they used well over a hundred hours to tell their story. But would anyone have given Nolan the budget to give a sci-fi epic multiple episodes? I’m surprised they got the money to make this movie at all – what was the last big-budget sci-fi movie we got that wasn’t a preexisting property (Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, etc.)?

    I don’t want to make excuses for bad storytelling or lazy film-making, but I don’t think that’s what happened here (certainly not comparable to what happened with Prometheus, anyway). But if a director I trust is able to give me a movie about wormholes and relativity and planets orbiting a freaking black hole, I’m not going to complain to the point at which I never get that kind of movie again. Let’s not be too nit-picky when a film studio gives us something out of the box and imaginative.

  4. I think it’s Nolan’s best movie. (Let’s agree to majorly disagree).

    It’s a bit more clever than meets the eye.

    As far as I can tell Timeline 1: Cooper gets sucked in the black hole and dies. Brand goes on Edmond and starts the colonization (Plan B). Records what happened and when in details. Years and years go by and the Plan B descendants create the Tesseract to save the human race who died on Earth and also save Cooper. They can’t interface anytime earlier as to not negate their own existence. Timeline 2 is the movie you see.

  5. Great review/editorial piece. I’m tired of everyone wanting to spank Nolan off just because he knows how to edit and use effects to hold attention. His movies also make audiences “feel smart” by making things he’s told us explicitly seem like “our little secret.”

    I actually thought the Prestige was a mess too because it feels like a series of scenes without enough logic to carry from one to the next. The ending of that movie was goofy and insulting to me, too. David Bowie made it all worth it, though.


    I thought the score was bad. It telegraphs moments WAY ahead of time (like the Matt Damon “twist”—which made no sense, by the way) and is way too overbearing.

    And the sound mix WAS totally screwed up, why does Nolan do that? I’ve never seen a director that cares less about dialogue. From the last line of Prestige to Bane to this, it’s bizarre. I spent the whole movie thinking that Anne Hathaway’s character was a lesbian because I couldn’t properly hear her retort when Cooper flirts with her during the launch scene. The last bits of dialogue I couldn’t hear at all.

    And this was in Mann’s Chinese, where—we were told—Nolan himself spent a full week sitting in different parts of the theater to ensure the movie played properly. Maybe he has awful hearing. Or awesome hearing.

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