When Christopher Nolan isn’t busy making super serious flicks about glum spandex bros, he can be seen leading the fight to make Hollywood a more intelligent place. As the director of Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige,and Inception, Nolan has an unparalleled track record among big-name directors for films that fully commit to their mind-bending premises while going light on sentimentality. The Prestige had several love stories and a sharp dramatic edge, but the film never stopped being about obsession. Inception had a hokey bit about Leo wanting to be reunited with his kids, but the most resonant emotional scenes revolved around his loosening grip on reality. Some have claimed this is evidence of Nolan’s inability to effectively convey human drama, but I say he’s always had his storytelling priorities straight. Look at it this way: Would you rather hear a story about a magician whose wife died, or identical twin conmen and dozens of drowned clones? A guy who misses his kid, or a dream criminal?
It’s in this light that the mostly good, would-be epic Interstellar is a bit of a letdown, albeit one that’s still worth watching. The film follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former engineer living in a nonspecific near future where the planet is on the verge of environmental and intellectual collapse. Cooper must lead an expedition through a mysterious wormhole, where the key to humanity’s survival may or may not be found. From there, the fun with spacetime, gravity, and relativity begins.
With renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on board as an executive producer and technical advisor, much has been made of the scientifically accurate effects of relativity in Interstellar. The film succeeds when it follows the path of hard sci-fi, as in several scenes in which the source of dramatic tension stems from a character’s misunderstanding or misapplication of a real scientific principle or the unanticipated psychological toll of experiencing new physical phenomenon, and it looks exceptional in the process.
Which makes it rather curious when this film goes out of its way to tout scientific fidelity only to double back on itself and its whole thesis to say, “Actually, sometimes science doesn’t matter because of love.” That’s not an exaggeration or a side plot; several conversations that start as discussions about the tactical use of resources or how to negotiate the effects of relativity on perceived time suddenly shift gears to be about the scientific value of love. Nolan went through the trouble of crafting a story that would allow him to go stylistically and scientifically wild with all of the immense, unexplained powers of the universe, only to uncharacteristically channel the tension into broad sentiment as the film barrels along toward an unsatisfying conclusion.
Fans of science fiction who have seen both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine won’t find new experiences or mindfucks, and the 169-minute running time will not feel relatively short to your bladder. But overall, Interstellar is a reasonably enjoyable experience, even as it strains the edges of Nolan’s comfort zone.
INTERSTELLAR | RATED PG-13 | IN THEATERS ON 35MM AT BOSTON COMMON, SOMERVILLE THEATRE, AND DEDHAM NOW. WIDE DIGITAL RELEASE FRIDAY.
BONUS FEATURES: STREAMS
Though no film dealing with time travel could ever claim to be scientifically accurate, writer-director-costar Shane Carruth’s delightful brain befuddling Primer is partially based in genuine theoretical physics, with a keen understanding of how scientific breakthroughs actually happen. There are no mysterious vials, no groups of men in lab coats huddled around a supercomputer, just engineers in work shirts tinkering in a garage with forces they can’t possibly imagine. The two accomplished scientists, who are not altogether decent human beings, exploit their newfound discovery against the stock market, against those they love, and then finally against each other.
In much the same way that Peter Jackson’s early splatter films are full of visual clues to the style he would later develop, elements of Christopher Nolan’s knack for atmosphere that made two out of three of his Dark Knight films so terrific can be found in his feature debut, Following. Though lean in practically every way—a mere 70 minutes, filmed on cheap 16mm with minimal retakes and heavy use of natural and available light, and funded with Nolan’s own money—Following is an effective exercise in neo-noir that’ll help you remember that even the most famous filmmakers had to start somewhere.