Heavyweight Champions of 2014: Interstellar

Space exploration is probably one of the most fascinating human concerns in our times, since it says so much about the idealized human spirit that we constantly chase as a […]

Space exploration is probably one of the most fascinating human concerns in our times, since it says so much about the idealized human spirit that we constantly chase as a society. We’re Survivors, We’re Craftsmen, We’re Heroes, bound not to this Earth but to this universe, and whose dreams are equal to our reach as well as our thirst for knowledge. Or some other philosophical wax.

I have personally always found it fascinating because it’s easy to link it up to another narrative that involves the re-examination of our collective and individual identities: the immigrant story. Much like in immigrant stories, the travelers are people who are searching for better lives and a place where they can finally let go of the emotional baggage that has haunted them in their previous lives, either due to their culture or due to their mistakes (sometimes and most often, both) It is in space, then, that most sci-fi storytellers decide to test and examine how much we’re bound to these concepts of countries, borders, cultures and “home”. And most importantly, the ones that compel me go a long way towards liberating or stripping these characters of these in order to reach a raw, naked emotional truth.

It is perhaps fitting then, that the break into Act 2 for Interstellar is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) driving on a dusty road, leaving his family behind. But unlike several other immigrants who look for a blank slate and hope to reforge themselves in new land, Cooper is the other kind of immigrant. The father who leaves his family not to abandon them but to find a home for them. Not just any home, but a home that treats them in the way he wishes they could be treated even when he’s gone.

Interstellar’s preoccupations as a film are not directly related to these ideas, but they are certainly there. In fact, the one big flaw about Interstellar is that it’s about Too Many Things. It’s about love, it’s about space, it’s about us, it’s about our future, it’s about our resilience, it’s about our desperation and so on. But Interstellar’s ambition is exactly what makes it so darn engaging in the first place. Christopher Nolan has always been an overreaching director/writer. The sort of artist whose work often aims much higher than he’s actually capable to reach and it’s fitting that the one outing where his strain shows is the one that reaches into the darkest depth of outer space.

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In Interstellar, Cooper is a modern Odysseus. A journeyman bound to the farthest reaches of space as well as bound to his family and home. I said about McConaughey in True Detective that his work on that show will probably the highlight of his career. I spoke too soon. McConaughey manages to achieve the impossible at times, and ground a movie that constantly soars to sometimes intolerable heights with nothing but his down-to-earth charisma and a resilience that represents the best of us. While it is perhaps a bit sad that Nolan has chosen a White Man to be the representative of the human spirit at its finest, McConaughey manages to make that decision palatable. Hathaway and Chastain also go a long way towards selling material that often denigrates or simplifies their characters, who clearly deserve more. On lesser hands, the infamous love speech, which suggests that Hathaway’s character genuinely believes in love as a quantifiable scientific force would come across as utterly phony. Same could be said of Chastain’s video letter to Cooper after years of looking at the stars and hoping for her return. But Hathaway and Chastain manage to humanize those somewhat archetypal approaches to female characters and find the beating heart inside of them.

Sadly, for a film so nakedly emotional and so daringly sincere, Interstellar can make the actual human interactions a bit too bland and hard to buy at face value. At times, Interstellar goes on one too many tangents that are simply hard to engage with and where the roots of outright cynicism start to show. “Episodes” (much like 2001, Interstellar has a deliberately fragmented structure) like the Mann planet are a bit too overtly long and the dramatic points they make feel hollow considering how much the film invests on them in terms of time. That doesn’t even take into account that its penultimate episode is so overwrought and repetitive it’s hard to not wish there was a fast forward button.

But unlike most boring movies, Interstellar’s incapability of being exciting all the way through is not caused by mediocrity or a lack of care but by the direct opposite. The Nolan brothers have clearly invested their heart and soul into this story. And at times, their tone-deafness when it comes to human behavior can come through harder than anything else in the film or their career. But at the core of the movie there’s a deep-seated love for this human behavior the movie constantly struggles to depict in a perfectly natural way that overrides the film’s weaknesses to my mind.

To Interstellar, space exploration represents hope and those who pursue it are better just by virtue of being hopeful human beings. While I thought the movie was a bit too derisive of people who didn’t believe in space exploration as the key to human survival, I found its core idea of daring to dream and hope in a world that has seen ultimate despair to be incredibly inspiring. Very few films this year dared to be so outright believing in the human spirit. And while I welcomed this new wave of cynicism as it was quite pertaining to an increasingly nightmarish 2014, Interstellar was a stunning breath of fresh air. Not just because of its stunning idealism inside the work itself, but because of the Nolans determination to create something truly theirs. I don’t think this movie will raise the next generation of space explorers by any means, but it certainly will raise a generation of daring filmmakers who have the courage of pointing the camera to places and objects we couldn’t possibly dream into being in our lucky days, I hope.

I’ve often said that bad movies have much more in common with good movies than mediocre movies. The most fascinating bad movies are often films imbued with passion but with an inability to properly express themselves, whereas most mediocre movies are lacking in passion but thoroughly effusive in self-expression to the point of exasperation. While I wouldn’t call Interstellar a bad movie, I would certainly go as far as saying that it has more in common with bad movies than most good movies do and not only that, but that its flaws come from the fact that it’s an intensely human film. It is as incoherent as the drunk man resting by the bar’s exit, as incorrigible as the smug creative writing major at the front of the class, as corny as your Kansas-born stepfather  – and perhaps, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece.