Politics & Policy

Interstellar: To Insipidness and Beyond

Christopher Nolan crashes and burns, but the Hawking biopic Theory of Everything takes off.

The movie year has now peaked — but not with Interstellar. It’s the back-to-back openings of masterpieces by Alain Resnais (Life of Riley) and Jean-Luc Godard (Goodbye to Language) that outclass all other new films. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is just a dull, galumphing white elephant that reminds us what a trap commercial cinema has become for gullible consumers. It’s a pre-sold “Event,” the kind audiences no longer question because all media obediently participate in its promotion.

Not a visionary, Nolan plays one at the movies: He knows how to game the system. Since his sub-Resnais time-tricks in 1998’s Memento, Nolan (co-writing with his brother Jonathan) has aced Hollywood’s geek appeal. These British boys still share adolescent sci-fi fantasies but inflate them with “deep thoughts” (read that the way Frankie Pentangeli says “Big deals!” in The Godfather, Part II): Farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his Midwestern family struggle during an apocalyptic dust storm, but he can’t shake his astronaut past and stumbles upon a secret NASA project (the Lazarus Mission) to explore other planets in order to escape Earth’s ecological crisis.

This hackneyed conceit proves the Nolan brothers perfect drones in a wasteful industry devoted to recycling already familiar concepts — whether comic-book superheroes or space travel — that the Nolans taint with juvenile cynicism. From the all-American nickname Coop, a widower with two kids chasing military aircraft through a cornfield, to speculation about ghosts that shifts into a two-year space mission towards Saturn with a talking computer alongside, Nolan piles up clichés like no director since the now unpopular M. Night Shyamalan. (The real template for Interstellar is not 2001: A Space Odyssey but Signs.) To recycle that old rock-critic syllogism: If I don’t need Shyamalan teaching me how to enjoy Spielberg why should I let Nolan teach me how to watch Shyamalan?

Nolan’s a depressive Shyamalan who traffics in doomsday scenarios, catering to Millennial pessimists. “Isn’t science about admitting what we don’t know?” Coop’s daughter asks, but Interstellar lacks awe. Nolan’s imagination is so cramped he can’t depict natural American vastness comparable to Albert Whitlock’s memorable F/X dust storm in Bound for Glory. He opens with a Reds-style old-folks doc to evoke senility and Depression-era gloom, eventually leading to a cosmic odyssey of murder, death, anguish, and pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. Dark Knights in Orbit. There’s no spiritual quest; it all lacks edifying, Christian love. Interstellar’s first cosmic image of the Earth as orb is accompanied by a pointless Hans Zimmer organ chord, but it’s visually unimpressive — Nolan doesn’t know how to do majestic. Unlike Godard, Resnais, Spielberg, or Kubrick, he doesn’t have a cinematic eye.

Nolan sure is a nihilist, though. His scenario, “The last people to starve will be first to suffocate,” offers typically dire teenage imagining. The closest he gets to religion is when Coop rescues a stranded astronaut (uh, oh, Matt Damon — prepare for secular point-making). Damon’s Astronaut Mann enthuses, “You have literally raised me from the dead.” Insightful Coop responds: “Lazurus.” Not really, guys. This weak pass at Significance goes nowhere. Mann’s real, contradictory purpose is his murderous proclamation: “We are the future!” (Read that also like Frankie Pentangeli saying “Big Deals!”) This mad pronouncement reverses Man of Steel’s Jor-El story and trades its Moses/Christ evocation for Dark Knight nihilism.

Nihilism has become a mere box-office reflex for Nolan — a joke that finally undermines Interstellar when Nolan goes soft (“Love transcends dimensions of time and space,” self-pitying Coop learns). Confused? It was evident from the Dark Knight films that Nolan had no clear idea what he wanted to say; now he just gets maudlin. This sap must be nihilism’s flip side; an equally vacuous, corrupt manipulation. And what has moved critics to Titanic/Avatar levels of hyperbole is that Nolan’s loud, flat, gigantic apparatus revives yuppie privilege: “When you’re a parent, you’re a ghost for your children’s future.”

Interstellar never explores colonization, good vs. evil, or metaphysics — not even when Coop gives a watch to his petulant daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy); she tosses the memento in anger, not faith like the rejection of Time in Borzage’s great spiritual tearjerker Three Comrades. Nolan’s parent-child premise becomes a Benjamin Button farce (with Ellen Burstyn reprising her cameo as old Murph from the seniors doc at another point in the film). It lacks the cross-generational, cross-time resonance of that good Jim Caveziel–Dennis Quaid film, Frequency. Brian DePalma’s outward-looking cosmos-politan affirmation in Mission to Mars gets refuted by Nolan’s nuclear-family solipsism. And at the crucial juncture when adult Murph’s (Jessica Chastain) last-ditch efforts to save her family are contrasted with Coop’s, Nolan forgets to intercut the two stories, dragging out another hour. So long panache, adios to “genius.”

Critics who follow weak praise for Goodbye to Language with hosannas for Interstellar are disingenuous. You can’t celebrate Godard’s rigorous, ecstatic examination of art and morality and then lead audiences to Nolan’s trite, overblown, unbeautiful, and non-resonant epic. One’s for movie-lovers, the other’s for sheep. When Godard says goodbye to language, the culture represented by Interstellar is what he means.

***

How will Nolanoids, who think Interstellar’s mix of scientific babble and saccharine is “thought-provoking,” handle The Theory of Everything? This Stephen Hawking bio-pic, where the astrophysicist’s motor neuron disease is battled through help from his wife Jane, believably confronts science and faith. Cambridge cosmology student Hawking calls his study “religion for atheists” while arts major Jane is a Church of England devout.

The couple’s emotional affinities overcome philosophical differences and practical hardships more frightening than geeky “apocalypse,” a spectacle without digital effects. It succeeds through the performers’ tasteful, impressive skills. Eddie Redmayne’s boyish suffering is a DeNiro/Day-Lewis-level feat but with a flirty squint all his and Hawking’s own. Felicity Jones’s commitment is gently intense, like a comely young Celia Johnson with depths (anger, ardency) behind her eyes. Her faith is strength despite being given short shrift by Anthony McCarten’s script. But romantic and religious fervor combine, which director James Marsh keeps on track — without going on sci-fi-blockbuster tangents to insipidness and beyond. The Theory of Everything (from Hawking’s quest to find a “simple, eloquent equation to explain everything”) is good enough to encourage Nolanoids to grow up.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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