Watching Interstellar For All The Wrong Reasons

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What I’ve found is, people who let my films wash over them – who don’t treat it like a crossword puzzle, or like there is a test afterwards – they get the most out of the film.

– Christopher Nolan

Many reviews insist that Interstellar is flawed or nothing special. Other reviews gush with high praise. So which is it? Like any film, I really think it depends on why you are going to see it and what your expectations are going in.

Interstellar is deliberately open-ended. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have important themes or story ideas, but I believe that Interstellar belongs firmly in that special Christopher Nolan category of movies intended to make you think long after they are done. This is appealing to many and irritating to others.

But instead of seeing the film as a puzzle or a mystery, first and foremost this is movie to be experienced. There may not be one right way to to interpret the movie, but there are plenty of wrong ones. (And that includes watching the movie in order to prove you are smarter than Christopher Nolan.)

I find Interstellar to be a deeply cinematic experience. It is big, not just in terms of action and scenery, but in terms of heart. It is not another entry in the next franchise but a single authorial idea presented from beginning to end on the largest possible canvas. As an original sci fi property based in theoretical physics with no discernible action hero, this is a film that shouldn’t exist in today’s market, yet one that has somehow willed its way into existence.

Instead of reflexively arguing that Nolan’s newest film is overrated and doesn’t live up to its lofty potential, we should instead be celebrating what is in essence an ambitious achievement in a struggling genre. Look at the domestic box office receipts for Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, and Pacific Rim and you’ll see the financial peril of making a $170 million non-franchise non-superhero film in this day and age. 

Of course from a purely analytical point of view, the film could never live up to our grandest expectations. When audiences and critics have already seen every iteration of space travel on scren, I can’t think of a film that could. Movies are about seeing and believing, but if you aren’t impressed visually and don’t believe in the story being told, then I’m not sure you should be taking the risk in the first place. Analysis, commentary, and criticism follow after the experience, not the other way around.

Interstellar is certainly easy to criticize. Popular topics include underdeveloped characters, a long running time, the unconventional sound design, scientific accuracy, and unnatural dialogue. Trust me, you don’t need to fill me in in the comments section. Whatever people think about these things, I’m more concerned that we engage with the actual movie because where it exceeds, it does so with tremendous precision and gusto.

Interstellar is big and small, vast and tiny, coldly distant and bursting with warmth, a place where our physical laws crumble and ghosts can inhabit our bedrooms. It finds a difficult balance between a cosmic perspective in which our dying planet is but a blip in spacetime and the heartrending story of estranged father and daughter. This is the end of our civilization and beginning of the next phase of life in between stars.

Critics accuse Nolan of being too cerebral, but it’s tough to fault him for making the movies he wants to make when every other film is made under the thumb of studio executives, written by committee, and directed by a hired gun. When Christopher Nolan suggests the that you let his films wash over you, he is arguing against the temptation to solve his films or compare them to the theoretically perfect film in your head.

His films are perfect not because they tick every checkbox required but because he as a director is fully invested in them and offers them up as the best most interesting movie he could come up with. They are the work of an identifiable director and a singular vision, not a shareholder-driven exercise in ramping up profits through making generic films that must appeal to key demographics and global markets.

Interstellar doesn’t want to spell everything out for you. It doesn’t want to give you simple explanations. It wants to make you keep thinking long after the curtains fall. And if movies are a glimpse into another reality, a temporary experience of inhabitating someone’s elses thoughts and someone else’s world even if just for a few hours, then Interstellar is truly a gift because what it really wants is to keep you there as long as possible. It wants you to think and consider the implications, weigh its mysteries, and stick with you.

There is little left to ponder in most big budget popcorn movies. There is little or no meaning in the biggest fights and brawls up on the screen. We are not moved any more by spectacle, but neither are we moved by much of anything. I suppose it’s possible to watch Interstellar without engaging with the story or its characters, but part of me wonders if we haven’t raised the bar so high just to avoid feeling anything at all.

The purpose of this blog is not to assess or recommend movies but to think and to engage with them after the fact. And in that sense, I appreciate Interstellar for daring to go there ahead of us, for not being stupid, and for breaking our expectations. For better or worse, there will never be another one.

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4 thoughts on “Watching Interstellar For All The Wrong Reasons

  1. I think there’s something to be said for taking movies at face-value and just appreciating them for what they are, but at the same time, this argument that blockbuster popcorn movies are somehow immune to all legitimate artistic criticism is a mindset that needs to go away. That line of thinking is what perpetuates the stereotype that mainstream movies, blockbusters, and genre film (including an ambitious, if flawed one, like Interstellar) are somehow inferior to “art” cinema or “real” cinema, which is another falsity that needs to die.

    If we hold mainstream cinema to a higher standard, than it will improve and entertain us even more. If we just say, “Shut and enjoy it, it’s fine the way it is,” then that’s talking down to both ourselves, the viewers, and the movie. I’m fine with enjoying the spectacle and cerebral, visual charm of ‘Interstellar,’ but there’s also nothing wrong with me looking at the movie from a logical, analytical perspective. I would actually say it’s a necessary thing to do. I’m not looking at Nolan’s story as an equation to be solved, I just pay attention to the details and want to understand what’s going on.

  2. It’s not really a popcorn movie. I really enjoyed it. I fall into the latter category, where it’s appealing to be able to think. Post Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, this is next excellent venture set in Space. So it took 45 years for another great fictional and visually spectacular space flick to come out. Good analysis!!!!

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