This film might just as easily been named “The Melancholy of Extinction.” For every scene is haunted, both by a diegetic ghost, in the figure of Matthew Maconaghy’s intrepid astronaut, and by the ghostly prospect of a future earth depopulated of humans.
Like the rather preposterous "Inception," this film about redeeming lost love is also about making films – in particular, about creating scenes of visionary intensity that only films can give us. Christopher Nolan is a big believer in the Gesammtkunstwerk, or Total Work of Art, an all-enveloping spectacle that transcends its vulgar circus underpinnings to deliver the viewer to an experience of the cinematic sublime.
Just as "Inception" ostensibly probed the microcosmic level of the unconscious, in which memories are nested like so many Russian dolls, in search of some abiding emotional center, so Interstellar explores the macrocosmic labyrinth of the black hole. Ever since these hyperobjects, as Tim Morton dubs them, were discovered, black holes have exercised a fearsome grip on the imagination. They mark the limits of presence itself, since beyond the event horizon all matter ceases to exist. Their size, their power, their mystery, place them not on an astronomical scale, but a quasi-theological one, invoking the dread and awe of the sublime. A black hole is nearer to Meister Eckhart’s Godhead than anything in the measurable universe.
With "Interstellar," Nolan has remade "Inception," or revisited the same obsessions. Both films stage the rescue of an impossible lost love (whether wife or daughter); both are dependent for their resolution on a dazzling swirl of montage, a conjoining of unreachable, irreconcilable ends in the name of love, which exceeds its mortal boundaries to achieve a Dantean scale, a truly cosmic force. As Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand puts it, “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Hathaway delivers her lines with such conviction that we’re swept up by her emotion. It’s a wonderful movie moment, even if it raises the eyebrows of every skeptic in the audience. What is love, one might say, but an ideology grafted onto a biological impulse? And how can it transcend space and time except through the perishable artifacts of art and memory?
On the one hand, Nolan creates the entire film as a way to take the hero (and us) into the impossible heart of the black hole. The ultimate unfilmmable event: like depicting infinity or the land of the dead. The whole point of the film is to demonstrate its own enormous cinematic ambition, to bring us into the tessellated layers of a montage-vertigo, just as Inception did. It’s all about the medium; about what film can accomplish; about representing the unrepresentable.
On the other hand – and this is crucial, though it still belongs to the category of cinematic technique – "Interstellar" is a meditation on how film can defeat time and achieve the triumph or reconciliation of love. Montage conquers time itself by linking together disparate moments into coherent units of perception, past, present and future joined. "Interstellar" is an allegory about what art can do, about why we have art at all. That it’s awkward at points and sentimental; sometimes poorly plotted (the sequence with Matt Damon as the stranded astronaut could have been cut with no loss to story and a considerable gain in thematic unity) does little to detract from the force of its emotional thrust.
Yet I can't help but note that what is essentially a domestic drama, a family struggle staged against a cosmic backdrop, never shows us the scale of human suffering caused by a global famine. Instead we get scenes of an avuncular John Lithgow doing his best Grandpa Walton in the Dust Bowl imitation.
Nolan falls short of what the material is asking for; "Interstellar" is masterful rather than a masterpiece. But his imaginative conviction is strong enough to carry it past many of its weaknesses to achieve some moments of real cosmic grandeur; we are carried along by its surge. Part of the film's ambition, of course, has to do with Nolan’s desire to out-Kubrick Kubrick: a hopeless task, but he gives it a good try. "Interstellar’s" most sublime scenes only call to mind 2001; they don’t come close to surpassing it. Yet the same kind of imaginative daring is evident and that is thrilling.
Nolan’s desire to reaffirm humanism, defined here by the persistence of human presence in an indifferent universe, is heroic, if naïve. His concept of mortality and love, while earnest, remain somewhat juvenile. In Nolan’s black hole mysticism, loss never really need be confronted because time always loops back around and our loved ones are never lost. “I was your ghost,” Cooper tells Murph. Nothing is ever really gone.
Cross-cutting across the effects of time dilation Nolan conjures an impossible continuity between memory and desire, then and now, the living and the dead. This is the real meaning of the title, "Interstellar," which seems to have baffled Vivian Sobchack’s otherwise penetrating essay in Film Comment. To be “interstellar” is to submit to time dilation. This may be the only film that’s ever dealt with, however mawkishly and unevenly, the ways in which Einstein undoes Proust. Immensity destroys intimacy (a theme tackled with great ingenuity and yes, humanistic affirmation, in Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”). Nolan probes the borders of these stakes, only to shy away from such an inhuman revelation. The film’s touching resolution is moving yet hard to swallow in the face of cosmic scales of time and distance. Can love really keep us together? Ansible me, maybe.
"Interstellar" offers an imaginative and romantic vision of our longing for continuity and connection. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, it dares to uphold the idea that the flesh and the bonds which link us surpass the indifferent forces of the larger world we live in. If the film fails, it’s because it can’t quite imagine how real loss compels us to build a future after trauma. Instead, it posits that hoariest of Hollywood tropes: the happy reunion. The earth may shrivel into a dried out husk and brave men and women launch into the abyss on a quixotic quest to save it, but only by the magic of editing do they overcome the odds in the end. Nolan is a visually audacious filmmaker whose vocabulary is in search of a sentiment. He's gifted with an overabundance of talent but has yet to learn how to translate mature feeling with it. And yet the images he gives us are piercing. They suggest depths that the story only reaches for.