Warning: This article contains light spoilers for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
“So Mr. Nolan you want to make a movie about a father and daughter who share a powerful love for each other but time dilation turns it into a real bummer? Hmmm. Love meets general relativity, you say. Well nobody’s done that before.”
When you learn a little about the quantum (sub-atomic) world, it’s easy to understand why Nolan and his physicist buddy, Kip Thorne, could get so inspired. These theories about the tiny stuff everything is made of are so tantalizing (and overwhelmingly counter-intuitive) that when melded with great human themes, the artistic potential is legitimately and (maybe literally) mindblowing. But creatively the two elements of humanity and quantum physics are not an easy fit as Nolan finds out in Interstellar.
Any successful creative project has two steps. Start with a great concept. Then weave the concept’s elements to engage, surprise, and ultimately transport you to another place for at least a couple hours. Interstellar has no problem (although you might) delivering on almost three hours. But does the movie take its audience along for the journey? Only in fits and starts which makes for a bumpy ride through the worm hole.
As our opening air quotes suggest, the concept was unconventional from the start. (History suggests that’s not a problem. Imagine the pitch meeting for Inception. I bet even Nolan got pushback.) However Interstellar‘s other creative elements don’t seem to invigorate the storytelling as in his previous work. To keep the story real, he starts by emphasizing the human relationships. Other than one notable and important exception, the characters come off as workmanlike. This human emphasis led him to minimize CGI — a daring move in today’s marketplace. For this movie, it meant special relativity and quantum physics become the default awesome.
So how does that work for Interstellar? At first, really well. We are introduced to Cooper and his daughter Murph. Their love for one another is apparent and appealing. It is particularly so as they deal with the “ghost” in her room. It’s an inspired trope and as the story progresses, this thread seamlessly intertwines love and physics. (Quantum communication to be accurate). But this journey also has (unfortunately) a debit on the right side of the equation. That would be some half-baked dialog about love being a universal force hiding in plain sight. That notion does not attain lift-off. Gravity and dark energy are universal. Maybe love could be too but the idea will need a better writer to make it propel Interstellar to a revelation.
In retrospect, the “ghost” in Murph’s room is so successful, it’s not hard to see how it might have given Nolan the confidence to go forward with his original concept and its allegiance to real physics. But scientific authenticity cuts both ways creatively. The explanation of the worm hole is based on current understanding and provides some much needed plausibility for the upcoming trip. Unfortunately the ensuing voyage turns into a “been there done that” of streaking color and flashing lights in spite of much scientific effort (apparently) to model them on real quantum effects. This sequence cries out for the type of visual breakthrough Nolan has done before. (BTW: Anyone for a Top 10 Wormhole Journeys list?)
Perhaps the mark of a great director is in what he chooses to not do. At some point Nolan had to resist an obvious but cheap emotional payoff – sending Cooper on a faster than light return trip. You see, when you travel faster than light, you go backward in time (doubters should review Einstein’s Special Relativity formulas). The temptation for an emotional father and daughter reunion must have been immense (relatively speaking). Good thing there was no studio executive looking over his shoulder.
He also chose to avoid explicating string theory or the multiverse. For that we should be grateful. Instead, he has Cooper explain how to use gravity to slingshot the space station on its trip to the next planet. Although I don’t think his fellow travelers needed the explanation, it added some Newtonian authenticity to the story.
The bottom line (if there is one at an event horizon) is that Interstellar offers less cinematic flash than one would expect from the director of Memento and The Dark Knight. It needs something we’ve not seen before or didn’t see coming. A moment of awe to confirm we are seeing a director at the top of his game. It brings to mind Gravity, where the movie was at one with its physics. Unfortunately it would appear a successful romancing of relativity needs more work on the creative equations. — Curt Dwyer