Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
This month: Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR (2014)
Christopher Nolan is the fanboy’s director, the guy who made Batman cool again, and a director that makes blockbusters with brains. From his debut feature Following through to his war epic Dunkirk, Nolan has become a director that can sell a film just with his name and nothing else.
Now, 72% is not a bad rating for a film, and considering this is the lowest rated directorial film of his career, that’s pretty damn good for Nolan. But why is Interstellar his lowest rated film? Interstellar came on the heels of an incredible successful streak for Nolan. Following the reinvention of the Batman mythology in Batman Begins, and his underrated gem The Prestige, Nolan then changed the face of modern blockbusters with The Dark Knight. His Michael Mann-style thriller set the hype train up to a billion, as well as the box office on fire, dwarfing every film released that year. Both The Dark Knight and it’s 2012 sequel The Dark Knight Rises scored over a billion dollars at the global box office and in between them Nolan made the hugely successful Inception, an action thriller that heralded the arrival of smart blockbusters and was nominated for Best Picture.
As a result of these films, Nolan had cemented his reputation as not only a man who could deliver big spectacle – often achieved practically – but films with intelligence over plot. Interstellar was to be his next foray into Hollywood filmmaking. Taking inspiration from the theoretical physics of Kip Thorne, Nolan and his brother Jonathan crafted a story that dealt with time, space and the human condition. As a fan of Stanley Kubrick, this was to be Nolan’s ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film, a story about a pilot named Coop who must travel through a wormhole in search of a safe new place for mankind to start over when Earth becomes unviable, is something of a departure from Nolan’s catalogue. Nolan, much like Kubrick, is a director often accused of being more interested in ideas and visuals than he is in the human condition. Interstellar jettisons this by being profoundly emotional. Nolan, who produced the film with his wife Emma Thomas, has used codenames for all his films since Batman Begins to avoid spoilers and leaks. Four of his films have had their fake names be tributes to his children. The Dark Knight – Rory’s First Kiss, Inception – Oliver’s Arrow, The Dark Knight Rises – Magnus Rex, and for Interstellar the codename was Flora’s Letter, in tribute to his daughter.
This also speaks to the film’s themes; the film is essentially about the relationship between a father and daughter. The trailer was sold almost entirely on two key scenes; Michael Caine’s Professor Brand proclaiming that mankind was born on earth, but was never meant to stay here and the scene in which Matthew McConaughey’s Coop holds his crying daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and begs her to say goodbye, proclaiming “I love you forever”.
This might be why the film isn’t as adored as Nolan’s other works. Perhaps it’s the mix of huge spectacle, confusing logic and emotion that alienated critics. The film’s climax, for example, takes place within the confines of a Tesseract, a five dimensional wormhole space that appears as a four dimensional space. Coop finds himself trapped in a time flux, which appears to be on the other side of Murph’s bookcase and he begs Murph not to let him leave. The ghost she believes to be haunting her is infact a future version of her father sending a message, “STAY”. How did the Tesseract come about? Future humans, whom Murph as an adult saves by figuring out a solution to Earth’s issues, knew that Coop was the key to her figuring out a way of creating a new habitat for mankind.
Complicated, no? No more complicated than the dual (or duelling) narratives of The Prestige which sees a person read a diary, that in itself is a reading of a diary, both using the diary to confuse and mock the other person. Nor is it any more complex than Inception’s dreams, where time plays out differently in each level of the dream and the real world.
Interstellar’s climax isn’t so much about the unravelling of a central mystery, or the huge spectacle of storming an ice fortress, fighting in zero gravity, a city collapsing and a van plunging into water all at the same time. Interstellar’s climax comes down to a man wanting more time with his daughter, screaming for her to hear him. This lack of a big action finale, in favour of something more emotional and personal, as well as the film’s general lack of action, might also contribute to why the film didn’t fare as well as Nolan’s other films.
And yet, within this, is an attempt by Nolan to do something different. The film’s thesis, and a conversation that reoccurs in the film, is that love can transcend time and space. Anne Hathaway’s Amelia argues with Coop about love being the only thing that cannot be explained by science, the rationale by Coop that it’s used to bond humans and create children is quickly dispelled by Amelia, because loving a dead person has no social utility. Later in the film, within the Tesseract, Coop realises his love for Murph is quantifiable and is what allows time to curve in on itself to allow him to help her in the past. It’s because of love that mankind will continue on.
This theme of fathers and daughters is also shown by Brand choosing to send his daughter Amelia on a mission that he knows is not about finding a new home, but setting up a new colony. He decides to send her away to secure her future, neglecting to tell Murph until his dying moments that he denied Coop the same chance to save his daughter, all but safe in the knowledge that Coop was going to be long gone by the time Murph died on Earth.
It’s the emotion in Interstellar that often is derided. When the film kicks into pulpy fun with the introduction of Matt Damon’s stranded scientist Dr Mann, we find the film’s antagonist; a scientist who has lied to try and find a way to escape his icy prison of a planet. The resolutions of Nolan’s villains are often disappointing and Mann’s demise because of his own ego, while Coop and Amelia improvise an escape using wormholes, is clever, but it also lacks the kind of cinematic spectacle we’d expect from Nolan.
The fact that Nolan opted for something different might have caused the film to get the least amount of respect out of Nolan’s films, and yet, the heart at Interstellar’s core and the theme of love are probably the strongest of his films. Mix this with great performances, visuals and an incredible score by Hans Zimmer and Interstellar proves to be one of Nolan’s purest cinematic pieces, and that, like love, is quantifiable.