Christopher Nolan's space opera 'Interstellar' is a shitty science fiction film

‘Interstellar’ is shit science fiction

November 12, 2014 / by / 29 Comments

Interstellar — Christopher Nolan’s space/time/mind bending blockbuster and latest entry in the rising McConaissance tide — might feature five interns worth of well-researched theoritical physics equations scribbled on Hollywood backroom whiteboards, but the presence of far-fetched interstellar science does not mean that Interstellar is a good piece of science fiction.

In fact [SPOILER-ISH ALERT FROM HERE ON OUT], Interstellar is a mediocre film at best, and a shitty work of science fiction throughout.

Science fiction, as a genre, can do a lot of things. It can transport the audience to a whole new world of epic wonder and adventure (Star WarsStar Trek). It can explore the relationship between mankind and technology (Hal in Kubrick’s Space OdysseyBlade Runner). And it can interrogate the traits and values inherent in our identity, both as individuals and as humans (Ender’s GameMinority Report).

What science fiction doesn’t need to do, however, is beat you over the head with a discussion of the scientific validity of its own dubious premise. Which is exactly what Nolan’s Interstellar does time and time again until the viewer’s interest wanes like Matthew McConaughey’s pre-Magic Mike career.

What’s frustrating about Interstellar is that the film spends what feels like a lifetime on Earth developing the scientific underpinnings of its ideas about space, time, relativity, gravity, and Casey Affleck’s acting potential, only to entirely forego developing any real empathy for the characters it portrays shuffling through the outer reaches of the universe. I mean, for christ’s sake, if there’s a compelling argument to be made that a goddamn robot is the best character in the movie, you might be doing something wrong.

The “science” in science fiction is supposed to be the vehicle that transports human characters into a whole new world to interact with ideas and their relationship to the unfathomable breadth of space. But science alone is not the reason we pay the price of admission.

What made last year’s Gravity great was its portrayal of a person dealing with human emotions and basic problems while in a thoroughly imaginative and complex setting. What makes Interstellar disappointing is its portrayal of Dallas from Magic Mike lecturing the audience about gravity.

Honest to God, the characters in Spaceballs were more fleshed-out than the two-dimensional archetypes of Interstellar. Americana, nostalgia, father-daughter relationships, and all other sorts of generic shorthand are sprinkled throughout the movie as symbolic touchstones for emotional connections that never make a landing. The unoriginal, stunted character development makes it abundantly clear that Nolan was too busy exploring the inner workings of his latest infamous mind-puzzle to actually explore how human characters would move throughout the intergalactic world he created. We’re just supposed to take it for granted, for example, that any father would stop at nothing to transcend five dimensions — that’s right, five — and return to his daughter, even when you and your own father probably have difficulty transcending a pedestrian three dimensions just to rehash yesterday’s baseball scores.

And the dust! Good lord, there’s more dust in this movie than in a John Steinbeck wet dream. You want symbolism? BOOM here’s some motherfucking dust floating through some motherfucking lens flares! Nolan just got all metaphorical and shit up in this bitch.

Anyways, for as intricate of a thought-experiment as Nolan has constructed, there are some black hole-size plot holes throughout Interstellar as well. Like, why did advanced beings who are capable of summoning a wormhole just in time for humans to escape Earth not go through the trouble of putting the wormhole somewhere easier to reach for us than Saturn? Or, perhaps more importantly, why in God’s rapidly decaying, dusty Earth is John Lithgow drinking beer on his farm porch — just waiting for his day of reckoning to draw near and pondering the infinite wonder of space — when literally all of the world’s wheat crops are dying of blight?

Look, I get that a suspension of disbelief is fundamental to enjoying science fiction. But although Nolan can use a deus ex machina to wriggle himself from one end to another of his interstellar brain teaser, he can’t do the same for his dialogue. You just can’t suspend disbelief enough to find it credible that an elite NASA pilot/scientist tells another elite pilot/scientist to “say it, don’t spray it” 75 years and one global famine after that line became irrelevant. Taking for granted that a black hole can exist in such close proximity to a planet is one thing. Believing that one of the brightest individuals Earth has produced would earnestly say that love “transcends the limits of time and space” while on a mission to save the human race is preposterous.

Okay, to be fair, it’s not as if Interstellar is the worst movie ever created. To Christopher Nolan’s credit, the film is at times grandiose and imaginative, providing a fresh and visually compelling take on topics like the Earth’s destruction or alien landscapes. At its best, Interstellar can fill you with the rushing sense of wonder and adrenaline that comes with the whole “saving the human race by shooting off into space” landscape. Despite Nolan’s films generally being regarded as emotionally cold, there are genuinely moving scenes, such as McConaughey coming to terms with the bitch that is the Theory of Relativity when he watches video messages of his children grow into adults over the course of a mere hours of wormhole-inflected space-time.

It doesn’t hurt either that the movie features an absurdly stacked ensemble cast large enough to give your average intramural kickball team a run for their money. If you had any doubts about the McConaissance we’re living through, McConaughey couldn’t have provided a bigger announcement of his arrival as a top male star if he drove a Lincoln onto the scene while solemnly muttering platitudes to his rear-view window. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain do their best with the notoriously terrible dialogue Nolan writes for women, a SURPRISE UNBILLED ACTOR plays an explosive role, and Michael Caine says things in a British accent.1 But that makes it all the more maddening to see so much talent wasted on a script whose characters sound like less subtle versions of American Gothic’s subjects attempting to reenact 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

It’s a legitimately fun experience to watch a director like Nolan hurtle such talented actors through the vast reaches of outer space, and even more fun to watch those actors say “space-time” with a straight face. But I can get high and watch Carl Sagan clips any time I want to blow my mind pondering extraterrestrial traversing of space and time. At least Sagan didn’t see time as some cheap parlor trick that can be used in the same way that Inception dealt with dreams or Memento played with memory. In the end, Nolan’s ambition to create his generation’s Space Odyssey is more intriguing than the actual product, which confuses “theoretical science” with “science fiction.”

Vonnegut said that “science is magic that works.” Nolan tries to turn science into movie magic. Unfortunately, it’s his failure at creating an interesting piece of science fiction that’s the most compelling part of Interstellar.