Akshay Seth: Does 'Interstellar' deserve the hate?

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published November 9, 2014

Warning: major spoilers to “Interstellar,” “Inception” and “Following” ahead.

Plodding out the doors of State Theater late last Wednesday, I shed a few tears. I didn’t really know what to make of “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s sprawling epic, just that it had moved me in a way only cinema, a beam of flickering light through 35-mm film, can. But besides its technical achievements or a scientifically accurate representation of quantum mechanics, I found the film exhausting.

Its three hours leave you wrung out, gasping for breath after being submerged in wave after wave of overwrought emotion and bleeding-heart philosophical debate that portends questions like “Is love quantifiable?” “Does humanity get to have a say in its fate?” “Does Matthew McConaughey always sound like that?” It’s all very, very heavy-handed and Nolan is more than happy to club audiences over the head with whatever he’s feeling. He deals with it with the cinematic equivalent of a “deal with it,” making no efforts to ease the pressure seeping out every wormhole.

So after a point, the critical opinion can get to you: A film so unevenly paced and narratively flawed, one that leaves countless characters underdeveloped and openly misinterprets a famous Dylan Thomas poem — not just once, but every other time Michael Caine opens his mouth — should have no place being ranked among the greats. But I can’t help but doubt the ease of these arguments, and the more I try to discern the reasons I cried that Wednesday night, the reason I undoubtedly will rank this movie among my favorites, the more I begin to see “Interstellar” outside its intended space-like vacuum and within the context of Nolan’s other work.

And I realized something. The film’s final act, like its labyrinthine middle, rushed start or organ-blasting score, isn’t meant to inspire. Because this film is a farce. It is Nolan’s letter to Flora, his daughter. Stretched to the grandest scales, this movie is his most withering self-critique. Here’s why.

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Dominick Cobb’s hair is slicked back. Not cropped, not over-long, it’s well-groomed, combed with a repetition that suggests the meticulous composure of a man unhinged — a man who wears a suit, a starched button-down shirt, a black tie vised around the collar. Surgical gloves hide his hands, silence his intentions. Like the antiseptic precision glazing Christopher Nolan’s filmography, he carries himself cautiously: the human equivalent of an X-Acto Knife. To work with him is to bleed along a razor’s edge.

In both “Following” and “Inception,” the characters named Cobb are written as thieves, and for the vast majority of the runtime, they remain thieves. They find unwary targets, probe out weaknesses, all the while sharpening their scalpels in preparation of that first incision. The coalescence carries over to a point where these similarities are so consistent, so visible in side-by-side comparison that Nolan isn’t even afraid using near-identical scenarios to set the course for entire movies.

“Following” follows a man — a young writer and cinephile — who, in a vague attempt to pass time, stalks unsuspecting strangers (reasoned away underneath an equally vague attempt at “gathering inspiration” for some forthcoming writing). One of them is Cobb. And they have their inevitable meeting six minutes into the movie, in a coffee shop. It isn’t until this scene that our subject really becomes visible, where we observe his precise mannerisms, where he recruits us to accompany him on one of his burglaries. Then the moment we break through the door and hear him pencil in the whys/hows of what he does, not much has to happen before the hooks are in. It’s not about the money, he explains — it’s about people-watching, just blown up to a much weirder, more intimate scale. It’s about learning.

The whole sequence shows up again years later in “Inception,” in another famous bit of coffee-shop exposition where a different Cobb explains the nuances of dream-stealing to a newly-initiated Ellen Page. Despite the concisely hand-drawn diagrams, the true payoff comes after all the explanations wind down, on DiCaprio’s shoulders as he leans in to deliver a simple yet effective bombshell: that they’ve been idling away in a dreamscape all along. The newbie eats it up. She clamps on for the ride. And again, it’s not tethered to any worldly gain: rather, the ethereal; the notion of “pure creation;” the ability to bend entire civilizations with nothing more than a tangential thought.

The first visible difference in the Leo DiCaprio version, sitting atop Nolan’s mind-melding love letter to filmmaking, is its measure of humanity. Where the “Following” Cobb is cold and manipulative in his intentions, “Inception” ’s Cobb wears his emotions on his prim shirtsleeve. There’s never any doubt that the film is written as his struggle, a psyche-scaling grapple with the regret still wracking him for having indirectly pushed his wife into suicide. He lurches from scene to scene. He broods at the camera. And in that way only Leonardo DiCaprio can pull off, he gets in your face while acting.

This is an interesting shift, especially so when considering the by-the-numbers trajectory of Nolan’s career: a self-taught filmmaker who went from scratching around in indie dirt with nothing but mind-fuck conceptualization and sleek execution to being handed the keys to the Hollywood kingdom — as noted in a recent Guardian profile, he has become “one of the few directors who can walk into a studio with an idea and exit with $200 million to make it.” Most of his movies are turned in ahead of schedule, even more come under budget. He’s the perfect personification of a safe bet, if any such thing can exist in showbiz, and he does it all without ever even motioning toward a pair of 3-D glasses.

As with most autodidact auteurs, what can be more telling than his success is Nolan’s childlike, almost hubris-bending need to write himself into the spectacle he produces on 70-mm film. In “Following,” he knits fragments of himself in the writer, that fledgling storyteller with Batman stickers on the door. The typewriter on the desk is Nolan’s own. It’s the same one given to him by his father on his 21st birthday, on which he still clacks out a précis for each movie before hunkering down on the script.

“Following” ’s Cobb represented his unfulfilled aspirations as a new director. The thief has the Hitchcockian Noire Blonde, the femme fatale on his arm. He makes a profession out of knowing and manipulating people. He wears surgical gloves with a blazer. He lives dangerously. He’s the coolest cat east of the Thames. And by the time credits roll, he’s implicated our protagonist in his girlfriend’s murder, ruined his life in every sense of the word. Cobb is Nolan’s portrait of what not to become, and it’s double-edged — more so than condemning its antagonist’s coldness, it paints the protagonist’s naivety in pejorative light. As would any working adult, Nolan was looking for a balance, but what came across was a cynical (though realistic) rejection of the entire tightrope. So the Cobb he writes in “Inception” becomes a product of that rejection. By the time the film opens, the first two installments of “The Dark Knight” trilogy have already solidified his place as a bankable auteur, and for the first time in decades, someone has the freedom to mold the blockbuster system to his will. The Cobb in “Inception” — the smooth but tortured dream weaver — is that person: Nolan.

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Critic Devin Faraci suggested in 2010 that “Inception” allegorizes filmmaking; the ability to partake in a collective dream is one most moviegoers experience the moment they sit down next to strangers in the darkness of a cinema hall. “Inception,” implanting an idea in an unsuspecting subconscious, is the central objective of every worthwhile movie, or for that matter, any art. To further solidify this case, Nolan jams references to seminal cinema in every nook and cranny of his characters’ dreamscapes. DiCaprio, who based Cobb’s image on Nolan, is the director — the man who deserts his children in pursuit of creative ambition.

His last endeavor, his last chance comes as an Odysseyan return to family, but the only way he knows how to traverse it is by burrowing deeper into the work that drove him away. It’s a catch-22, a self-fulfilling prophecy. And Nolan knows it. In the film’s final act, the moment he wakes up on the airplane, the disbelief on DiCaprio’s face is enough to signal that Nolan is embracing the unreal. The sequence is dreamlike. Cobb floats from one scene to the next, that incredulous look streaked on his face. Cobb isn’t dreaming. Nolan is, and the film becomes his way of saying he will never truly be reunited with his own children. But, hey, he can still romanticize it on screen. He can keep burrowing it into his work. Nothing about this is uplifting. It’s cripplingly sad.

“Interstellar” ’s third and first acts bear a striking resemblance to this mentality. After being ravaged by years of abuse and war, Earth is keeling over. The very air we breathe is slowly becoming toxic. John Lithgow is a wisecracking farmer. All the okra has run out. In his review, Grantland writer Wesley Morris notes, “Now the only thing left to grow is corn, suggesting that Nolan has either a great sense of self-deprecating irony or none.”

Maybe I’m biased but I like to think it’s the former. The broad strokes moralization in “Interstellar,” subtly acknowledged, feels tainted. Nolan runs through the first act too quickly, skating by on lines like “they chose me” delivered in classic McConaughey twang. The hubris in the initial Earthbound portions of the movie is Nolan’s way of implicating himself by zeroing in on creative impulse. He’s just too heavy-handed in accomplishing it, which evolves into another reason so many fans are turning on the film as a whole.

The lightyears-spanning middle 90 minutes, punctuated by an excellent, hair-raising cameo by Matt Damon, throws even more sentimentality at audiences. This is the part of the movie we paid to see in IMAX, and though it delivers, it’s not much more than a slight of spectacle: “Gravity” ’s older, slightly sappier cousin. Like the dream weaving in “Inception,” the convolution is a parable for filmmaking: the jump from planet to planet, the need for the journey to have some absolute impact on those watching back at home.

Then a swandive into the black hole.

It’s named Gargantua, a moniker cribbed from a series of 16th-century French novels satirizing religion. In Gargantua, Cooper finds the endless tesseract linking him to Murph and the thing that ultimately lets him accomplish his mission. But before he goes in, in the aftermath of Dr. Mann’s attack, he concedes he will never see his daughter again. So he gives up any notion of contact for the larger mission to prevent human extinction, but dives in with the hope that he might at least save her from death. And this is the key.

Cooper’s only way of rescuing his daughter is leaving her — a truth the film beats into our skulls in its first act. The manipulation of gravity, coding Earth’s future in a ticking watch-hand, is how Nolan shows it coming to fruition. A logical conclusion may be a happy ending, but the cruel irony is in what happens after.

Nolan portrays Coop and Murph’s reunion in the same way he showed us the final few minutes of “Inception.” It’s dreamlike. It drifts between the pauses. It cements “ghostly” ties to what’s said in the first act. So when Coop leaves looking for Brand, it’s because Nolan never believes the father-daughter relationship he’s written is reparable. That it could be anything more than artificial. In his eyes, Coop died after the tesseract closed and the only absolution that came was what he wanted to see, tied in a bow and placed in the nearest Saturn-orbiting space station.

It can be put on screen, projected through 35-mm film, but the only real connection the man had with his child were those fragments of her memory he put into his work (into the tesseract). The way Nolan puts fragments of his own life into his films. From an audience perspective, the connections can seem somehow earnest, but in Cobb’s words, delivered to his dead wife’s projection in the last half-hour of “Inception,” “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You’re just a shade. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you’re just not good enough.”

This is what Nolan thinks of the massive Hollywood spectacles he creates. “Interstellar,” unlike his other movies, is too sugary to swallow in its entirety. But as a whole, the puzzle pieces in his oeuvre are still tied through the quiet scoffs they level at plastic compassion. They’re not earnest in their own right. They’re earnest because they’re cynical. Which isn’t a particularly stirring message, but it is evocative, sad. Because Coop never made it back to his daughter: It was only his ghost. Whatever the corn or the cobb may say.

Akshay Seth can be reached at akse@umich.edu and @NotAkshaySeth on Twitter