And Interstellar looks cool. There are lots of great things about its visuals. There are many very beautiful images of outer space, and there are other planets, worlds not yet explored that have all sorts of characteristics (we get to see at least two of these planets), and there are these sleek robots that mobilize and maneuver in ways I wasn't really expecting.
The action sequences are mostly pretty great, as well. My favorite of these is a moment late in act two when they have to make their spacecraft spin in order to attach themselves to a larger spacecraft. The tension I felt in the theatre as they started to spin was incredible. Very, very cool. I was also really into Hans Zimmer's action-movie score. He's using a lot of pipe organ, which is totally weird and works beautifully and ratchets up the action admirably. I was into it.
But Interstellar doesn't want to be an action movie (like, say, Gravity). It wants, instead, to be a kind of serious, thinking-person's movie. Interstellar is filled with philosophical mumbo jumbo about trying to keep the species alive and how the last faces we see before we die are our children's faces because we are trying to project ourselves into the future. (And if a person doesn't have children?) There are seemingly about a dozen of these kinds of speeches about humanity, about the future, about homo sapiens as a species. When McConaughey and company wake up an astronaut who's been sleeping for a long, long time he weeps. He never thought he'd see another human face again. Interstellar is invested in identity, in being able to see one's own self in the mirror of another person from the same species. That is, it isn't invested in specific people, really, just in people as a kind of large collective of human identity. The most egregious of these ponderous speeches is a tearful monologue performed by Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway about how love is the only thing that science can't really explain, and that maybe love is a kind of pure knowledge that we can trust to have material consequences that benefit us. At least I think that's what she said. I am quite sure I tuned out midway through the speech. I definitely know I leaned over to my friend and said You've gotta be kidding me.
Interstellar is a time-travel picture, and it is a confusing one at that. Like Inception and Memento and The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar functions like a puzzle, one that I was hard pressed to solve the more I thought about it. One finds oneself thinking: wait, but how did he get into this vortex? How does he materially transform the movement of a wristwatch from outer space? Who opened this wormhole, then, if... huh? It's a head-scratcher. And this is what Nolan really loves to do. When my friend Justin referred to Inception as soulless, I take him to have meant that Nolan is more interested in puzzling through things, in creating narrative machines that finally work (or at least fool an audience into looking like they work). Nolan's movies are technological marvels – the 3D wormhole and the Gargantua-thing in Interstellar are absolutely gorgeous. In this way, it seems to me that Nolan's movies not only utilize technology in extraordinary ways, they are about technology.
The films themselves function like machines, tying things together in cool ways, solving narrative problems with Rube Goldberg-esque skill. The films bend and twist, and he takes us down crazy paths that don't seem possible, but he asks us to go with him and we do, and we come out the other side. But the machine is the thing here. These are films about the machinery of storytelling, about the technology of movie-making, sure (just imagine that famous shot with all of the water in Inception), but about the technology of storytelling. And in this way, although he consistently hires excellent actors who beautifully attempt to give life to his creations, Nolan's movies never seem to me to be about actual humans. His characters are as machinic, as robotic and soulless, as the plots they inhabit.