Messy, Ambitious ‘Interstellar’ Is Christopher Nolan’s ‘White Album’

I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was something like eight years old, but it took me until somewhere in my late 20s to realize I preferred The White Album to my previous “favorite” Beatles albums, Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. It wasn’t that I was possessed by a heretofore unrealized dislike for those records — far from it. Extensive return visits had confirmed that they’re pretty much perfect pop albums, the songwriting, production, and performance all tip-top. The White Album is not perfect. It’s a double album when a single would certainly have sufficed, filled with tracks that vary from goofy (“Martha My Dear,” “Don’t Pass Me By”) to bizarre (“Bungalow Bill,” “Wild Honey Pie”) to fucking unlistenable (“Revolution 9”).

But because it’s so big and weird and experimental, it reaches heights that are unimaginable within the tightly constructed confines of something like Sgt. Pepper; that ambition is why we get a haunting near-dirge like “Long Long Long” or a novelty lark like “Back in the USSR” or a gonzo rocker like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” The White Album isn’t tight or disciplined; it’s messy, in conception and execution. And this is a long way of getting around to saying that Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar doesn’t have the crispness of Inception or the jangly momentum of The Dark Knight. It’s his White Album, overlong and overwritten, corny and self-important, and also a great movie. And yes, it can be all of those things at once.

Matthew McConaughey in "Interstellar"

Yet because it is the work of Nolan, who has quietly become one of our more oddly divisive filmmakers, you will probably hear one of two things about Interstellar: that it is a mind-blowing act of God that cures cancer and inspires prose poetry, or that it is a total self-indulgent bust. Correction: you may hear a third, even less interesting perspective, that it has not met expectations for sweeping dominance among year-end awards, the increasingly tired rubric by which all fall movies must be scored. (It’s one thing to get this kind of gaseous prick-measuring from a blowhard like Jeff Wells; it’s another thing altogether when the Times gets in on the act.)

But what makes Interstellar interesting and noteworthy and at least a little bit great is that it’s none of those things — it’s a deeply flawed movie of expansive ideas and emotions whose reach exceeds its grasp, which is understandable, as it is grasping for a science fiction encapsulation of the agony of parenthood, the power of love, the meaning of life, and the inevitability of death. It contains more echoes than we’re accustomed to from Nolan: I caught whiffs of E.T., Alien, Contact, Moon, (obviously) 2001, and (surprisingly) Reds, but those are just the most transparent ones. As a result, it feels oddly pieced-together, less the sound of his singular voice, and that voice leans rather heavily on cliché, particularly in the opening hour (which has a bit too much of Matthew McConaughey gettin’ all misty-eyed and drawlin’ about how we’re supposedtabe explorers).

Anne Hathaway in "Interstellar"

But there are interesting things happening even in that pokey first act, which is built on a simple but clever idea: what does a dystopian future, usually seen in cluttered Blade Runner-y cityscapes, look like in the heartland? And once McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and their crew launch into space, Nolan finds his footing; he seizes on the eerie quiet of their surroundings, creates stunning images (overwhelming on the big IMAX screen), and in several scenes, accomplishes something exceedingly rare in our seen-it-all cinema: a genuine sense of wonder. Meanwhile, its closing scenes are reminiscent — and look, I’m fully aware this is not a ringing endorsement for a great many viewers — of AI, where an obviously elongated conclusion ultimately arrives at a place of genuine emotion and power.

In those passages, and many others not worth spoiling here, Nolan is (forgive the schlocky shout-out to the narrative) exploring uncharted territory, and it’s thrilling to not know where he’s going, to see him taking these kinds of chances, sometimes unsteadily. He’s willing to fail here, rather spectacularly, and that openness conversely allows him a different kind of success. The phrase “points for trying” is often used dismissively, as though trying (and failing) isn’t part of an artist’s growth, as if we demand great work never lets the seams show, that makes it all seem to come naturally, that we must never see filmmakers striving for greatness and thus breaking a sweat. (You can read a lot of this between the lines of those outlying Birdman takedowns.)

Interstellar represents forward movement for a director who could very well have spent this year making another smooth, slick thriller like Inception or The Prestige or, God help us, Batman v Superman. Yet he made this instead, and it is a gorgeous, ambitious, risky, brainy piece of work. If it’s also clumsily sentimental and mildly overcooked, well, hey, points for trying.

Interstellar is out Wednesday or Friday, you figure it out.