If anybody is the heir to Stanley Kubrick, it’s Christopher Nolan. Like Kubrick, Nolan’s films are about big ideas and sometimes the characters take a back seat. Nolan has been criticized for this as Kubrick was. Seemingly in response to this criticism Nolan has tried to tell a story with an unbearable emotional dilemma at its heart. He presents his main character, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey with the choice of saving mankind by going into space through a wormhole in orbit around Saturn and searching for a new planet that Earth’s population can move to, or he can stay on a dying and depleted Earth and take care of his family, including his young daughter Murphy, played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn in various stages of her life. Needless to say, he goes, promising Murphy that he’ll come back despite the improbability of that happening.
This film has a tremendous cast. John Lithgow plays Cooper’s father-in-law. Casey Affleck plays his son Tom. Anne Hathaway plays a fellow crewmember and Michael Caine plays her father, the genius professor who runs the space program. And there’s more. Matt Damon has a small role for crying out loud. There’s a lot of starpower and a lot of talent at depicting emotion on the screen in this movie.
And yet the script doesn’t really depict that emotion in a sophisticated way. All the motivations are simple and right below the surface. Sure Cooper’s rage at Murphy’s teachers when they try to tell him that the Moon landings were faked, an accepted fiction in this future because the government wants people to concentrate on growing food and not dreaming about space, is understated, almost whispered in McConaughey’s Texas drawl. But it’s obvious why he’s upset. He’s an engineer as well as a pilot and he believes in science. There are lots of examples like that. Nolan seems to deal with the emotions in the film much as he does with the scientific ideas, at a distance. He tries to explain it instead of letting us feel it.
Interstellar has some very pretty pictures. Indeed the effects and every technical aspect is as well thought out and executed as any Nolan film. It also has some solid science, thanks to co-producer and science advisor Kip Thorne, the astrophysicist. But I sense the same discomfort with humanity in Nolan that I do in Kubrick.
I suspect Kubrick knew his limitations and accepted them. He didn’t try to make films that make us feel; his films make us think. And some of them are important movies in the history of cinema.
If Nolan wants to make more emotional films, he probably can. Enough great actors want to work with him that he can assemble a talented cast for any project he wants. But he’ll need to work with another screenwriter. He usually writes his screenplays with his brother Johnathan. And he’ll need to take more chances and try to convey the emotions of his characters and not just tell us about those feelings.


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