[WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR AND INCEPTION, AND MAJOR SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR IN ITEM #4]
I’ve talked about spectacle movies before. These are movies which either don’t have a story, have an incoherent story, or have a bare-bones generic story, but succeed through showing the audience some sort of spectacle they’ve never seen before.
Usually this spectacle is comedy, action, something visually stunning, or song-and-dance numbers. But there’s another kind of spectacle I haven’t talked about: The spectacle of interesting ideas. The ideas can be real or fictional, as long as they’re compelling concepts we haven’t really seen on film before. Some examples are 2001, Inception, Memento, and Terry Gilliam’s non-Python movies.
Interstellar tries to be an idea-based spectacle movie, but it fails. Everyone I’ve talked to about the movie, including myself, considers it somewhere between lousy and mediocre. (My own opinion is that it’s on the mediocre side of things.) I think it would be interesting to compare it to Inception, an idea-based spectacle movie by the same writer, same director, and in the same style, which ended up being much better.
Here are the reasons I think Interstellar doesn’t work while Inception does:
1. The ideas aren’t that big or interesting.
We’ve seen planetary exploration countless times, most notably in Star Trek. We’ve seen the idea of traveling through wormholes in Disney’s The Black Hole, Star Trek Voyager, and the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. We’ve seen a world in decline in 75% of movies that take place in the future. I suppose the idea of a Magic Equation to Manipulate Gravity and Fix Everything ™ is new, but that really doesn’t play out in any visual or emotional way in the movie, so the audience can’t care about it.
Contrast this with Inception. I suppose we’ve seen the idea of dream-jumping in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But Inception did this much better, with coherent and well-explained rules that don’t rely on outright magic.
2. The core idea that the movie is trying to resolve is meaningless disconnected technobabble.
In Inception, the key problem that the hero is trying to resolve is how to go into someone’s dream to create a specific desire. We know this is extremely difficult because everyone in the movie insists it’s impossible. (Though Cobb knows it’s possible because he’s done it before, albeit with horriffic results.) The potential solution to this problem involves an intricate heist, multi-level dream journey, and lots of ass-kicking. That’s a clear, unambiguous goal, where the audience can easily understand what success and failure look like, and the journey to solve it is visually compelling.
In Interstellar, the key problem is to reconcile the gravity-whatsit equation to quantum-whoozit, in order to, uh, do something or other, maybe launch entire buildings into space or something, I guess. The potential solution to the problem involves Jessica Chastain staring at a chalkboard and being alternately sad and angry. The audience has no idea what any of that means, why it’s difficult, what success or failure looks like, or how to gauge progress toward a resolution. Which makes it impossible for us to care.
3. Inception is based on imaginary science, while Interstellar is based on real science that the movie gets wrong.
There’s no such thing as dream-jumping, and Inception wisely avoids trying to explain the science behind dream-jumping beyond “We have this machine that does it.” You might notice some logical inconsistencies, but beyond that, nobody can watch the movie and say “That’s not how dream-jumping works!” The movie is making up dream-jumping in the first place, so the rules of dream-jumping are whatever the movie says they are.
On the other hand, space travel, relativity, and basic physics are real things with real rules that exist independently of what the filmmakers make up. Which means that knowledgeable people will notice when the physics of the movie is wrong. And as I’ve said plenty of times, it’s okay for a fun silly movie to be dumb, but a movie that thinks of itself as smart cannot get away with dumb stuff.
4. The resolution to the big idea is a deus ex machina that makes no god-damned sense and has nothing to do with any of the characters’ actions throughout the movie.
[WARNING: THIS ENTRY IS A MEGA-SPOILER FOR THE END OF INTERSTELLAR. IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS, SKIP AHEAD TO THE LONG DASH]
So here’s how the big idea of the movie gets resolved, and they’re finally able to reconcile the gravity-whatsit to the quantum-whoozit: People from the future construct a magical tesseract inside a black hole, with the knowledge that Cooper will fall into that black hole, survive, and then land in the tesseract, where he will be able to send messages back in time to his daughter’s childhood bedroom, and he can translate the data that will solve the equation into morse code that he can transmit to his daughter’s watch, but he can’t send that information back in time and can only send that to the present when she revisits her childhood bedroom, which luckily is at the exact right moment. The fuh? If people In the future can do all that, why would they make it so the only means of communication was banging on a bookshelf in a little girl’s room? Why didn’t they send the necessary data further back in time? Why wait until a bunch of astronauts have died on an exploration mission that people from the future would know was pointless? For that matter, why wait until billions of people on Earth have died from the blight? Why couldn’t they just send a temporal e-mail to Michael Caine long before the movie began? Or if it’s only possible to communicate from the future by banging on things, bang on his chalkboard in morse code when he first started working on the equation.
The ending was flat-out stupid, and nonsensical even by the rules the movie sets up. Plus it made all of the action of the movie a complete waste of time. Why should we care about Cooper exploring these planets when it turns out they could just zip there using magic gravity equations? And note that in the end of the movie, old Murph suggests to Cooper that he go find Brand, who is all alone on her planet. Which means that humans didn’t even bother settling on the planets the mission was exploring.
Contrast that with Inception, where they said “We’re going to accomplish this nigh-impossible task by doing something very difficult.” Then they did it, and it resolved the problem. (Unless it was all a dream.)
Anyway, the moral to this is that if you’re going to make an idea-based spectacle movie, you need to make sure that your idea is novel, compelling, logical, and plays out on screen in a visual way that involves the characters. If you don’t do that, you’re just left with a generic or incoherent movie with no character development that is entirely forgettable.