Christopher Nolan’s hotly-anticipated film Interstellar finally opened this month, two years after he wrapped up The Dark Knight Trilogy and even longer since his last standalone film, Inception. Rumors and buzz about Interstellar had been swirling for years, with critics and fans alike all eager to see what Nolan’s newest venture had to offer. After all, the man who made Batman relevant again surely would be able to single-handedly reinvent the sci-fi genre, right?
But a funny thing happened once the movie opened. The reviews finally started rolling in, and they were very mixed. One critic praised the film’s emotional center while complaining that the parts in space were sterile and boring, while another declared that the actual interstellar scenes were breathtaking though everything on earth was trite and felt fake. Though audiences have responded somewhat more favorably than the critics, the online debates quickly started to rage about whether this was Nolan’s greatest or worst film to date.
So what went wrong with Interstellar? Was it really just a mediocre misfire from a director who’s been known for perfectionism in the past decade? Was Nolan really just too ambitious this time?
Although admittedly I am a huge Nolan fan, I suspect there’s a bigger cultural trend at work here. If we take a look at his Batman films, which arguably made him into a household name, there’s a deep cynicism running through all of them. After all, it was really Nolan’s Batman that ushered in the era of the Gritty Reboot. Although Bruce Wayne strives and strives to be heroic, his world of Gotham is a horrific place that destroys the good and just might deserve to be destroyed anyway. The Dark Knight, the best film of the trilogy, pushes Bruce to the point where even he isn’t sure whether he’s so different from the criminals he’s trying to stop. However, when The Dark Knight Rises finally came out, reactions to the film were nearly has mixed as those for Interstellar. While the final film of the trilogy was overly long and clumsy in places, it was also the most blatantly optimistic film of the bunch. The bad guys are defeated, Gotham is saved (again), and Bruce gets to run off to Europe where he lives a comfortable-looking life with Anne Hathaway. This ending just didn’t mesh with what audiences had come to expect, and people complained that it was just too upbeat to be believable.
So what does this all have to do with the reaction to Interstellar? Simple – it’s the same reaction. Nolan’s space epic veers sharply away from the grittiness and cynicism that have long characterized his work, even beyond the Batman films. Despite the difficulties and losses caused by both space travel and the pesky relativity of time, McConaughey’s Cooper travels through a wormhole, falls into a black hole where he sends an unlikely message that is received by his now grown daughter, returns to our solar system in time to see his daughter before she dies, then blasts back off into space in order to find Anne Hathaway and establish a new home for humanity. It’s optimistic, ambitious, and sincere – and we as audiences hate that more than anything.
Sincerity is almost a dirty word now in media, reserved for cheesy afterschool specials and Hallmark movies. Most of our successful superheroes cover their good deeds with sarcasm and misanthropic tendencies, and any story that ends on a positive note has to be accompanied with acerbic wit in order to be viewed as anything other than trite. Though Nolan himself may be partially responsible for this cultural trend, it’s become a self-feeding cycle that’s starting to make our media landscape look slightly miserable.
Entertainment has always reflected the cultural climate of the time, so it’s understandable that television and film and been have been echoing the growing unrest, tension, and distrust in authorities in our world. But entertainment can also – and must – reflect the best of us too, which Interstellar definitely does. Nolan is wildly ambitious in this film, both in terms of the stunning visuals and the scope of the story. The movie literally tells us that humanity has to to stop staring at the ground and look up in order to survive, but we all seem too world-weary to even listen. Instead, audiences seem to just want to find reasons to hate one of the most optimistic movies in recent years, for the simple reason that it might be trying to hard to be profoundly hopeful.
To be blunt, we need more movies like Interstellar. For all of it’s flaws – and there are definite flaws – this is the only film in the past year that I have walked out of feeling like there might be some hope for humanity. As much as I love gritty reboots and twisted thrillers like Gone Girl, I know that’s not the kind of media that we need the most. Film used to be a source of inspiration, and it can be again. We’ve just got to give it a fighting chance.