Michael Mohan (Save the Date) Talks Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

An epic look at an epic film, and how the rules of the world work (or don't) in Nolan's latest magnum opus.

Some people complain about the coldness of Christopher Nolan’s films, but to me that’s like complaining about the coldness of a Sudoku puzzle. You’re not there to learn more about the human condition, you’re there because he’s constructed an inventive, complex narrative that you can lose yourself in. His company’s logo is a maze. That’s what you’re going to get.

I have a very deep admiration for Nolan and his work. Not only did he get his start in no-budget independent films (like many of us who contribute to this site), he’s one of the few filmmakers who actually creates new pop culture. Memento and Inception are two extremely high-quality films based on completely original ideas that are pretty much implanted in the annals of film history for the rest of time, and The Dark Knight is arguably one of the finest genre movies ever made.

Nolan’s also a filmmaker who clearly believes in the intelligence of his audience. He never spoon-feeds or panders. The pacing of his films is so brisk that you really need to keep up, and you’re rewarded for doing so. The audience’s ultimate realization about the Joker’s changing backstories in The Dark Knight is a perfect example of this.

The coldness in Nolan’s films seems to arise from his desire to put story and structure first. For instance, in his version of Insomnia, you never really learn much about Al Pacino’s character’s backstory outside of how it pertains to the story. Does he have a wife or kids? Who cares? The story itself, with the protagonist having to rely on the antagonist for help with a cover-up, is so clever and unusual that it doesn’t matter. You care because it’s interesting. And in Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s tragic love story with Marion Cotillard is really just another facet of this insanely original story. You never get the sense that these two characters are soulmates, but that’s not the point. To delve into that in a profound way would require us to slow down.

Many filmmakers just kill off a mom or wife character for instant sympathy points and then get on with the fun. It’s like a box you check on your way through the first act. But until now, I think Nolan has realized the ineffectiveness of this. In fact, the only film in which Nolan dealt with emotional backstory was the one where he went deep — in Batman Begins, the entire film was backstory.

So Interstellar was frustrating to me because I got the sense that he was trying make a more emotional movie, but that, even at a nearly three-hour running time, this was at odds with the complexity of the story he’d constructed. Watching most of Nolan’s films is like enjoying someone delicately setting up a row of dominos, then seeing them gloriously topple down again during the climax. Here, however, Nolan just keeps setting up his dominos, and then more dominos; sometimes he knocks them down, and sometimes they get stuck and he goes back to setting up even more dominos.

Rather than talk about Interstellar in broad terms, I’d like to home in very specifically to talk about the “rules of the world” because, to me, none of the dazzling technical virtuosity really matters if this doesn’t work.

In all genre films, the way the rules of the world are established and adhered to lays the groundwork for how much fun the audience can have. The cleanest example I can think of is Gremlins: Never expose the Mogwai to bright light, never get it wet, and never feed it after midnight. Once the audience knows these three rules, you can have as much fun with the concept as possible. You know what to hope for, you know what to fear.

The art of doling out rules is tricky. Many films have an all-knowing character who can fill in the main character and the audience simultaneously. A perfect example of this was the totally underrated Edge of Tomorrow, in which Noah Taylor just flat-out tells you everything you need to know in one fell swoop at the end of the first act. I was talking to one of the producers about this, and he referred to this scene as the moment when the audience “takes their medicine.” It makes sense.

But it’s even trickier in a film such as Interstellar, where there is no all-knowing character and the characters onscreen have to learn the rules while the events are happening. Look back at other films which function similarly: in Groundhog Day the logistics of Bill Murray’s predicament are just as surprising to him as they are to us. And that’s fun. But it’s hard to do well. A film like Death Becomes Her doesn’t have the confines of rules, so it feels like anything can happen. It’s no longer clever and inventive, it’s just untethered and arbitrary.

With Christopher Nolan’s films, he’s working with rules that are far more complex. And sometimes there are even subsets of rules. And while he does cheat from time to time, if his direction is confident then audiences just assume they missed a key piece of information that probably explains it, and they go along with the story in order to keep having fun.

With Interstellar, however, as Matthew McConaughey’s character ventures into outer space to find a new planet that might sustain life, there are so many rules, and subsets of rules, and new challenges that come with new rules — all of which are interesting (especially for someone like myself who used to devour Chet Raymo books as an adolescent) — but there’s less time to absorb these rules, let alone have fun within them. It’s the movie equivalent of Calvinball, the made up game that Calvin plays with Hobbes, making up the rules as they go along. But it’s so difficult to keep track of them all — when the characters used the term “quantum data” for the fourth or fifth time, I found myself wondering what its relevance to the story actually was.

Not to mention, in a film whose core story is one of deep-rooted survival — man versus nature — there’s a subplot in which Matt Damon shows up as a stranded explorer who has become mentally unstable. Everything shifts gears: the conflict is suddenly man versus man. It’s a fairly significant chunk of the movie, one that I suppose some people might find surprising, but it doesn’t help support the theme of the movie, which I think is that love is a force that transcends all dimensions. Instead, Damon’s character functions as a fairly powerful mini-boss who throws the story a little off its course.

But the biggest issue I had with the film — and this is where we get into spoiler territory — was with how the main character ultimately prevails. Don’t read on if you plan on seeing the movie.

During the climax of the film, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Cooper, has endured all the elements and finds himself in a kaleidoscopic zone that some higher being has generously constructed, one which takes five-dimensional reality and renders it three-dimensional. In layman’s terms, it’s a portal back in time through which Cooper can see into his own past, specifically through the back of the bookcase in his daughter’s bedroom. It is one of the most stunning images ever committed to film.

Now, the rules of this new reality have not been set up. We’re about two and a half hours deep, and we’re just now learning how this reality works. We learn that Cooper can bang on the walls really hard, causing certain books to fall. And by doing so, he’s able to try to tell his daughter to prevent his past self from ever going on this mission. Then he realizes that if he just taps lightly on the walls, somehow he’s able to control the second hand on the watch he gave his daughter before he left, in order to send her a message using morse code.

Since this gambit is what ultimately saves all of humanity, I found myself a little resentful. I had actively worked to follow every single word these characters said in order to understand the rules that Nolan had set up. But none of these rules mattered in our climactic moment. Indeed, I don’t even understand how McConaughey’s character came to think that this would work.

I think the film might be suggesting that the power of love had something to do with it — that Cooper cared so much about his daughter that he could create this rule in his mind? I’m not sure. But for a film in which we’ve had to follow along very closely in order to learn, for instance, how the docking mechanisms work between a space shuttle and a mothership, you’d think that such an important plot point might have been founded in something much more clever and tangible. Because when it happens, the music is big and meaningful, and McConaughey is acting his ass off. But it’s just not satisfying because we’re not entirely sure how this is really working. The rules of the world just weren’t established in a clean-cut way or, indeed, in any way at all.

For me, Nolan remains one of the most audacious and technically adept filmmakers working today. I think the studio heads that back him deserve a ton of credit as well, especially in this age of remakes and superhero movies. Making a film like Interstellar is a massive risk, and I commend them for doing it. I’d much rather see an uneven film like this one than something unoriginal. And if people in cinema lobbies around the world are going to talk about the gravitational pull of black holes, I think that is a very good thing.

Michael Mohan‘s latest film, Pink Grapefruit, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and won the Narrative Jury Prize at SXSW.  He most recently directed a series of branded films for Kate Spade starring Anna Kendrick and Lily Tomlin. Other credits include Save the Date, starring Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, and Martin Starr.  Currently, he’s co-writing The Ends for the production company Big Beach. See more of his work at michaelmohan.com.