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In a watershed moment for American film criticism, Andrew Sarris conceded in the Village Voice that he may have been off base in his negative assessment of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); he made a point of getting stoned before seeing it a second time, in the hopes of relating better to the hip young viewers who’d made the movie a countercultural phenomenon. Sarris did more than acknowledge his own bias—he acknowledged the growing influence of counterculture on cinema as a whole. As former Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his essay “What Dope Does to Movies,” Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic, along with Jacques Tati’s Playtime and John Boorman’s Point Blank, signaled the rise of a new kind of pop spectacle. Movies “were becoming environments to wander about and wallow in, not merely compulsive plots that you had to follow, and sustaining certain contradictions—two-tiered forms of thinking where the mind could drift off in opposite directions at once—was part of the fun they were offering.” Though Sarris wasn’t naturally inclined to watch movies this way, he recognized the cultural importance of this new form of spectatorship and agreed to meet it on its own terms.
I’d been thinking about Sarris’s experiment since I filed my review of Interstellar a week ago, though not because I expect Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic to become a hit with the counterculture. For one thing, it’s debatable as to whether there still is such a thing as counterculture (the Internet has made it possible for even the most obscure cultural activity to become a worldwide sensation in little time); for another, the audience for Interstellar would seem to rest squarely in the mainstream. The film currently has an average rating on IMDB—generally a reliable arbiter of mainstream taste—of 9.1 out of ten, based on a poll of more than 112,000 respondents. Whereas 2001 confused and divided audiences on first release, Nolan’s film—which owes a debt to Kubrick’s in some of its thematic and formal ideas—seems to have elicited mainly positive responses.
I was ambivalent in my review of Interstellar, praising the film’s imagery but dismissing the storytelling for being unemotional and oddly paced. (I realized almost immediately that this was what most mainstream critics said about 2001 in 1968, which was what specifically led me to think of Sarris.) This response was fairly superficial, the result of having to formulate an opinion less than 24 hours after attending a preview screening. I hadn’t yet taken time to consider that the film was operating on two levels at once, a la 2001. On an immediate level, Nolan’s film tells the story of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), his family, and the team of scientists with whom he explores the cosmos. At the same time, the movie also asks us to speculate about the future of humanity as a whole. Supposing human beings could rebuild civilization in outer space after earth becomes uninhabitable, how would we go about doing this? And what would this new civilization look like?
One doesn’t have to be stoned to think about these things, but I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Rosenbaum, after all, lists “radical shift[s] in orientation and perspective—sudden movement[s] from total concentration to Zenlike dissociation” as a key attribute of doper cinema. And so I decided to take a cue from Sarris this weekend before I went to the Navy Pier IMAX for a second go at Interstellar. If “dope generally helps to foster a wider and more hedonistic spirit of aesthetic openness” (Rosenbaum again), then maybe dope would make me more receptive to Nolan’s shifts in orientation. If nothing else, the tactile splendor of watching the film on 70-millimeter was sure to be that much more splendid, and the Navy Pier IMAX concession stand sells really big Icees. I was ready to set aside whatever differences I had with Interstellar and go with the flow.
I still had my doubts, however, as Interstellar doesn’t offer much in the way of flow. Nolan might be a gifted filmmaker when it comes to big ideas, but his relative indifference to pacing, framing, characterization, and humor has severely limited my enjoyment of his last several films. Often I’m not sure what motivates Nolan to cut from one image to another. In many cases the shots don’t line up exactly, and his editing feels rhythmless (and not in the purposely disorienting manner of Michael Bay’s work). I constantly feel like I’m being pulled out of Nolan’s films, and the rudimentary characters—which feel like composites of screenwriters’ cliches and notes from a Psychology 101 course—fail to pull me back in. This lack of human feeling extends, at times fatally, to Nolan’s direction of actors. Take the performances of Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi in Interstellar. It’s not that they’re bad in the movie or even that they seem miscast as scientific geniuses—it’s that Nolan doesn’t seem to have instructed them to behave in any distinctive manner that would make them seem like scientific geniuses.
For what it’s worth, these shortcomings reflect Nolan’s willingness to put big ideas first. The most winning quality of Interstellar may be the thoroughness with which it considers intergalactic travel and the colonization of space. (That the movie considers a future for humanity after the devastation of earth makes it something of an antidote to such recent apocalyptic films as Melancholia, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth.) In its subject matter and earnest fascination with hard science, the movie recalls at least two pioneering works of sci-fi literature, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). The fantasies offered by those novels are so vivid that readers have no trouble elaborating on them in their own imaginations, and Interstellar merits praise for aspiring to something comparable.
It’s worth noting that both Stapledon and Bradbury belong to a predope era of popular culture. Moreover the fantasies offered by Nolan’s films would seem to belong to a postdope era. If today’s youth culture has a drug of choice, it’s probably the Internet, which offers the thrill of imagined omniscience and the chronic, low-level buzz of monitoring personal and social developments each second they unfold. Interstellar speaks to this culture as much as it speaks to the earlier sci-fi of Stapledon and Bradbury, overloading the spectator with scientific concepts and providing explanations for every potentially bewildering development. Like 2001, Interstellar climaxes with the protagonist taking the first step in the evolution of human consciousness. Kubrick rendered this development mysterious and scary by presenting it as part of the film’s flowing sensory experience, not by stopping to explain what it meant. Nolan, on the other hand, presents this development as uplifting and instantly graspable.
When I finished thinking about all this, I realized that I had never gotten off my living room couch and that I would miss the showing of Interstellar I’d planned to attend. I resolved that I would try to go again next weekend. For now I’m inclined to say that I enjoy thinking about Interstellar more than I enjoy watching it, but I still intend to take the Sarris route and withhold judgment until I get through another viewing.