"Dad didn't even try! Dad just abandoned us. He left us here to die"
A very interesting and ambitious film, though it feels slightly messier than the impressively ambitious and intricate Inception. Which could also be a plus! Though you can see a bit of that Nolan preoccupation with rigidly defined rules of film structure coming through in the mid-section, where it was pretty obvious as soon as they were introduced that the astronauts were not going to get away with just visiting one of the planets, but instead unsurprisingly end up methodically working through all of them, each with their own unique qualities, like the layers of Inception's dreams! It is less ambitious than Inception in the sense that the planets are necessarily self-contained rather than interlocking: the characters have to completely finish one experience there before moving onto the next. It is the action back on Earth that becomes the intercut simultaneously occuring action.
Like Inception, it is all about time. And a plot that can only achieve emotional closure when the rules have been bent to allow enough time for all of the required 'eureka moments' to happen. I can sympathise a lot with the sense that the film feels that the span of an individual human life just isn't enough to accomplish everything, leading to heartbreaking moments of having to pick and choose, and maybe end up doing so wrongly or living with regrets about the choice.
It might seem strange to come away from a sci-fi film thinking that Nolan might be the right choice to helm a multi-generational historical epic full of love, loss and family, but the ambition to do something in that vein was the main impression that I was left with by this film. (On that note, did anyone else get the impression that those 4x3 sections of elderly people giving interviews to the camera was a homage to Reds?)
I can also live with the film seemingly being consciously indebted to a huge number of other science fiction films:
I also love that the balletic spinning spaceship sequence from 2001 (or Lithgow's spacewalk to reach the spinning Discovery in 2010) gets ramped up to max speed in a late scene of Interstellar! I found that matching rotation sequence kind of hilarious! Taking stately Kubrick to the extreme!
I liked that the main theme of the film seems to be about 'authority figures' inevitably revealing themselves to be flawed, cowards, liars, over emotional hotheads, full of doubts and failures. Disappointing perhaps but human, all too human.
It is not (entirely) a damning judgement though, just the inevitable changes in relationships that time passing and increasing awareness brings about. Looking to your parents, siblings, mentors, colleagues (teachers) to always be there to protect and save you is far too large a demand to put on anyone. Instead the film is suggesting that the individual has to nurture their own individual resilience within themselves and set their own goals. Yet it is also critiquing that approach slightly, especially in the scenes with Mann, but also in Murph setting fire to the crops, both characters intercut with each other as they go about the process of doing what they think is best even if it means destroying others in the process. And of course it is there in the sense of an urge to explore leading to 'abandoning' the family.
This is where I feel that Interstellar gets both slightly confused and really interesting. On the confusion part, I find the way that the film sets up some of its emotional conflicts to be a little heavy handed. The early scene with the teachers at the school is the worst offender here, being very heavy handed and a bit too didactic in its contrasting of our full of life blue collar engineer against brutal administrators writing off a young person's future with a stroke of a pencil. Although maybe I'm sensitive about these things as an administrator myself! I like to see admin not as in contempt of the far sighted and practical person, but in support of them, taking away the boring tasks to let the truly visionary create unhindered. As with all such false dichotomies it is put in there for a didactic purpose, rather than a realistic one. You can get sensitive and insensitive people in all walks of life - admin people who can be supportive and helpful, and some who hinder, presumably just as you have engineers doing the same thing! Back to the school scene, the less said about the weirdly politically muddled bit involving the school refusing to teach the Moon landings because they've been discredited as a hoax, the better. Presumably there is an attempt being made to link teaching the Moon landings with issues around teaching evolution? Science and engineering are as embattled as religion is in this future Earth doomed to extinction, having similarly failed to provide any practical answers to the existential threats facing mankind. Which is sort of interesting in emphasising that this is a religious film for a universe without a God, only Man. But that discussion with the teacher only interested in teaching the 'approved' truth is a bit too contrived in setting up a fake situation to then take an aggrieved moral stance on.
Also I slightly don't believe in the contrasting of the emotional conflicts as being more important when set against a global disaster. Sure the space mission only has a slim chance of succeeding and many times seems like an outright failure, and our hero has abandoned his family, but he's done so for the tiny possibility of saving them in particular and humanity as a whole. To see that as anything less than noble and then to bear a grudge for decades about it seems a little wrongheaded. What was the alternative? To stay at home and watch everyone die?
But while narratively a little ropey this is also the entire metaphysical point of the film, widening out the 'disappointment' with authority figures noted above to the mortality of the human condition itself. Don't we all just powerlessly watch our loved ones slowly die every day even without a global famine and asthma-causing dust storms hurrying the process along? Death is another form of your primary authority figure or carer in your life 'showing' ('revealing'? 'proving'?) themselves to be totally, upsettingly powerless. Illness too (as shown in the brother's sickly family and the brother's stoic acceptance of that fact versus Murph's outright Dylan Thomas-styled refusal to entertain the idea that she might not be able to do anything to change that. Casey Affleck plays the brother in a few short scenes as perhaps the most down to Earth figure in the film, yet tellingly and tragically the film doesn't really need him because of that). We cannot blame someone for dying on us, but instead should try to muster the strength to carry on both for ourselves and the legacy of our family. While the film superficially suggests that one person makes all the important discoveries entirely for themselves, it is really holding a wider perspective that such progress is accumulated from many, many lives edging ever closer to a breakthrough. Even when those lives are being lived simultaneously with each other!
This ties into the ending interestingly when our hero is quite literally thrown out of the timeline, and even when he returns to our universe he is so old-yet-young that he is in a new, post-human existence. He has been gifted an extra life outside of his natural span and a benediction from his elderly daughter (tellingly not his son, who has been burnt out of the film by that point) that she doesn't need him to feel responsible for her any more. She took over that role herself with the extra-curricular gift of knowledge that he provided her with (maybe this film is about the contrast between public and private education!), and now Cooper himself can begin a entirely new phase of his own life.
Additional note: It is also a film that seems to have a rather low view of (if not combative attitude towards) nostalgia, thereby placing it somewhat in opposition to Solaris! Past memories are not something to be contemplated and lived in, but practically studied and searched for the way to leave a message within them for the future. The wonder of something like the stargate sequence in 2001 or the visitors in Solaris becomes more like an intricate puzzle box to be 'solved' here. The son looking after the family farm and dwindling crop harvest needs to have both 'comfort blankets' forcibly removed from him for his own good. Even the ersatz recreation of the family farm on the Saturn station (itself a Solaris reference) isn't a place of comfort but introduced with elderly electronic tour guides reminiscing on top of each other and with the kitchen cordoned off by red velvet ropes (interestingly this section reminded me of that Julie & Julia film, with its own overlapping time periods and pristine show kitchens!)