Interstellar is one of those rare films that lays bare a director's vision not only for this particular work but for all of life. This is Christopher Nolan's 2001: A Space Odyssey, his The Tree of Life. When such a film comes around it demands our attention. But does Interstellar deserve it, and can it hold it beyond the three hours running time? The answer to these questions is yes and no, but more no than yes. Indeed, a lot more no than yes.
The yes of Interstellar is its commitment to the vision. This vision is signposted in the opening hour, with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) telling us that "We're not meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it." Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) relates a similar aphorism: mankind may have been born on earth, but we were not supposed to die on earth. The will to explore is at the centre of Nolan's vision, which means that the film is constantly moving toward new lands, hidden NASA headquarters, distant galaxies, and extra dimensions. It is hard to be bored given this relentless kinetic energy. This creates a problem, however, and is one reason why Interstellar is anti-Gravity: we are never in the same place long enough to care about it or the people who dwell there.
While Gravity did not spend much time on earth, earth was unquestionably "home." The only question was whether Dr Stone (Sandra Bullock) would make it back. Exploration was not the end, and (contrary to Professor Brand in Interstellar) leaving earth was the very opposite of what was required for human salvation. Dr Stone longed for the very mud and dust which Cooper raged against. In philosophical terms, Gravity depicted procession and return. Or in biblical parlance, it conveyed the Old Testament belief of coming from dust and returning to dust. Stone is then raised up from the dust and the mud a creature reborn. Interstellar is all procession, all progress. This in itself does not make for a bad film, though it perhaps makes for a theologically suspect one. Kubrick portrays the relentless journey toward progress stunning effect in 2001. But Kubrick's vision of life was cold, violent, and ultimately lonely. 2001 is deeply tragic and traumatic. Nolan tries to avoid this tragedy by making love the unifying factor in the universe. But in the words of Will.i.am and co, where is the love?
Nowhere is this lack of love more evident than in the film's final moments. A middle-aged Coop is reunited with his long lost daughter on her death bed. She is over one hundred years old due to some time lapse stuff that doesn't make sense. Does he stay by her side to be there when she takes her final breath, or even to mingle with his grandchildren? No. She tells him that no father should have to see his child die, so he quickly departs in order to explore the United States colony which is being established on another planet. For a film which unashamedly preaches the virtues (and science!) of love it has remarkably little time for the actual practice of love. This is because love is bound up with place, and Interstellar has no sense of place. Unlike with Gravity (and also The Tree of Life), earth sure as hell isn't good enough. It is portrayed with wonder and longing by Alfonso Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Malick's cinematographer for The New World and The Tree of Life). It is portrayed by Nolan as arid, unfruitful, and irredeemable.
Where Interstellar also differs from Gravity as well as 2001 is in its unquestioning trust in technology. As far as I can remember nothing ever goes wrong from a technological point of view. Technology can be relied upon absolutely. Hell, even drones become the play things of children! This causes the film to suffer both as a drama and as a meaningful commentary on the human condition. In Gravity the whole drama centres around the limits and vulnerability of technology. 2001 portrays technology ("embodied" by HAL 9000) as being as devious and untrustworthy as the humans which create it. Nolan's Interstellar exhibits no such skepticism. Technology does not fail, it does not disobey, it does not change the humans who use it (at least not for the worse); it simply carries us into a glorious future.
Nolan's faith is admirable. He sees in humans an incredible and complex ability to survive and adapt. But what is the price of this kind of survival? And more crucially, what does it look like for humans to flourish as humans? Nolan's answers to these questions are suspect and superficial. The message Interstellar delivers to humanity is "trust yourself." Gravity, on the other hand, ends in a "thank you" which addresses a reality beyond the limits of human power and which bespeaks a more disciplined and peaceful way of seeing the world. Karl Barth would argue that love is only possible when these limits are acknowledged on the side of humans and broken into on the side of the "beyond" or the "other". For Nolan this "other" is other humans from the future. For Barth this is not other enough.