Warning: This post contains spoilers. A lot of them. If you haven’t already seen the movie, this is a dangerous place to be.
“Are you selling the unlimited Interstellar pass?” I asked.
They were, or at least he thought they were.
“I’ll take one of those, please.”
The cashier searched his monitor for a bit and eventually punched in what I needed. “Sorry,” he said, “we don’t get asked for those every day. It’s $34.99.”
“Oh, that’s fine — and I’m sure you don’t,” I replied, just before stuffing the stub in my wallet and wondering what the hell I’d just done.
It started early on a Monday morning last week, when an email from Grantland editor/life-ruiner Mark Lisanti landed in my inbox. “Fwd: Introducing the Interstellar Unlimited Ticket” the subject line began. “I’m just saying,” the body read. He was taunting me. And it worked.
The movie-watching stunt has long been a role of mine at Grantland, and time hasn’t changed that. If anyone else had been tapped for this mission, I wouldn’t have just been disappointed. I’d have been offended. The release forwarded to me was from AMC Theatres, which, with the help of Paramount, was releasing an all-you-can-watch option for Interstellar. The ploy reeked of a studio doing whatever it could to squeeze every cent out of a $165 million, Nolan-directed, McConaughey-led movie that lost to a deflated Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on opening weekend and was now staring down the shaft of a Katniss Everdeen arrow.
My goal — if there was one, outside of not losing my mind— was to make sense of “The why of the thing,” as Jon Lithgow would put it several times in the next few days. As in:
Why would someone buy this?
How many times could they actually see it?
And why don’t I have more relationships that I might feel guilty ignoring?
Although I swore I’d never go back after spending an entire weekend trapped there in 2012, I drove to the AMC Universal CityWalk — the only multiplex around that fit my needs and schedule — and managed to hit the box office in time for a 12:15 showing.
I settled into my seat with a few minutes to spare and started what I assumed would be the first of several experiences with AMC’s pre-movie, pre-trailer entertainment. I lasted about a minute before pulling out my phone and soaking in my last few moments of contact with the outside world. When the first of AMC’s four turn-off-your-phone PSAs began, I obliged and settled in for the long haul. The very long haul.
The reason I was so quick to say yes to all of this is that I hadn’t even seen Interstellar a first time yet. I found out that was both a good and bad thing: Entering as a blank slate allowed the craziness that comes with 15 relentless hours of Nolan world-layering and time-shifting to wash over me unimpeded, but it also meant I’d have about six minutes between screenings to consider how I felt about the movie, like a normal person.
I liked it — I think. Nolan has always provided a mixed bag for me. I never latched onto Inception like so many people did, and even in the films I enjoyed more, I found myself drawn more to the characters than the conceit. There’s self-satisfaction in the cleverness of Inception, The Prestige, and Memento that I either don’t appreciate or don’t care enough about. I’ve enjoyed them all, but it has more to do with actors I want to watch, not mysteries I want to untangle.
This was no different. Even when True Detective was at its most ridiculous, my argument for it was getting to spend an hour each week watching Matthew McConaughey. I’m now familiar with the limits of that theory, but as far as it bent, it never quite broke. In the quieter parts of Interstellar, whether it was him saying good-bye to Murph, or him saying hello to her again, there were moments when I was genuinely affected. That, combined with the scale of the entire thing, was enough that my normal $13 would have been well spent. But for the Nolan bros, it isn’t nearly enough. They want you to understand every nook and cranny of that five-dimensional representation of time. They want their Lester Freamon moment, to remind you that all the pieces matter. And considering I’d spent a lot more than $13, I was happy to take them up on it.
I saw Interstellar five times over the course of one weekend. Luckily, the CityWalk AMC has an IMAX screen, which allowed some variety of experience. My second screening was at 3:15, which meant I’d be stumbling in just as the actual movie was about to start. Among all the fine print on the back of my wallet-size commemorative pass, there’s a rule that limits the pass holder to one showing every three hours. I imagine that’s designed to deter pass-backs, rather than worrying about sacrificing the integrity of each individual screening. Either way, I was glad Paramount was there to save me from myself.
It took about 10 minutes into the IMAX version to realize this is how everyone should see this movie. There are three or four shots in those three hours that are elevated from impressive to awe-inspiring on the big screen, namely the docking sequence at the climax, the moment before the second wave on the water planet comes crashing down, and a couple of images from Cooper’s driveway down the cornfield. Everything gets bigger in IMAX: There’s more square footage of screen, more decibels of sound, more money per ticket. The only thing that gets smaller with Interstellar is McConaughey’s body-fat percentage. On that scale, his jawline in 70 mm is impossible, not to mention that his Adam’s apple becomes the size of a boulder.
But even if the screen was bigger, I spent the second time through picking out smaller moments that were clues no one could catch the first time around. I hadn’t understood the purpose of the crash scene that starts the movie, even with everything that happens later. Yet after we learn that the voice-over that opens the film is supposed to be daughter Murph, mentioning that her father “wasn’t always” a farmer, it all starts to make sense. The crash cuts to him waking up, then to Murph saying, “I thought you were my ghost,” and the bones of the next three hours are set up in about 30 seconds. Again, so fucking clever.
I was happy that my feelings about the robots didn’t fall away after seeing them again. I’m sure someone’s explored this phenomenon, but our connection to robots of any kind is kind of fascinating. I get C-3PO. He looks like a person and talks like a person. And I get R2-D2. He’s cute. But each robot in Interstellar looks like a metal door mated with a Rubik’s Cube, and when that thing went Randy Quaid from Independence Day and dropped into the black hole, I was broken up about it. It probably isn’t a ringing endorsement for the Nolans’ character development that I cared more about TARS than I did Casey Affleck or Jessica Chastain — and it wasn’t all that close.
I know there’s a spoiler warning at the top — and if you haven’t seen this movie, there’s no chance you’ve gotten this far — but if you don’t want the big surprise ruined, I’d turn back now.
The plot point that got better every time was the Problem of Dr. Mann, which wasn’t all that subtle to begin with: When Amelia Brand says that Dr. Mann is “the best of us,” it’s time to turn back, right then and there.1 Anne Hathaway’s exchange as she’s laying out the options of the possible planets to McConaughey is so ridiculous as to be fun every time. All it takes for him to realize she’s in the bag romantically for the discoverer of Planet No. 3 is a slight pause before, “Oh, Wolf is a particle physicist.” The way she stumbles into Wolf’s profession and Dr. Mann being the best of us is the basis of the entire next hour. It’s efficient, I guess.
1. Plus, as Grantland’s Chris Ryan pointed out, his name is Dr. Mann. Not that naming the only female astronaut “Amelia” is any better. The Nolans don’t want you to miss a thing.
Even by the fifth time through, I was still surprised to see Matt Damon pop out of that … well, OK, slight detour: I have a real question about the cryo-sleep chambers in this fake world. If you were going to sleep for 10 years, could you imagine a more uncomfortable setting than a shallow pool of water while wearing a pair of clingy scrubs? It’s like if a water bed was redesigned as a form of torture. These are the thoughts that creep up around Hour 11.
Anyway, Matt Damon. Every time he popped out of that thing to re-create the “It’s not your fault” scene, I was at least a little surprised. But the best part of catching his 15-minute cameo five times over was listening to him get progressively creepier. The dialogue he has with McConaughey as he’s walking them to their potential ends is really some disturbing shit. “Even without children,” Damon says, “I can understand that yearning to be with other people. That emotion is at the foundation of what makes us human.” Print would never do it justice. But it’s weird. He follows that up a bit later with a line about how research shows us the last thing we see before we die is our children, that we strive to stay alive for just a bit longer, if only for them. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but from Damon’s character in this movie, it sounds like it’s coming from Kevin Spacey at the end of Se7en. Pro tip: Any time you’re walking toward the edges of a frozen planet with a creepy dude talking about what you’ll see the moment before you die, don’t stick around.
I only managed three viewings on Friday night. At Hour 9, I was losing steam fast, and the theater we were in was so close to the rest of the CityWalk that the music from a nearby bar was pouring in during the quieter scenes. Part of me thought completing three trips to space would be enough, but as someone who once had the pricing policy changed at the Chinese buffet in his college town after staying from the lunch shift into dinner, I was intent on getting my money’s worth.
That feeling, the inkling that even three trips through space wasn’t enough, was a hint at why Paramount and AMC thought this offer was worth it. No matter how many cracks at the logic I got, it felt like I’d get a step closer to understanding if I got to hear it one more time. How the dimensions stacked and the levels of time and space were layered would somehow become clearer. The way love could be the key, how it allowed us to access a specific moment in infinite spacetime might make a tiny more sense.
What worried me is that each time I watched might make it easier to poke holes. That worry fell away after I saw it the fourth time, that next afternoon. It’s difficult to yank down the bricks of what the Nolans have built because there’s really no brick any more ridiculous than the last. During Round 4, I started jotting down every point I could that related to time, or dimensions, or love being the key. This is a movie that involves a tesseract being constructed by future humans that only one person can access because of the love he has for the little girl chosen to save humanity. You’re either OK with that, or you’re not. Seeing it once or five times isn’t going to change that. I guess it was good enough for me.
What did change, and what I did try to decipher, was why I found myself connecting with certain scenes at certain times. On first viewing, the scene of McConaughey, still physically fortysomething and perfectly stubbled, sitting next to his 90-year-old daughter was enough to slay me. It hit me the way I’m assuming the Nolans hoped. I thought about time, and love, and all of that. The next three times I saw it, that feeling wasn’t quite there. It probably couldn’t have been. But weirdly enough, it hit me hardest the fifth time. I’m not quite sure why. I guess after 15 hours, the concept of time was fresh in my mind. I was just happy I didn’t feel like I’d wasted that much of it.