Science fiction, as a genre, needs more movies like Interstellar, movies that have big ambitions to tell large, mind-bending stories while also staying grounded in the reality of the characters. Too often lately, science fiction movies have been only a subset of the action or comic book movie genres. Guardians of the Galaxy was possibly my favorite movie of the year, but I still like good, original "hard" science fiction stories.
Good science fiction has always started with a compelling "what if", and spun a story from there. What truly makes some science fiction great is executing on both parts of the story, the science (however fantastical it may be) and the human drama. If the movie is too heavy into the world-building, there's no room for any interesting characterization. There has to be enough of an otherworldly dimension to the story to interest us, to tell a story that couldn't be told in the "real world", but not an overwhelming amount of detail. Her is a good recent example of this: it's clear that it's in a vague "future" time, but the specifics don't matter nearly so much as the goal of telling a certain human-centered story. The first two Alien movies executed this lesson perfectly: we learn just enough about the universe to intrigue us, but never too much to distract from the story.
Interstellar does pretty well on this front. Again, it's far from perfect, but I have a soft spot for big, ambitious movies, even when they stumble a bit in execution. There are definitely moments where the scientific explication and world-building are a bit heavy-handed, but it's forgivable. On the other side of the equation, the human drama at the center of the story is cliched at times, and some characters are a bit flat (not just the supporting characters–the antagonists that drive much of the third act are a bit flimsy, and their motives are unclear), but there are enough strong performances to keep the story compelling. At nearly three hours long, there are many points where the story could have been tightened up. But at the same time, it's a big story, and I mean it as a compliment when I say that I'd love to have seen this story told in a six-episode HBO series.
The problems with this movie really aren't dissimilar to the problems with other recent Christopher Nolan films. Namely, I think Christopher Nolan could really us a "VP for Devil's Advocacy", somebody to help ground his vision just a bit. Obviously Nolan is incredibly talented, but he seems to have reached the stage of filmmaking where he is beyond the influence of others. His sometimes meandering plots and his struggles with knowing when to end the movie are minor compared to how successful he has been, but his movies could be even stronger if he could tighten them up just a bit. Ray Subers illustrated this problem well in a recent tweet:
One of the things Roger Ebert always stressed in reviewing movies was that he looked at how well it succeeded or failed at what it set out to do. Interstellar set out to tell a story about what the human consequences of interstellar travel might look like. What are the real-world effects of the Theory of Relativity and time dilation? It's not the first movie to do that, and it has some stumbles along the way, but I think it succeeds much more than it fails, and I for one would gladly trade Thor 3 for more movies like Interstellar or Gravity.