Warning: This review contains spoilers!
“ really tells you that it doesn't need to be understood -- it needs to be felt.” -- Christopher Nolan
The filmmaker has largely gone the opposite way with his sci-fi epic Interstellar, a beautifully shot, frustratingly flawed film that finds more success depicting its science accurately than it does executing its drama emotionally. The result isn’t terrible, just terribly disappointing.
Nolan’s critics, who take him to task for using some of his films to explore his fascination with the process of things, have plenty to argue here, as the majority of Interstellar’s nearly three-hour run time is fueled by exposition and explanation; nothing is set up without a payoff, especially on the physics side of things. If only Nolan -- along with his brother and co-writer Jonathan -- took a similar approach to the story’s emotional core and its themes, instead of investing the film with a heart that only hits the same maudlin beat.
Set in an unspecified future where a blight has forced people like Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to put their flying and engineering skillset on hold to farm corn within Dust Bowl confines. It’s a world where armies are extinct and students are taught that NASA faked its missions to bankrupt the Soviets. (But we still use 2003 Dell laptops and drive wood-paneled station wagons. Phew.)
When Cooper’s younger daughter, physicist-in-the-making Murph (Mackenzie Foy), encounters what she calls a “ghost” in her bedroom -- one that communicates using binary and gravity (don’t ask) – she and her father find themselves on the road to NASA’s secret, underground base. Here, Cooper encounters father-daughter scientists Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway, who inform him of their plan to save humanity by finding it a new home on the other side of a wormhole that’s parked near Saturn.
Lots of scientifically grounded and impressively staged space travel ensues, as Cooper is recruited to fly the mission that puts a lot of time and distance between himself and the daughter he loves and the family he’s desperate to save. Murph grows up in the form of Jessica Chastain to become a bitter, betrayed top scientist, struggling to save Earth on the ground, while the father she believes abandoned her tries to do the same on alien worlds.
Interstellar’s characters refer to themselves as pioneers and explorers; they’re some of the first to experience wormhole and black hole travel, yet they do so without any sense of awe. The way the space sequences are executed treats the trip as one would just another ride to work, creating mostly surface connection with the world and the people in it. The film can’t even bother to give its hero – a pilot finally getting his chance to go into space – a beat where he registers his dream coming true. But, hey, at least we get to see how light would behave around a black hole!
Why the best in their field would have to venture to the surfaces of two worlds – one made out of ocean, the other forged out of ice – before realizing there’s no chance in hell these planets can support human life is a question the film can’t be bothered to answer. And it’s just one of the many frustrations the narrative presents.
The story hinges on how far Cooper must go to get back to his family, and his final actions go against what the film doesn’t miss a beat to underscore. The only thing it pushes down our throats more than Cooper’s mission is the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” section of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem. (Just in case you missed its four audible appearances, it appears again in written form.)
Despite the story’s flaws, McConaughey’s earnest performance is the glue that holds it all together. Try as the script might, there isn’t a line of exposition or obvious sentiment the Oscar winner can’t make work – although you can hear his talents strain under the weight of a pivotal third-act sequence, where he must once again tell the audience of how love will save the day, even from within five-dimensional space.
With the exception of Chastain and Hathaway, the supporting cast is given little to do with their thin characters. Wes Bentley and David Gyasi are best remembered as the guy who dies first, and the guy who dies second, respectively. Chastain plays each scene as if she were scorned two minutes before it begins, aggressively hitting her character’s only note in ways that make the third act’s attempts to make her sympathetic feel forced and unearned. (And don’t feel bad if you roll your eyes when her character identifies her bedroom “ghost.” It’s expected, given that her epiphany lacks any convincing on-screen legwork to back it up.)
Hathaway is arguably the weakest link. She’s talented, but lacks the presence necessary to portray a scientist of her ilk convincingly. Her big scene, waxing thematically about love and a lover we never meet, fails because it centers on a character we don’t care about.
Unlike Nolan’s previous efforts, Interstellar suffers too much from “My First Screenplay”-itis. Symptoms include the five refrains of the aforementioned poem and the conveyance of its “love can find a way” themes that feel film-school pretentious and precious. While confidently executed, there’s no awareness on Nolan’s part that he isn’t the first person to weave these threads around sci-fi tentpoles. He touches on elements that films like Contact did better, and 2001 did best.
As good and ambitious as Nolan’s intentions are, they often land with little success. The problems inherent are too vast to overcome, the story gets in its own way and even though Interstellar argues that love can save a great many things, this movie isn’t one of them.
Interstellar opens Friday nationwide.