Christopher Nolan’s career to date has been one of slow expansion. From the curt and moody Following, to the slightly broader Memento, through his Dark Knight Trilogy and to Inception, each film has been a little bigger, a little more beautifully chaotic than the last. And with the partial exception of The Dark Knight Rises, that’s worked for him. It might even be why so many of us are so enamored of Nolan, beyond the fact that he made Batman good again. We’ve seen him try to bottle up more energy, more ideas, more complexity with each new film and succeed. It’s exciting. But it is with Interstellar that the cap’s come off the bottle and Nolan has made a bit of a mess.
The world of Interstellar is an indeterminately near(ish) future one where the Earth has been decimated by failing crops afflicted by “blight” and humanity might soon not be able to feed itself any longer. Thus, a NASA-in-hiding (because who wastes resources on the stars when there are such immediate concerns at home) begins sending out explorers through a wormhole that’s mysteriously appeared near Saturn in search of a new home.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), or more commonly just Coop, is an ex-NASA pilot-turned-farmer and father of two who is…well, I suppose you’d say “recruited,” although that hardly covers the enormous happenstance of it, to pilot the follow-up mission that will recon with the initial planetary explorers and choose a new home for humanity. Due to the relativistic effects of his journey, we’re soon seeing his exploration in parallel with the lives of his suddenly-adult children back on the ever-worsening Earth.
True to form, Interstellar isn’t just an action adventure yarn relying on big set pieces. There’s plenty of that, but like Inception’s investigation into the nature of reality, Interstellar seeks to blend physics and metaphysics by introducing what is, at least, paranormal symbolism under the guise of light philosophy blended with pseudoscience.
Here’s the problem: None of it works as intended. Here’s the short version:
- Interstellar clocks in at about two hours, 45 minutes, lengthy for a feature film; yet, it feels like it was scripted for about five hours, but could easily have been cut down from its current state to a firm two.
- The best character in a movie that features McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, and Michael Caine is a robot (which, to be clear, none of them voice).
- The plot is a mess of pseudoscientific and philosophical B.S. that assets itself so conveniently that even the characters themselves can barely seem to keep track of the rules.
- The ending has all of the “WTF was that?”-ness of Inception without any of the poignancy.
The runtime issues Interstellar faces have a ton to do with just how much theoretical mumbo-jumbo it’s trying to cram into the movie. A lot of what underlies the plot is about trying to harness the force of gravity, which the movie like a dimension (like time or space) as much as a force. Which is fine I guess, but it’s also the go-to explanation for anything bizarre happening, and no one seems to question it. For instance, early during a dust storm we see mysterious patterns being filtered out in Coop’s daughter Murph’s room, which Coop eventually (correctly) interprets a coordinate written in binary. Written by who or what? “It’s gravity,” he says as if that settles the issue. In a movie that’s overwhelmingly populated by scientists, the apparently paranormal is tolerated, even promoted, with remarkably little investigation, including wide allusions to the vague authority of “them,” who are supposed to be other beings who have for some reason concerned themselves with humanity.
The idea of love gets similar treatment to gravity. Amelia (Anne Hathaway), one of the astronauts on Coop’s voyage, goes into a speech at one point about how love is the only force humans can experience that transcends the dimensions of time and space, that it could even be a fifth dimension which humans can only see a little of, like other forms of life that are light-sensitive but can’t see in the same way a human eye can. It’s delivered completely straight-faced by a character who’s supposed to be an accomplished scientist, but it’s clearly blank supposition that no one questions because reasons. What’s worse, it then plays a HUGE part in the nonsensical climax of the movie (the resolution of which has almost nothing to do with the action that precedes it). Interstellar spends quite a bit of time on love, both in one individual’s affinity for another and in the idea of love for one’s species – this provides the crux of Coop’s main internal conflict, and also figures into some of the more physical confrontations in the movie – but it doesn’t say much about it. Paradoxically, love is mechanical in the world of Interstellar, the very physical force or dimension that Amelia posits instead of the more compelling emotional one we’re familiar with.
Which returns us to the issue of the performances. Coop’s relationship to his Murph (played as a 10-year-old by Mackenzie Foy and as an adult by Jessica Chastain) is the central emotional feature of the movie, a once-close relationship that was nearly destroyed by Coop’s decision to leave and their inability to communicate once he does. Foy is one of the brighter spots of the picture, although she’s not asked to do much more than play the little girl she is. With McConaughey and the other big names in the picture, however, there’s a distinct sense that they’re not sure who their characters are supposed to be or what the movie as a whole is really about. There are anecdotes from the set of the original Star Wars that the actors found the whole production borderline ridiculous, but it’s clear that they all eventually bought in, and we have some of the most iconic characters of the last 50 years as a result. (A lot of this has been attributed to the model Alec Guinness provided, but I digress.)
Without, it seems, something fast in their characters to hold onto, the cast falls back into whatever’s familiar and comfortable. Matt Damon might fare worst in this regard, but he, McConaughey, Hathaway, Caine, and Chastain all suffer from being almost parodies of themselves. We know all these actors are immensely capable, but they’re rarely given an opportunity to showcase their talents here. The only character who really does shine is a NASA support robot called TARS, one of a couple similar bots who show up. Voiced by Bill Irwin, TARS is a breath of fresh air, not only providing some much needed comic relief, but coming across as the most authentic part of the whole story.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
The few moments that Interstellar coalesces into something meaningful can be truly breathtaking; cinematography isn’t necessarily a standout, but visual design is, and in those briefest of instances where the visuals line up with compelling moments of character and thematic emphasis, we’re reminded why Christopher Nolan’s films are anticipated like few other directors’. In this case, however, he’s tried to take on way more than one movie can rightly hold, seemingly hamstrung even by a 2:45 and unable to explain the puzzling metaphysics and pseudoscience of this new world in any sort of relatable or meaningful way. Interstellar sprawls, and is bland as a result, a movie that’s unfortunately laughable when it tries to be poignant and unable to escape from its own unwieldy bulk.