Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
I really jibe with what Interstellar is trying to accomplish. I want big budget films to aim intellectually and emotionally high. I agree with most of its messages and themes. I am the choir it is preaching to. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the movie is, in the most charitable view, only haphazardly successful. There are aspects to love about it — it’s the best-looking blockbuster in years, and there are some truly enrapturing moments. but that’s scattered among strings of misaimed beats across a punishing, nearly three-hour runtime.
In the vaguely near future, humanity faces extinction within one generation due to a global famine. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and engineer who now rakes out a hardscrabble life on a farm with his two kids and father-in-law. Through some contrivance, he stumbles upon a secret space program seeking to use a recently-appeared wormhole off of Saturn to search for a planet in a distant galaxy that can possibly support human life. Cooper is recruited into the mission in short order, and soon the crew is off for the stars.
There are a lot of spoilery developments that come later, though in a refreshing change of pace, it’s not really necessary to include them to discuss what does and doesn’t work about the movie*. Anyone familiar enough with classic science fiction tropes may be able to guess where the story is going, but a lot of these tropes have seen much more use in literature than they have in cinema, so it’ll be interesting to see how “normal” audiences react to them. They shouldn’t have any trouble understanding what’s happening, at least. As befits a screenplay by the Nolan brothers, every single concept is carefully exposited and double-underlined for the viewer’s benefit, often in a frustratingly clunky manner.
Even more clunky is how the script articulates character and theme. There are not one but two scenes in which Cooper and his father-in-law sit on a back porch at night while the father-in-law blithely states both Cooper’s history and everything he must be feeling. Ambiguity on this Earth seems to have died along with the crops. A good deal of this film is clearly aiming for 2001 levels of gravitas, but Stanley Kubrick explicitly sought to sacrifice anything that bogged down that movie’s vision, even if it came at the expense of narrative clarity. He cut a voiceover that would have explained the star gate and star child sequence. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan would not only leave it in, but rewrite it so that it not only told us what was happening, but how it related to the film’s wider ideas.
But that’s just a fraction of the fat that’s on this 169-minute behemoth. Much of the rest that bogs it down comes in the form of scenes set on Earth that occur after the astronauts have left it. Almost all of them could be eliminated without being missed, but at certain points, they become an active detriment to the space plot. One baffling sequence intercuts a crucial action scene involving Cooper with utterly superfluous events back on Earth. It wrecks what would otherwise be a quite thrilling setpiece.
While a lot of movies with big ideas that fail to live up to their potential do so by frontloading all their best stuff, Interstellar actually gets more intriguing as it goes on. After a not-terrible but overlong setup on Earth, launching into space gives the film an opportunity to really wow the viewer. And as the crew visits one foreign world after the next and encounters some new danger, the movie finally feels like it has something to sink its teeth into. At times, it almost (almost) seems like the film could live up to its 2001 ambitions. The spacecraft passes through the rings of Saturn, or into a wormhole, or by a black hole, and the visuals make full effect of the IMAX 70mm. It’s a pity that this part’s consistently speedbumped by the Earth scenes.
Still, Hoyte van Hoytema is the true savior of this film, him and celluloid shooting. Whether it’s in the corn fields back on Earth or on the barren ice floes of a distant planet, Interstellar sings visually. In particular, the shuttle-bound shots look like they came straight out of documentaries like For All Mankind, immensely aiding the sense of verisimilitude. The grandeur of the visuals say everything that about the dizzying potential of human exploration than any character’s overdone speechifying could ever accomplish. The team at Double Negative also deserve credit for pulling off some impressive CGI — they figured out what black holes actually look like!
At the center of all this philosophizing and space zooming are a few actors trying their best with some hackneyed material. Matthew McConaughey could pull off the salt-of-the-Earth everyman in his sleep, but that almost works against him here, making him feel generic. Anne Hathaway is the other main astronaut, and she mostly gets emotional about things. Jessica Chastain anchors the action back on Earth, and she also… mostly exists to get emotional about things. Bless the Nolans, they’re trying to overcome their woman problem, but it’s more than just letting them show up, guys.
Interstellar acts as a call for humans to go back to the stars. In one of many not-so-subtle touches, we learn that in this dire future, history textbooks claim that we never went to the Moon, that it was all a hoax. But the movie can’t actually trust science to act as the goal here, and injects a “love is special and real” message into it that’s often horribly cringe-inducing. At times, the film reads as an outright parody of the “love conquers time” idea, but it’s all played so painfully straight. People have accused Christopher Nolan films of being cold and unemotional, but the real problem is that they, like William H. Macy in Magnolia, have plenty of emotion, but don’t know where to put it.
IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO READ SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR STOP READING NOW
*That being said, SPOILERS because this movie has one of my very favorite science fiction tropes and I’d go mad if I didn’t get to talk about it. There’s a MAROONED ASTRONAUT WHO’S GONE MAD FROM ISOLATION! And he’s played by Matt Damon and it’s SO GREAT. Casting Damon is brilliant, because no one expects him to be the bad guy, even though The Departed happened, so when he turns out to be the bad guy it’s a great oh shit moment. And his all-too-brief presence in the film raises more interesting issues and ideas than any of what the rest of it does. It helps that Damon actually gives his characters layers and nuances — he’s an idolized former hero who’s broken under the weight of failure and guilt for trying to abandon his ideals and save his own skin, but he’s also mired in delusion through attempting to justify his selfish actions as for the greater good and ugh it’s so great. Marooned insane astronauts are the best.