Rating: 2 stars (out of 4)
Interstellar (2014): Dir. Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Mackenzie Foy. Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language. Running time: 149 minutes.
If I loved Christopher Nolan’s films as much as I loved the premises of his films, I’d probably declare him my favorite high-concept filmmaker. Say what you will about Nolan, but he knows how to get my butt to the theater. So when I heard Nolan was making a film about wormholes and space travel? Yeah, I was going to see this even if it starred Tyler Perry as Madea.
But premise alone does not make a movie, especially not a nearly three-hour one. And while I can’t call Interstellar an abject failure, I do think this a major disappointment given the ostensible ambition.
The film imagines a future where crop blight has seriously hampered food production, driving populations down and spurring frantic Earthlings to encourage farming over all other professions. With one exception. Drawling, squinty-eyed, perpetually open-mouthed ex-astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is recruited to scout potentially habitable planets in the hopes of saving humanity. He will have to travel through a wormhole (and dangerously close to a black hole) which will lead to some thorny time paradoxes (he will age at a much slower rate than the people on Earth).
Cooper’s mission creates an especially strained relationship for him and his daughter Murphy (whom he named after Murphy’s Law). Which leads me to an overwhelming problem with the film: its generic, lackluster treatment of father and daughter. That’s an especially glaring problem when it struggles to hold the emotional center of the film.
But there’s nothing specific or interesting about their relationship—they cry dramatically, recite tired platitudes, and look (admittedly) too precious together. We don’t feel for them beyond what we project as parents and children—they’re devices for emotional manipulation. Compare this relationship with that of the one in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was specific, complicated, and moving—in a movie that is half the length of Nolan’s epic.
It’s a shame because Nolan is clearly paying homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, while striving for a more obvious human element. Perhaps Nolan may have endeavored to get his characters past the outline stage? Anne Hathaway, who bristled with charisma in The Dark Knight Rises (and may have been that film’s best asset), simply provides the token female character.
That said, Matthew McConaughey as Cooper and Jessica Chastain as the older Murphy do manage some convincing emotional acting as the years keep ticking by. There’s a particularly effective scene where McConaughey breaks down after reviewing old video logs and realizes his children have reached his age back on Earth.
But there are no great performances in a movie when characters are relegated to delivering excerpts from an Astrophysics 101 class. True, Nolan aims for some semblance of scientific accuracy–many of the film’s physics concepts are taken from physicist Kip Thorne, who also served as the film’s scientific adviser. While interesting, it also means, as per the Gospel of Nolan, they must be delivered as clunkily as possible without regard for any thematic relevance. It gets so bad, you might wonder if the Nolan brothers were parodying themselves.
Of the film’s visuals merits (which it clearly intends as selling points), Nolan manages an interesting paradox. While the planets that Cooper and crew explore look impressive on a technical level, they’re scarcely novel on an aesthetic level (just cue up The Perfect Storm and The Empire Strikes Back). In fact, you could pretty much sum the movie up that way—it’s creativity on paper that loses any sense of wonder when translated on screen. How can such an epic scope feel strangely pedestrian?
Still, I don’t think Nolan steps wrong in all departments. We get some much needed humor from the two robot companions CASE and TARS (voiced by Josh Stewart and Bill Irwin, respectively) who accompany Earth’s blandest heroes. These unique prism-like eyesores are cleverly designed and incorporated into the narrative. And to be fair, I do give Nolan credit for a fantastically creative visual climax—quite frankly, it belongs in a better, more focused movie.
Interstellar comprises many of the flaws in Nolan’s other films, but here they’re exponentially more apparent. This space odyssey isn’t awful, but it is crushingly…skippable.