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FILM REVIEW: Interstellar

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: While gorgeously shot, Christopher Nolan’s bid for entry into the canon of artistic science fiction movies drips with cliché and plods through its galactic vistas with little that is new or interesting.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: A former-NASA-test-pilot-turned-farmer is recruited to pilot an interstellar spaceship in the hopes of helping humanity escape from an earth ravaged by environmental degradation.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Incredible outer space sequences; alien worlds vividly realized; amazing renderings of a wormhole and a black hole.
CONS: Clichéd, sentimental characters; unconvincing future.

Matthew McConaughey is out to save the world, a line this critic never thought he would write without guffawing himself into a catatonic state. Perhaps I would not laugh if he were doing so in a television adaptation of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, where his meager talents might actually serve the material, but in a movie as ambitious as Interstellar, with director Christopher Nolan vying for space among such great science fiction movies as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (and, perhaps, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life), the idea of this dazed and confused Texas good-old-boy as Campbellian Competent Man offers too much cognitive dissonance, and certainly requires vast suspension of disbelief, to keep the titters away.

That may be a bit unfair, for McConaughey is only the most obvious cog in Interstellar’s perpetual wonder machine. And Interstellar possesses an abundance of wonders, from incredible shots of outer space—the moment when the spaceship Endurance arrives near Saturn to take a trip through a wormhole is breathtakingly realized—to intriguing glimpses of alien planets: one world composed of water with waves that dwarf mountains, another covered by frozen clouds. It vividly details a massive black hole, the remnants of a dying star threading its event horizon, thanks to the help of astrophysicist Kip Thorne. (On an IMAX screen, these moments fill the viewer with awe and wonder, in much the same way that IMAX presentations of Avatar did five years ago.) But to get to these, Nolan and his co-screenwriter Johnathan Nolan include characters motivated by cliché, populating a world that crosses the rural world of Clifford Simak with the sensibilities of 1970s dystopian science fiction cinema, and then mires it all with scientific principles that would give the likes of Greg Egan migraines. The result is an often-stunningly beautiful movie that never quite takes off.

McConaughey plays Cooper, a former NASA test pilot, who now tends farm with his family: father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck), and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain), simply called Murph. In this future, farms are universal, since, nearly a decade earlier, Blight began destroying wheat crops, the sterile dust often coating every potential surface. (Oddly, wheat may be gone, but Cooper still drinks beer; one wonders what crop has been used to make it.) Fortunately, corn still grows, and still feeds the population. But this agrarian world comes at a price, with humanity turning its back on science and innovation, leaving Cooper with a feeling of unease. It also isolates the precocious and scientifically minded Murph, who winds up in a fight after bringing an old astronomy textbook to school. (In one of Interstellar’s more amusing moments, Murph’s teacher weighs the blame on Murph, stating that the Apollo program was a hoax designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Cooper “punishes” Murph by taking her to a baseball game.) When she tells Cooper that a poltergeist haunts her room, Cooper advises her to weigh evidence, but even he gets caught up in her obsession with the noisy ghost as he leaves messages by throwing books from her shelves and patterning dust that falls on her floors.

The latter message leads Cooper and Murph on a road trip (Murph having stowed away among blankets wadded in the front seat of Cooper’s truck) to a secret NASA base, where the physicist Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) have discovered a wormhole outside the orbit of Saturn. Brand makes the situation clear to anybody who has a hard enough time with cinematic niceties such as subtlety: humanity’s only hope is to send a ship through the wormhole in order to locate a suitable new home, and Cooper remains the best candidate to lead a crew beyond the solar system. Naturally Murph grows bitter, and, naturally, Cooper, whose restlessness cannot keep him home, goes, despite the relativistic effects that might occur.

The Nolans present some intriguing worldbuilding touches that pose more questions than they answer. Interstellar takes place decades in the future, but, with the exception of an Indian drone that Cooper and his family chase at the movie’s opening, anything resembling contemporary technology is markedly absent. So are governments; at one point, the principal of Murph’s school (David Oyelowo) mentions that armies simply don’t exist anymore. (Though how a NASA base remains hidden in the American Midwest remains a mystery.) Nolan, in his earthbound sequences, aims for a kind of Bradbury-esque nostalgia mixed with a global-scale rendition of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but this cosy Ballardian disaster area remains unconvincing. Nolan never reveals what the world outside of Cooper’s farm looks like, and, though Cooper’s family eats from bowls filled with ears of corn, Interstellar mentions very little about what the inhabitants of this dying earth actually eat.

Even in his lesser movies, Nolan usually draws intriguing characters, yet this time sentiment saturates everyone, from McCounaghey’s extra-good Cooper (who alternates between gung-ho cowboy and concerned dad) to Hathaway’s doe-eyed Brand (we learn that Brand is in love with the leader of another expedition, who may or may not be dead) to Chastain’s heart-wrenched Murph. Even Caine, often good regardless of the material, can’t resist hamming it up by quoting Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” no fewer than three times. The characters seem to be all heart, no edge.

And this, perhaps, is why Interstellar ultimately fails. Previous efforts presented big ideas concerning the origin of species and thought and the hopelessness of inter-species communication, all played on a vast cosmic backdrop. Nolan paints on a vast canvas, but his picture never quite engages with its smaller, more human concerns, or at least never does so in a meaningful way. He wants to infuse the Big Idea movie with real people—an ambitious goal, yet his vision provides none of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. Interstellar wants to be a celebration of life, but it arrives as dead as the planet it’s trying to leave.

15 Comments on FILM REVIEW: Interstellar

  1. I saw the trailer and I said “meh”. Looks like I’ll just save my money.

  2. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // November 8, 2014 at 7:17 am //

    I’m going to see it today. I’ve seen a wide range of reactions to this, so I’m nervous where this is going to fall on the spectrum for me. We’ll see.

  3. Not a steller work?

  4. I agree that the trailer for this movie did not make me want to see it. At this point, I’m ambivalent. Yes, I wouldn’t mind being awed by the visuals, especially in IMAX. However, having to sit through turgid and cliched dialogue to get there is more than I have the patience for. 2001 I can sit through because Kubrik knew how to create tension with long shots of seemingly mundane scenes. Nolan is an excellent director for making the action movie seem like high art. I’m just not sure he has the skill to make art.

  5. Steve Oerkfitz // November 8, 2014 at 12:57 pm //

    A lot of positive reviews from critics I respect. I’ll see it tomorrow and hope for the best. It’s nice to see a Hollywood SF movie that is attempting to be serious rather than just an excuse for a action movie or another superhero movie which I find mostly silly even if sometimes entertaining.

  6. Gerry M Allen // November 8, 2014 at 1:33 pm //

    **Spoiler Free**
    While I respect your expertise, I cannot agree with your conclusions. I found McConaughey an ambiguous hero, torn between opposing goals, pulled by polar opposites. The eye candy was interesting but the story was cliched only for hard core science fiction fans of the ’60s and before.
    The film’s momentum captured me as the script worked out the solution to the central problem. No action hero fireworks here, just solid human acting. The final act did falter as if Nolan and his team couldn’t bring themselves to show the logical conclusion.
    All in all, the best science-fiction film I’ve seen since 2001…and don’t get started on Gravity.

    • Interstellar blew me away as well, and I’m surprised to see so much negativity from the SF community. These are the types of movies we want to see made, not Avatar or Transformers!

  7. I saw the movie this afternoon and loved it. I agree that McConaughey was the weakest actor in the bunch (but come on, look at who he’s up against! Hathaway, Caine, Chastian, Lithgow!), but it was still one hella good movie.

  8. David Greybeard // November 9, 2014 at 10:05 am //

    It’s a SF film for non-SF fans. It’s too basic and simple of a story. Full of plot holes and once again for a Nolan film, the garbled dialogue drowned out by the pitiful score. An excruciating long, dull and boring theater experience.

  9. I wish I had my money and time back. Out of the whole nearly three hour experience (gone almost deaf, except for my earplugs to save me from the sounda AND the dialogue) the most interesting character was TARS. Give me an entire film based on it. Thank you Bill Irwin. Really liked the Dada design.

    The rest is sentimental, pseudo-science drivel; and forgive me, but aside from Ripley in Alien (who was not a scientist) Hollywood has shown once again why it is a bad idea to send a woman into space. (Hear me Gravity?) Really, she went on this trip to find a man? She was the reason they messed up the first landing and got a person killed.

    Did anyone use real scientific thought here? Why not have equipment to scan the worlds before landing? Why not have a better system of locating the beacons?

    I guess when NASA went underground they left the real scientists above.

    Oh and big surprise the “guest star” character was crazy and homicidal.

    Plot holes sucking reality from the proceedings bigger than the black hole at the center of this mess. The only character with any humanity was the robot. HAL with a heart. (Sorry Andrea above, but Bill Irwin out acted them all.)

    Apparently not all the corn was eaten (or perhaps drunk) by the film characters. A lot of it must have been consumed by the writers.

    Yes, visually stunning. But like a lot of beautiful planets, barren.

    Save your money and rent it. Big Hero 6 beat it. I should have seen that instead.

    • Oh and wait, Murph goes to work for the people who took her father away and then she rejects him once they are reunited?

      And the tech becomes militarized (check the pilot gear)? And exactly where in space is the station and exactly HOW did it get there?

      And miracles abound in all kinds of ways, but never a single explanation as to how. I think they must have cut a full reel of things. Movie magic, I guess.

      So is Nolan telling his kids he will always love them even though they will die and he never ages? Thanks, dad. LOL.

      • Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // November 10, 2014 at 10:04 am //

        The station at the end? It’s orbiting Saturn, and clearly got there thanks to antigravity

        I was blown away by the visuals. A couple of the emotional story beats do not work well, but I want to see it again.

  10. “(Oddly, wheat may be gone, but Cooper still drinks beer; one wonders what crop has been used to make it.) ”
    Barley would be my guess. But rice or even corn. No wheat just means no godawful weissbiers!
    Just saying, if you’re going to complain about the science, don’t screw up the simple stuff 😉

  11. I never thought I’d defend Matthew McConaughey either. But he did nail the whoring rodeo trash junkie AIDS victim in Dallas Buyers Club (and was one of the people worked hard to get movie made). Ron Woodruff wasn’t exactly a huge stretch for McConaughey, either, but…

  12. I loved it. That is all.

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