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.
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.
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.