Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the movie equivalent of a chef armed with truffles, foie gras, and Waygu beef grinding it up into meatloaf. The film’s cast is impeccable, the practical effects stunning, and its underlying ideas about space and exploration universal. Yet the outcome is more pedestrian than revelatory. The film unravels because of an overcomplicated plot and underwhelming theme.
Nolan, as he often does, has assembled a stellar cast. Matthew McConaughey continues his string of strong performances by playing against his hyper-masculine type. In Interstellar, he stars as Cooper, an astronaut-turned-farmer-turned-astronaut. Mackenzie Foy plays Murph, Cooper daughter, and their chemistry drives the emotional beats of the film. Nolan populates the film with actors far too qualified for their roles. Michael Caine’s NASA scientist instigates Cooper’s journey to the stars. Anne Hathaway’s Amelia, another scientist leads the NASA crew on the spaceship Endurance. Bill Irwin voices TARS, a multi-limbed robot, who helps and humors the crew during their journey to a black hole in orbit near Saturn. TARS’s relationship with Cooper is the most grounded and realistic in the entire movie. The rest of the cast includes Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, William Devane, Ellen Burstyn, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Topher Grace (looking like he’s just happy to be there) and a surprise unbilled A-list actor.
The visual effects of Interstellar are remarkable. Nolan mostly eschewed CGI in favor for practical models for his depiction of space travel. His attention to detail pays off in a number of visually striking scenes. Saturn’s rings glitter and as the Endurance approaches its date with an artificially created wormhole. The camera remains fixed as the Endurance glides through space, spinning on its axis. Never has space looked so majestic. Nolan’s view of space is the opposite of Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity. Where Cuarón stressed the claustrophobic and deadly nature of outer space, Nolan revels in its splendor and beauty. In Gravity, death and emptiness lurked around every corner. Protective spacecraft could easily become a deadly projectile. In Interstellar space is the next stage for mankind’s achievement—challenging, but awe inspiring.
|TARS, the best character in the movie.|
Interstellar’s themes and plot unravel everything good about the film. It is clear that Nolan is an advocate for mankind’s continued exploration of space. Our future lies out there, the film constantly reminds us. To call his method of delivering this message heavy handed would be an understatement. In a terribly written scene, Cooper laments to his father-in-law (Lithgow) about mankind’s failure to continue its space endeavors. He laments, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” On a future version of Earth where ecological disaster has ruined the planet’s food supply, maybe that sentiment is understandable? Later when the film shifts to space the heavy handedness continues. With the Endurance only capable of visiting one of two planets capable of sustaining life, Hathaway’s Amelia opts for the one where her lover is. In defending her position, Amelia argues that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” The power of love and importance of discovery are hardly unique or new themes.
Further the overstuffed plot dooms these themes further. At two hours and forty nine minutes, the film radically shifts in plot making it seem like three or four movies crammed into one. Interstellar begins as a movie about an ecologically ravaged Earth, struggling for survival. With a radically reduced population mankind has become a people of Dust Bowl era farmers. With Cooper’s discovery of NASA, the film becomes about mankind’s potential salvation through a wormhole. A mission of survival soon yields to easily excised conspiracy thriller. Meanwhile back on Earth, Murph (Chastain), now fully grown, struggles to save humanity from her end. This divided focus drains the plot of momentum as it toggles back and forth between the ever changing Endurance mission and Murph’s efforts to solve the problem of extricating Earth’s population to safety. In the last act, Cooper joins the two plots together by journeying into the black and proving that love does in fact transcend time and space. Love transcends time and space? Fantastic. Glad a film studio spent 165 million dollars on that one.
Due to his success with the Dark Knight trilogy and other films like Memento, Inception, and The Prestige Nolan had a rare opportunity in Hollywood, to make whatever movie he wanted. He put this freedom to work with dazzling visual effects and reminded us of the wonder and majesty of space. He surrounded himself with a marvelous and overqualified cast. Instead of putting them to their best use, Nolan squandered them on a heavy handed, simplistic, and ultimately empty film.