‘Interstellar’: Space movie is ‘ravishing’ & ‘overextended’
There are many intriguing questions raised in director Christopher Nolan’s ravishing, overextended mind-bender Interstellar. One of the first: has a theoretical physicist ever received an executive producer credit on a nine-figure, studio movie? Probably not, but if 74-year old Caltech professor Kip Thorne were to find any director willing to tap his intellect for an above-the-line credit, it would be Nolan. His movies are puzzle boxes of plot and theme that have become grander in scope as they’ve become more opaque in effect.
At this point, every Nolan film contains the moment when we ask ourselves if the director himself has completely thought everything through. That’s certainly true of Interstellar, where the London-born director and his screenwriter brother Jonathan utilize Thorne’s theories on relativity and gravitational physics to bandy about questions as deep and insoluble as the nature of time itself, a task that winds up being easier than creating three-dimensional human characters.
Besides Thorne, Interstellar‘s other key influence is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With his film’s academic concern for the next iteration of our species, technically accurate sound design, and organ-inflected score, Nolan tips his space helmet to Kubrick, although perhaps a bit too strongly. In his quest to present the world a new 2001, Nolan forgets that Kubrick’s classic is a cerebral experience with no interest in the emotional component Nolan has grafted onto his intergalactic tale.
Besides, 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually a clean, uncomplicated story. It’s only the trippy conclusion that gets us spinning, with every personal interpretation a closely, if not romantically, held certainty. Nolan, while a valuable director in the soulless tentpole era, is more of a Masters level pop theorist whose lofty ideas are sometimes one step ahead of his ability to harness and deliver them to the audience.
Love is the answer
Interstellar‘s Big Idea argues that continued human survival is achievable through interpersonal connection (read: love). It’s a fine and huggable notion that never reaches escape velocity because Nolan is too much of an intellect to fully engage our emotions and too much of a crowd-pleaser to fully engage our intellect. Love of any romantic or familial sort is just not his thing. Here, love is reduced to an “observable, powerful” force that’s just another variable in the theory of how humankind might be saved. And in the unspecified future of Interstellar, Earth is on its last legs, having become a dust bowl so depleted and lacking in food that a slow, inexorable extinction is about all the planet can look forward to.
Depression-era imagery of dirt-covered pickup trucks and sunken faces look imported straight from the viewfinder of Dorothea Lange, while bits of dialogue, both tantalizing and a bit curious, are dropped in to convey how the planet slid into such desperate conditions. These Earthbound scenes of Norman Rockwell in decline (or maybe John Steinbeck per usual) are one of many challenges accepted and conquered by production designer Nathan Crowley and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose crushed blacks and worrisome close-ups leave humanity nowhere to hide.
Steven Spielberg, who, in his prime, might have more seamlessly combined spectacle and sentiment, was once attached to direct Interstellar. And the early goings here show echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his 1977 masterpiece that elicited the sense of awe that Christopher Nolan attempts and, admittedly, often delivers. Much like that film’s Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is mysteriously drawn to Devils Tower, in Interstellar we have widowed farmer and former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his pre-teen daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), drawn towards a seemingly empty field in the middle of nowhere. Far from empty, the land is actually an enormous, secret lab containing the remains of NASA, where fatherly physicist Dr. Brand (fatherly Michael Caine) and a gaggle of smart people are squirreled away designing spaceships that will hopefully transport everyone off the dying Earth to a habitable new planet.
Time is the enemy
Nolan has never been one to underestimate the ability of his audience to follow along, but getting lost in techno-jargon is no problem here; there’s an energizing legitimacy and user-friendliness to the discussions about black holes and inter-dimensional travel. As Dr. Brand explains it, the plan is to send Cooper and his crew through a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared near Saturn to check out three planets earmarked for human colonization by a previous expedition that had entered the wormhole years earlier. Joining him on the mission is Dr. Brand’s severe, childless daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway); a pair of thinly-drawn scientists, Romilly (David Gyasi, a tragedy he was not given more to play) and Doyle (Wes Bentley); and a monolith-shaped robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), whose movements sometimes stretch the bounds of believability.
Leaving on a mission to another galaxy means Cooper will probably never see his children again and, if he does make it back to Earth, he will have barely aged. It’s a heartbreaking reality that Murph carries with her for decades, to the point where it becomes her one and only character trait. It’s a credit to Jessica Chastain, as the adult Murph, that she’s able to create as much as she does from such slim pickings.
Cooper’s decision to leave his family helps introduce what might as well be Interstellar‘s real villain: time. It adds a delicious and sometimes tragic element of risk to almost every decision Cooper’s crew makes after exiting through the other side of the wormhole. The idea of time advancing at different rates in different places is a concept Nolan makes clever use of, including a truly painful moment when two crewmembers return to their spacecraft after one hour on a distant planet only to find, to the crewmember who remained on the ship, they’ve been gone for years.
Matthew McConaughey carries ‘Interstellar’
Meanwhile, back on the farm, Murph has become a scientist plugging away at Interstellar‘s flimsy emotional core of absent fathers and aggrieved daughters. The problem is that when the source of that grief is a galaxy away, it’s hard to gain any emotional traction. Murph’s brother Tom (Casey Affleck) only exists to give her someone to articulate her resentment to, so he’s even more thinly drawn.
Thankfully, the resurgent Matthew McConaughey easily carries the movie. After recent triumphs in Dallas Buyers Club and HBO’s True Detective, has put so much distance between himself and his catalogue of execrable romantic comedies that audiences will have no problem accepting him as a troubled father and humanity’s possible savior. The scene where Cooper sits alone on the ship and watches 23 years’ worth of video messages from Earth shows how vulnerable he can be, more so because he’s rarely asked to be so nakedly grief-stricken.
‘Interstellar’: Whole less than sum of its parts, but grand parts all the same
No disrespect to the McConaissance, but the real star of Interstellar are the gorgeous, ready for framing, planetary and galactic vistas. Christopher Nolan’s FX team conveys the vastness of space and our microscopic place within it not as sci-fi geekery, but as science-fueled, speculative visions of an unknowable universe. The planetary landscapes, featuring barren, craggy, white rocks (shot in Iceland) and skyscraper-sized waves, have a lonely, alien grandeur that bespeaks of thoughtfully considered science that happens to be fiction.
One of Interstellar‘s themes is self-preservation and how it can bring out the best and worst in everyone. That idea extends to Nolan, who has made himself indispensable atop the list of Hollywood’s Big Thinkers (it’s a short list). And even if he wasn’t, thanks to his $2.5 billion-grossing Batman trilogy, he has earned the right to make the movie he wants.
So, misgivings aside, let’s appreciate that he even wants to make something like Interstellar; ambitious, difficult, exhilarating, gorgeous and hobbled as it might be. Is that tantamount to apologizing for a movie that fails to fulfill its promise? Maybe. But watching Christopher Nolan fall short is still more exciting than watching most other directors succeed. With Interstellar, he might have created a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts, but what grand parts they are.
Dir.: Christopher Nolan.
Scr.: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey. Anne Hathaway. Jessica Chastain. Wes Bentley. Michael Caine. Mackenzie Foy. Casey Affleck. Topher Grace. Ellen Burstyn. John Lithgow. Elyes Gabel. David Oyelowo. Collette Wolfe. Matt Damon. William Devane. Leah Cairns. Jeff Hephner. Timothée Chalamet. Liam Dickinson. David Gyasi. Mark Casimir Dyniewicz. Francis X. McCarthy. The voice of Bill Irwin.
Interstellar movie cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey in the Christopher Nolan sci-fi film Interstellar: Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros.