A Review of Interstellar

I’ll just go ahead and spoil it. A lot of criticism for Interstellar, the latest from Christopher Nolan, is about how it cannot handle the lofty ideas it presents.

This is incorrect.

Interstellar has no lofty ideas to present.

Oh, it tries to pretend like it does. The trailers made the film seem like it would be like an intense, 2001 style space opera. That’s not what it is.  Interstellar is basically a family drama about a man torn away from his daughter and trying to do everything he can to make sure he sees her again.

A noble premise. There’s been some great movies that follow that line of thinking. But, considering the fact that it’s also about the end of the world and the future of the human race, making that the focus of the drama seems cheap and hollow. When one of your lines is something about how love “transcends all forces in space and time,” you are not making something revealing about the human condition and our place in the universe. You’re making the sort of mawkish work that’s been done hundreds of times before.

It’s almost insulting.

Matthew McCoughaney’s Cooper is a corn farmer who was a pilot at one point. It’s about, oh, seventy or eighty years after our present and the only food that can be grown on earth is corn. Lots of corn. Seriously, we barely see anything of civilization outside of Cooper’s farm and an endless corn farm. But even the corn is dying and humanity will go extinct. So, Michael Caine (Michael Caine) recruits him to travel through a wormhole near Saturn to check out possibly habitable planets that exist near a black hole.

OK, so we have a good set up – dying planet and a need to go to the most distant places in the galaxy. Even Cooper is a good protagonist – an every man who is thrust into a situation he doesn’t entirely understand. We want to see him succeed because we know he wants to help his children Doyle (Casey Affleck) and Murph (Jessica Chastain) see the future. And he can help guide us on his trip through distant planets. Ideally, we would learn as he learns. He can even help us understand some pretty lofty ideas. The film devotes discussion to relativity, wormholes, and the existence of dimensions beyond the four we can perceive. Somewhere, Neil deGrasse Tyson is smiling.

But that would only work if Cooper himself seemed to care about the journey to these distant worlds. He never does, focusing instead on how quickly he can return to his dying Earth. Everything about his journey seems to be about how much is sucks to be away from his daughter. The passage of time is an inconvenience for him and it’s not something we, the audience, ever feel shocked about. And it keeps cutting back to Earth, as Murph grows up to join the science team monitoring Cooper’s mission. It’s supposed to be tied together in the end (in a VERY predictable manner), but by then I was so exasperated with what was going on that I barely cared.

The film doesn’t become intriguing for me until about two hours in, when the team lands on a planet and finds a scientist who was part of a previous mission. (I won’t spoil the fun by saying who it is.) This scientist reveals that (minor spoiler) the mission wasn’t exactly explained to Cooper fully. He realizes that he may never see his family again and that the people of earth may be doomed.

I sat back and thought, “Well, golly me. Actual moral questions about sacrificing oneself for the species? About keeping secrets from people? About making difficult decisions in the face of unusual circumstances? This could actually be good after all.”

But of course it doesn’t work out that way and we’re back to the maudlin in practically no time at all.

At least the special effects are nice, particularly the robot TARS. He doesn’t look like any robot we’ve ever seen in a film – more of a walking iPad, really. The final third act sequence in which Cooper goes “beyond the infinite” works very well from a technical standpoint. And I liked the sequence through the wormhole, even if it more than casually resembled the star gate sequence in 2001. Even the apocalypse on earth works well. The barren civilization feels more realistic than the countless ruined cities. It’s an engaging world.

I’m happy that the film had such a grand scale and at least wanted to tackle some smart ideas. I wish more high budget films would decide to step back and look in awe instead of blowing stuff up. But Interstellar never gets to that level.

Nolan did most of the same thing with Inception and it worked. There was a genuine sense of awe with Inception, and it balanced the emotional core of the characters with the lofty ideas about the human mind. The two coexisted with each other and created a wondrous time at the cinema.

Interstellar never found that core. It just keeps piling on ideas for its nearly three-hour run time to give the audience the impression that they’ve seen something profound. But it’s not profound at all. I realized I had seen this approach before in Nolan’s filmography – The Dark Knight Rises. That Batman film piled on scenes from various comic story lines to give people the idea they were watching a great comic adaptation. But it was filled with messy plot holes and silly ideas. Interstellar works the same way. I have a feeling it’s going to make a ton of money at the box office and Nolan will have a bright career ahead of him. His legacy was already secure before Interstellar entered production. So why wasn’t this movie better? Nolan knows what works for both critics, cinephiles, and the populist audience. Why did Nolan resort to the most shallow tropes to make this movie?

 

If Inception was The Dark Knight, then Interstellar is The Dark Knight Rises. There is no central idea to tie everything together. It feels like a confused mess of themes that the director wanted to explore. At least I was familiar enough with the source material to guess what Rises was trying to do. I don’t have that luxury with Interstellar. This could easily have been as great as everyone was hoping it would be if they had rewritten it to either focus completely on Earth or completely on the mission. In fact, that would have been great to have Murph as the protagonist who is trying to piece together the messages her father is sending her.There are some great ideas here. But as it stands, those ideas never come together. I feel almost apologetic in saying this, but Interstellar is not a great movie. It’s barely even “acceptable.” I had such high hopes for this movie and I know a lot of others did as well. But I cannot recommend Interstellar.

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