At least since he became one of Hollywood’s Most Important Directors, Christopher Nolan has directed movies about ideas, not people. In Inception, he asked questions about the nature of dreams and the politics of intertwined narratives. In The Dark Knight, he challenged the nation’s attitudes about terrorism and urban corruption. In The Dark Knight Rises, he seized upon the prevailing notions of the inequality gap in the American rhetoric. And in Interstellar, he sets his sights outward, heading into the great beyond for the first time. He comes back with three hours of gorgeous imagery and solid performances tied together by a script that strives for emotional catharsis and falls far short.
Before I argue against the success of Interstellar (which boasts a screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) as an emotionally satisfying experience, it’s worth noting that Interstellar is undoubtedly a filmmaking achievement on several levels. No modern Hollywood director can compete with Nolan’s trademark mixture of philosophical curiosity and visual grandeur. Interstellar tackles broad of questions of physics and the potential of the cosmos that wouldn’t be out of place in lecture halls and smoke-filled dorm rooms. (Astrophysicist Kip Thorne helped with the technical parts of the script and earned an executive-producer credit.) Plus, Nolan paints on the biggest canvas imaginable, frequently pulling off stunning images and a richly imagined vision of heretofore undiscovered dimensions.
But all of those achievements are technical, and in line with the reputation that Nolan has cultivated. But Nolan’s literal darker side is on full display here as well. The technobabble quotient is off the charts. Major characters flit in and out without so much as two dimensions, let alone five. Women have little place in this universe beyond realizing and acting out men’s desires. And the movie ultimately feels like a calculated attempt to wring emotion from audiences without doing the character to work to make those emotions genuine.
The movie begins with a post-apocalyptic scenario unlike the ones that have characterized nearly every blockbuster of the past five years. Nolan’s vision of the world’s end is one of slow decay, a society powerless to stop the incremental degradation of the environment. Humanity limps lazily forward, but technology regresses, and the notion of space travel quickly becomes taboo, unless you’re a scientist with a hankering for the extraterrestrial like Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Cooper used to work for NASA before the government scuttled it as a cost-cutting measure. Now he toils listlessly on a farm with his father (John Lithgow) and two children Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet).
That is, until he and Murphy stumble upon a secret code embedded within the space in front of the family’s bookshelves (to explain any more would be to dip a toe into the movie’s labyrinthine plot mechanics), which leads them to the underground remnants of NASA. Thus begins the section of this movie that might best be described as “Thirty to Forty-Five Minutes of Expository Rambling That’s Remotely Bearable Only Because of Michael Caine’s Voice.” Caine plays Dr. Brand, who previously worked with Cooper and now wants to send his charge on a daring mission. The objective: either find a habitable planet to which the remaining people of earth can travel or start a new colony with a default collection of leftover genetic material.
And so the movie abandons our humble planet, and with it, most traces of recognizable human emotions. Cooper is joined by Dr. Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who acts as the brains of the operation. Hathaway is endlessly watchable, but the script lets her down with generic platitudes tired cliches involving a long-lost lover. David Gyasi as in-house astrophysicist Romilly fares better but still feels underdeveloped by the time his crucial moment arrives in the second hour. And the less said about Wes Bentley as Cardboard…er, Doyle, the better.
What follows is a convoluted space opera that pits thinly developed human characters against awe-inspiring forces of extraterrestrial nature. Though the movie is three hours long and this middle section is the longest, I wouldn’t dare describe the intricacies of why the characters end up in one place, then another, then another. A big movie star makes an extended cameo in the middle of the movie, but his character’s motivations don’t entirely make sense. Overall, there’s a lot to see, and a lot of abstract concepts to think about, but the emotional connections often feel obligatory, lazily sketched as if tacked on late.
One notable exception is a plot device involving temporal confusion, which allows the movie to introduce Jessica Chastain as a character who is very important, if foreign, to Cooper. McConaughey’s is at his best when he’s watching a video in which Chastain’s character explains who she is and what’s happening to her. Without veering into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that the movie’s central paternal relationship is tested with this development, and if the movie accomplishes any significant character work, it’s with this pair.
The movie’s most original element is also its most overt homage. TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) bears some resemblance in function to the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, though he plays a far smaller role than that cinematic legend. Comprised of four large metal columns and a conveniently customizable humor quotient, TARS feels more like a human than nearly all of the actual human characters. His quips are few and far between, but they add the much-needed levity that the rest of this film lacks. Given McConaughey’s ability to balance gravitas and humor, the script’s rigid seriousness is a letdown, though not surprising coming from Nolan.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest misstep is Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score, which has the effect of shoving emotions down out from the screen instead of letting viewers soak up the atmosphere and arrive at emotions themselves. It’s suffocating to watch as Nolan layers on noise upon noise, sometimes obscuring the dialogue and often obscuring the power of the imagery. Nolan is clearly aiming for a transcendent experience, but he emerges with a din instead.
I don’t hate Interstellar. It’s clearly big, bold and ambitious. It doesn’t skimp on ambition, whether technical or thematic. The pieces don’t all come together, but there are a lot of pieces. For now, I’ll appreciate Interstellar for what it is: a major movie from a major director that poses lots of questions, some intentionally and others by virtue of its failures. I complain on this blog often when blockbuster movies stick too closely to the status quo. It would be disingenuous to pretend that Interstellar does that and nothing more. If only it took me all the way to the stars instead of stranding me somewhere on the journey up.