I wrote a smaller thing about this movie earlier this week, you can read it here.
The following is a more in depth journey into the majesty and the frustrations with interstellar– a very gorgeous and immersive action film that does not realize that it is also a silly space opera about the power of love. I wouldn’t read it until after you’ve seen the film.
Christopher Nolan has perfected a specific time of movie viewing experience that is simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. His movies are expert nonsense with awe-inspiring images and—much to the chagrin of everyone watching—the self-indulgence on display makes it hard for you to ignore the flaws.
Interstellar is Nolan’s latest grand statement. A space opera tailored for the 21st century that is, at one moment, breathtaking, mesmerizing and exciting and then at the next moment is overwrought and bloated. It’s an erratic and glorious slog of a movie that feels even longer than it’s 168 minutes.
Interstellar follows the story of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey): a former pilot and engineer who is now a farmer due to widespread hunger caused by a future blight. He lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), teenage son Tom, and 10-year-old daughter Murphy (named after Murphy’s Law because of course). Cooper is a fine farmer but he really wants to get back to being the explorer he once was. While his son is more enamored with the farmer aspect of his life, it’s the daughter who carries the adventurous spirit of her father. She believes a ghost hiding in a bookcase is communicating with her but when Cooper discovers it, he interprets this instead as gravity. The gravity is sending the two a set of coordinates in binary, which takes them to a hidden NASA base.
There, the two meet with Cooper’s old mentor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), also a scientist at the facility. They explain that gravitational anomalies (i.e. ghosts) have occurred in recent years, the largest manifesting as a wormhole near Saturn. Based on a previous mission through the wormhole that narrows down three possible new home planets, Brand has come up with two plans: one where the NASA facility itself lifts off and travels to the new planet with many people in tow, or the other where frozen fertilized eggs are used by a second mission to start a new colony.
Cooper, despite the wishes of her daughter, reluctantly joins the second mission after being recruited. There’s no doubt that he feels tremendous guilt going on this trip but as his father says to him, “this world never was good enough for you.” Thus, Cooper takes the mission to attempt to save humanity. He bids his son farewell leaving him his farming truck and gives his daughter one of a matched set of watches, keeping the other for himself and, unwisely, promising that he will come back.
Cooper, along with Amelia, and two other scientists: Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a sophisticated robot assistant TARS (Bill Irwin). Journey into space to successfully to dock with an orbiting space station and begin the two-year trip to Jupiter and the wormhole.
The story is as seemingly straightforward as possible. A dad, who is also a space cowboy, tries to save the planet; this is a Chris Nolan film however, and plot is nothing more than a catalyst to get to what really matters: the awesomeness of space. Nolan seems as fascinated with space as any dough-eyed child who spent their days watching Cosmos. The movie’s approximation of space (on an IMAX screen) is spectacular. Just as Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey before it, Interstellar captures the wonder, beauty, seemingly endless vastness and pure fucking terror of space. There are times when the actors seem like distractions to what is really a love letter to space and the infinite possibilities inherent.
That’s ultimately the frustration with the movie. It wants to tell this big melodrama about love’s ability to transcend all things through the love of a father and his daughter (way to give the son the shaft guys), but too often it feels like the actors are chess pieces in a game where the player is more interested in how amazing the board is. They move because they have to and too often—when the action does get into full gear—everything happening on screen turns into a frenetic jumbled mess where 1,000 things are happening at once.
Despite this, this movie would still be a lot more fun if it didn’t get trapped under the weight of Nolan’s self-serious and self-important need to make this some sort of definite statement on mankind’s instinctual sense of survival and the can-do American spirit of exploration. McConaughey is the proto-typical masculine American cowboy now asked to be Astronaut. He’s great in this because he does what’s asked of him: he’s pure charisma, he’s built as the kind of handsome hero that a space folklore would need and he’s serviceable as a dad who just wants his kids back. Yet, there’s no room for him to be anything more than a driver for this vehicle and there’s even less asked of from the other great actors in this movie. Nolan packs this film with an 80’s Lakers roster of top-notch talent and then asks them all to be role players to service his grand doctrine on love and humanity (Jessica Chastain might be strongest after McConaughey). For someone who’s on his 5th major studio film (and is more or less guaranteed to inexplicably fill a movie theater), you’d think he’d learn the number one secret of these kinds of movies: they’re supposed to be fun.
Nolan takes a lot out of Kubrick’s own vision of space and the infinite, except Kubrick is cold, calculating and distant whereas Nolan is the same way but wants to seem like he’s warm and sentimental. There are many cues that are aimed to tug at the heartstrings and move you close to tears, but it always seems beside the point—as though it’s there because it needs to be. That’s not to say it doesn’t work at all. This movie was an amazing experience. Nolan has a clear vision and fascination with science and astronomy. Each planet that the explorers visit in the film is mesmerizing: one that’s one big tidal wave, another that is covered in ice. The film’s vision of a blackhole and infinity is original and sublime, even if the science behind it may not be completely sound. You end up leaving this movie wondering what it would be like if Nolan went full Kubrick and didn’t even bother tacking on an action movie to what is essentially a love letter to astronomy, science and discovery.
For all the flack Nolan gets for the self-indulgence in display in his movies, he is good at what he does. He thinks huge and goes for more; his movies are beautiful, lush and every detail is thought over. He’s in love with loud—so much so that in the brief moment in the film where everything goes quiet it’s a jolt to your system—but he has Hans Zimmer there to soundtrack an epic feat of moviemaking like only he can. While the lesson of “love conquers and transcends all” doesn’t completely land, what does is the idea of dreaming big and reaching for the stars.