Warning: This is a no-holds-barred spoiler-filled review that is primarily meant for people who’ve seen the film. Read at your own risk.
The last time I reviewed a Christopher Nolan film I opened with a long-winded music metaphor in which I likened the making of The Dark Knight Rises to Michael Jackson struggling to follow-up his Thriller album and sort of being doomed to disappoint no matter what he did. At the time there was something of a backlash brewing against Nolan and it’s only increased in the intervening years as critics have increasingly come out both against Nolan’s work as well as the various other films that his work seems to have inspired. Now I’m less inclined to compare him to peak-era Michael Jackson and more inclined to compare him to Pete Townshend circa 1978: a man who tried tirelessly to elevate his lowly medium to the level of an opera only to then have his work and everything it represents dismissed and mocked in favor of a wave of engaging but simplistic work made by miscreants. Of course the difference is that as simplistic as punk rock is, it was at least a genuinely rebellious and vital new form, the same cannot generally be said of the jokey and heavily test-screened films that people claim they’d prefer to Nolan’s more serious and grandiose style of blockbuster filmmaking. I mention all this to make it clear that not only am I not part of this backlash but that I pretty actively hate it. I’ve firmly been in the pro-Nolan camp, which is a big part of why I’m fairly disappointed with his latest film, Interstellar.
The film doesn’t give out a year, but it can be intuited that Interstellar is set in a relatively distant future (a good hundred year or so from now, maybe more). This future is not quite post-apocalyptic per se, but it seems like that isn’t far off. There are dust-bowl conditions and we’re told that various crops are being depleted and there seems to no solution in sight. Our focus is on a former engineer/pilot turned farmer named Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Cooper’s wife is said to have died years ago so now he and his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) have been raising his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) on his farm. This all gets upended one day when Cooper learns that NASA is actually still in existence and is asked to help man a mission into the deepest regions of space in order to find a new home for humanity.
In setting up the film, Christopher Nolan makes the conscious choice to give the audience a very limited view of what the future Earth is like. We certainly get the gist of what this slow moving apocalypse is all about, but aren’t given many specifics about exactly why it’s happening or how fast it’s going. In fact we have no idea what Earth is really like outside of the town that Cooper lives near or how this disaster manifests in other areas. On one hand I can kind of see what Nolan was trying to do by rendering the future like this, it certainly a relatively believable version of the future that will probably age pretty well, but I don’t know that it really worked for me. This apocalypse so closely resembles the 1930s dust-bowl (a crisis that was fixed over the course of a decade) that it just never really feels to the viewer like a permenant disaster that would require a drastic space mission to fix. Again, I can intellectually see what they were going for: a gradual apocalypse that snuck up on the populace, but the movie never really shows this, it just tells it.
The problems with the film’s limited geography do go deeper than that as well, mainly in that it requires Nolan to indulge in a fairly ridiculous coincidence in order to kick his story off. The film proper begins when Cooper receives a cryptic set of coordinates from an unseen, possibly alien force which leads him to the secret NASA base where he joins the space mission. Now, I’m perfectly willing to accept the reasons he receives this message, the movie explains that perfectly well. What I’m not so willing to accept is that this secret base just happens to be located within a short drive of Cooper’s farm, that the person running it just happens to be an old professor of his, and that they just happen to be planning to launch that mission very shortly after he arrives. All that is just too much of a stretch and I find the notion that this Cooper guy is such an extraordinary pilot that NASA would drop everything and send him on the mission on such short notice. This is, after all, a massive mission that must have been planned for years and the notion that they’d just change plans like that is a bit ridiculous.
All of that was of course done as a screenwriting shortcut. By making Cooper an outsider Nolan is able to explain to the audience through him what this mission is all about and how long it’s been going on, and Cooper’s status as a last minute recruit is used throughout the film to give the audience exposition. Was this worth it? I don’t think so. Nolan was of course heavily criticized for employing an overabundance of exposition in Inception and I largely defended it in that film because there seemed like legitimate reasons for the characters in that film to be uninformed and the whole thing needs to take place over such a short period of time that it all made sense. Here, not so much. It gets to the point where someone is explaining wormholes to Cooper (using the same folded paper analogy used in the movie Event Horizon) while he’s sitting in a space ship that is about to be going through a wormhole.
Now, the movie does certainly improve in my estimation once they finally escape from rural Americana and finally get into space, but I do still think the movie has flaws in this section as well. In particular I found an early decision to go to a planet that’s so close to the wormhole that it distorts time so that every hour spent on the planet makes seven hours pass on Earth. Given the time pressures of the mission, going to this planet at all seems like a rather absurd idea. The best case scenario in that plan would have resulted in three or four years passing, which strikes me as a rather ridiculous sacrifice to make, and once they get to the planet they don’t seem like they’re rushing nearly fast enough. They walk around on the planet when they should be able to just eyeball it and realize that it’s uninhabitable. For that matter, I don’t really get why they need to be using an away team at all on this mission. Would a probe of some sort not have been able to detect that the planet is almost all water and has twelve story waves crushing everything? Also, if fuel is in such short supply how are they able to keep their mother ship in the air for the twenty three years this side trip apparently takes?
The next planet they go to is probably the most visually interesting location of the movie: a strange icy world with solid clouds. Interesting as this place is, I still kind of feel like the story let me down at this stage. We finally meet Kurtz… er, I mean Mann, and was pretty surprised to see that Matt Damon was in the movie. I don’t know if that had been revealed in the film’s publicity campaign, but I certainly didn’t know it. However, I found the twist that Damon was a deranged turncoat to be pretty predictable and kind of a cliché. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the infamous ending of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Of course this movie probably handles the “evil previous astronaut” twist better than that movie did if only because it doesn’t suddenly become a slasher movie, but I still found it a little disappointing.
So far I’ve talked a lot about the various stages of the film, but I think I should take a step back and look at some of its overall components. The film certainly has a pretty well stacked cast with some good work from Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in particular. It was also able to get some pretty cool actors like Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, and Ellen Burstyn into small roles that do fill the movie out nicely. However, there were some weak spots as well. In particular, I found Michael Caine’s presence in the movie rather odd. I commend Nolan for his loyalty, but there are other actors over sixty out there and I don’t think Caine was quite right for this rather gruff role that called for something a little different from what Caine had to offer. And then there’s McConaughey. In the last couple of years Matthew McConaughey has made a lot of inroads into respectability, but we aren’t really getting “McConausiance” McConaughey here. Instead McConaughey is very much in movie star mode, and it was something of a reminder of what that McConaughey’s various limitations and annoying tics were. The guy is a little too laid back at his core, and there’s still a little bit of that “alright, alright, alright” swagger here when I don’t think that was necessarily the best option. I totally get why he was cast but I sort of wish they’d gone a different direction with the character.
This is of course a major blockbuster and there is certainly a good degree of spectacle here to admire. Nolan certainly has a way of avoiding CGI as much as possible and then blending it in seamlessly when it is needed. That said, there have been quite a few hard sci-fi space movies lately and I kind of feel like Interstellar’s impact is kind of dulled because of it. The film has some really interesting planetscapes, but do any of them really compare to Avatar’s Pandora? Or, perhaps a more direct comparison would be to the planetscapes we see in Prometheus, which really weren’t a million miles removed from what we saw here. That movie’s spaceship sets were also probably on par with this as well and so were the spaceships in Sunshine, a movie that also did the whole “desperate mission to save humanity” thing at least as well as this movie did. And the whole “robot companion you think will be evil but isn’t” thing was also done pretty well in Moon. And then of course there is Gravity, which felt like a much bigger visual leap forward than anything in Interstellar and which probably works better as a deep space action film as well. On a pure visual effects level, this kind of feels like a small but noticeable step backwards.
Of course all of these movies live in the shadow of the ultimate realistic space movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey. There probably isn’t a single movie in this genre that’s ever going to live up to Kubrick’s masterpiece, so that’s probably not exactly a fair standard, but Nolan does a lot to invite that comparison. This is, after all a movie about a mission to go through a wormhole that appears near an outer ring gas giant as goaded on by unseen beings who are apparently interested in pushing humanity forward and which culminates in the protagonist in a mysterious room created by said beings where he’ll determine the fate of humanity. Yeah, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s not a flattering comparison because as much as the movie wants to be 2001 it couldn’t be more profoundly different in tone and form. Where Kubrick’s film used mystery to build grandeur, Interstellar feels a lot more conventional and straightforward by comparison. 2001 wasn’t afraid of ambiguity and that’s a big part of why people have been pondering exactly what it means since it was released. The message of Interstellar, by comparison is pretty clear: take care of the earth, don’t give up on exploring the stars. It’s a movie that clearly wants to inspire people, but it also sort of undercuts that message by making most of the scientific accomplishments in the film impossible without the assistance of what are basically magical aliens. One could argue that 2001 did the same thing, but it wasn’t necessarily trying to be hopeful and was as much about the dark side of progress as it was about its awesomeness.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about the film’s relatively long running time. I’m pretty sure a lot of the film’s detractors will say it’s too long, but I disagree. The movie paces itself out quite well and moves at a pretty brisk pace. If anything, it’s too short. It’s become sort of hackneyed to come out of a movie and suggest that it should have been a mini-series, but it really is true in the case even if such a thing would have probably been impossible given the budgets involved. A longer format would have allowed Nolan to more effectively establish what future-Earth was like and the nature of the crisis on it, found a more organic way to get Cooper onto the mission, provided for more natural means of exposition, and may have even led to a more organic means of incorporating the Mann twist. It also would have probably done something to remedy the film’s rather strange epilog, which almost feels like it should have been separated and expanded into an Interstellar 2 rather than awkwardly squeezed in at the end.
Alright, so I’ve outlined a lot of grievances against this movie, but I don’t want to give off the impression that I hate it or even dislike it all that strongly. The movie is every bit as ambitious as anything Christopher Nolan has made, and this is the kind of movie that I would like to see Hollywood attempt more often. It also does have a handful of highs that really do keep the audience interested. Every time I thought the film had gone astray something cool would happen that would get me back on board at least for a little while longer. I can see a good movie here that’s buried under a handful of poor decisions that keep weighing it down. Ultimately, I feel like this movie has a lot of very good ideas that probably looked great on paper but which never really came together correctly. Perhaps Nolan was just the wrong person to direct his own movie. I’ve long thought that his reputation for being an over-serious stick in the mud was unfair, but it existed for a reason. This kind of uplift does not come naturally to him and I don’t think he was ever really comfortable working with some of the schmaltzier Americana elements at the beginning. Maybe he should have passed the project on Spielberg, or at least watched a couple of the guy’s movies before he embarked on this project.
**1/2 out of Four