Whether he’s making superhero movies or blockbuster puzzle boxes, Christopher Nolan doesn’t bandy with emotion. He’s an intellectual clinician concerned more with the whiz-bang side of filmmaking than in messy, icky sentimentality. We buy tickets to his movies in the pursuit of wonder because that’s his trade, much like we visit a mechanic to replace a transmission or go to a dentist for a root canal. But we generally don’t expect our mechanics and dentists to wax poetic about the human condition, and we definitely don’t expect Nolan to get all maudlin and mushy on us. The guy makes movies that are about as warm as an Eskimo’s ass. The very notion of him examining matters of the heart is almost comical.
But that’s Interstellar in a nutshell; it’s Nolan’s barely sub-three hour ode to the interconnecting power of love. It’s also his personal attempt at doing in 2014 what Stanley Kubrick did in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey, less of an ode or homage than a challenge to Kubrick’s highly polarizing contribution to cinematic canon. (Maybe the wildly varied response to Interstellar to date suggests that it’s a new sci-fi classic in the making.) Amazingly, though, Nolan’s work runs on a surplus of feeling in comparison to Kubrick’s far cooler approach to 2001. Interstellar wants to uplift us with its visceral strengths, weaving a myth about the great American spirit of invention gone dormant. It’s an ambitious paean to ambition itself.
The film begins in a not-too-distant future, where drought, blight and dust storms have battered the world down into a regressively agrarian society. Textbooks cite the Apollo missions as hoaxes, and children are groomed to be farmers rather than engineers. This is a world where hope is dead, where spaceships sit on shelves collecting dust, and which former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) bristles against. He’s long resigned to his fate but still despondent over mankind’s failure to think beyond its galactic borders. But then Cooper falls in with a troop of underground NASA scientists, led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who plan on sending a small team through a wormhole to explore three potentially habitable planets and ostensibly secure the human race’s continued survival. With little thought and less prodding, Cooper joins the mission and Brand’s crew, which includes Brand’s biologist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and two AI robots voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart.
That’s the Cliff Notes version of Nolan’s set-up. More lies in the margins, notably Cooper’s falling out with his young daughter, Murphy (played at first by Mackenzie Foy, and later on by Jessica Chastain). This is, of course, a Nolan film, so to speak too much of Interstellar’s thematic “stuff” is to give it all away. What deserves mention above all else is the efficacy of Nolan’s imagery and his (largely practical) FX work. We expect Nolan to trump all comers in both categories, and in Interstellar, his cinematic gifts are put to jaw-dropping use. Put simply, the film looks so incredible that if you’re not seeing it in the best format available to you, you’re doing yourself a disservice. This is a huge film, a colossal film, and it’s meant to be seen in a setting that honors its impressive scale.
But if Interstellar succeeds as a visual tour of the cosmos, it stumbles as an actual story. The cast mumble, grumble and chew their way through mountains of exposition, with bits and pieces of it muffled by thunderous sound mixing. Talk and awe, that’s Nolan’s game; we’re meant to be so enthralled by Interstellar’s thrumming undercurrent of emotion that we’re keyed into what’s happening on screen on an instinctual level. His approach is fundamentally flawed, however—we’re forced to endure so much chatter throughout the film that we jolt when it all goes incoherent, and we strain our ears on the off chance that we might pick up a stray line of dialogue. Perhaps more importantly, Nolan is too cerebral a filmmaker to let his movie run on emotion. Interstellar is too tightly wound to allow for that.
Interstellar works as a beautiful distraction (and a showcase for Chastain and McConaughey) but fails as a meaningful narrative; it’s undone by Nolan’s own pretensions, as well as a startling lack of confidence in the script’s central conflict. The rah-rah optimism of the film’s pro-NASA stance is stirring, and on some level that tribute to human endeavor keeps the entire yarn afloat. But no amount of scientific positivism can offset the weight of offensive poetic repetition and platitudes about love as the universal constant. Ultimately, Interstellar shoots for the stars but barely gets us past the soundstage.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, David Gyasi, Josh Stewart, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow
Release Date: Nov. 5th, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.