This review contains spoilers. You’ve been warned!
A movie is sometimes its ending, and in that, “Interstellar” has problems; plot points that require so much screen time to establish are discarded by the movie’s end. But I’m getting ahead of myself; must be a time shift..!
Over a year ago, “Interstellar” came out with a teaser that certainly did its job. It mainly featured Matthew McConaughey’s voice as narrator, Christopher Nolan’s name as Director, and grainy old-school footage of various iconic events (such as the moon landing) combined with some beautiful, newer shots of man once again reaching for the stars… and not much else. Then again, it was just a teaser and not a trailer.
But then the trailers began to trickle in months before release, each one giving away a little more than the last about the actual plot of the movie. And the more I saw, the less fascinated I became. An esoteric head-scratcher in the vein of “2001: A Space Odyssey” began to seem more like another bit of overindulgent navel gazing from Christopher Nolan. Perhaps less really is more?
Not being one who worships at the altar of everything Nolan (“Inception” is one of the more overrated movies I’ve seen, and “The Dark Knight Rises” is just short of awful), I still recognize him as one the the premiere directors out there — just not infallible. And not necessarily one of the premiere writers out there, either, and that weakness rears its head once again in Interstellar. So do the audio issues (care to translate Bane for me, anyone?) that haunted “The Dark Knight Rises”.
McConaughey plays “Cooper”, a much more believable hunky pilot and engineer than Mark Wahlberg played a hunky inventor in “Transformers: Age of Extinction”. Set in the near-future, Cooper is now relegated to being a farmer, much like everyone else is. Though not very well explained, apparently advancing technology didn’t keep us from running out of food; one of the few crops that seems to still grow is corn, and even that is unlikely to last due to a pestilence known as “blight”, systematically ruining what hardy crops are left. I thought it sad for a script renown for its scientific basis to slight this issue, and create something artificial rather than simply bring climate change to its inevitable conclusion. But we wouldn’t want to hurt the box office by possibly alienating our audience. Anyway, having shut down extraneous money pits like space exploration in favor of feeding ourselves, there doesn’t seem to be much by way of solutions to this planet-wide dilemma. Even Murph’s teachers tell Cooper that we need farmers, not engineers… but this makes no sense, either; surely engineers could do something regarding our terrible situation instead of farmers who are simply rearranging deck chairs.
But Cooper is too busy to do much about it. Since his wife died years ago, he’s been raising his young son and daughter (Timothée Chalamet and Mackenzie Foy, respectively… at least at first!) with his own father, played by John Lithgow. Young Tom seems fine with being “placed” as a farmer like his father Cooper, but young Murph is already causing trouble, resisting her school’s revisionist history meant to keep people focused on the everyday tasks at hand. She knows it to be wrong since she kept hundreds of her father’s old textbooks that tell tale of the glory days of our past space exploration that her school maintains ever happened.
But for all of her obvious intelligence, she’s still just a kid; she believes ghosts come into her room and rearrange her father’s books. Cooper doesn’t believe in such non-scientific events until he witnesses one himself, as dust from a recent sand storm blown in through an open window falls on the floor in a form of binary code. The code spells out coordinates that he and Murph find on a map and follow. Not too far away, they find a bunker in which NASA is covertly still in operation. Michael Caine’s Professor Brand is there, and happens to be an old colleague of Cooper’s. And Brand has a plan — actually two plans. Plan A is to solve a complex equation that will allow the relocation of the present population on earth, and Plan B is to basically reseed another planet with our DNA, thereby keeping our species alive although life on earth will end. Either way, in order to save Earth we must leave the Earth, and find a new home. Thankfully, 5 decades previous a wormhole was placed near Saturn for us by Persons or Beings Unknown, and we have already sent through it some astronauts who gave their lives to see where it leads. Could these benevolent unknown beings be the same ones who placed the message in the sand for Cooper to follow? This could be, because on the other side of the wormhole is just what we need: 12 planets surrounding a black hole in a completely different galaxy. One of those planets may just be a new home for us to inevitably screw up.
Cooper is to pilot a ship of really good looking smart people (like Anne Hathaway as Amelia), and a two other smart people who are there to have characters who can die, to decide upon on which planet to literally settle. The problem is time. Firstly, for some reason, even though we’ve been working on the problem for a decade at east, we now must leave within days of Cooper showing up. Also, completing this mission will take a whole lot of time, due to the great distances and the black hole on the other side of the wormhole; exploring such planets may mean that if they ever return home, everyone they know may be advanced in age or dead. An hour beyond could mean years have passed at home. Remember Nolan’s flimsy “rules” about time in “Inception”? It’s like that but with a little more scientific backing.
This mission doesn’t sit well with Cooper. All of the other astronauts on the previous suicide missions were hand-picked, and had no family, no earth-bound attachments. If Cooper goes, will he ever see his kids again? But what happens to them and the rest of humanity if he doesn’t go, as there are apparently no other pilots on the planet who could possibly accomplish such a task? It’s maddening that Nolan seems to really think through the more scientific aspects of his convoluted scripts, but not the more mundane ones which end up having so much more heft. For instance: It’s astonishing that NASA had established such a plan without a pilot already in mind, and was building a ship that no one could fly… until the only one who can (apparently) crashes their party. It also seemed unlikely that NASA would have lost track of the only pilot who could fly such a ship, especially when he was basically right around the corner from them. Speaking of around the corner, couldn’t our extraterrestrial saviors have placed that wormhole a touch closer to earth? Just getting there takes two years!
Eventually this time/space stuff means that Cooper himself was the “ghost” communicating with young Murph all those years ago, giving himself the coordinates to find NASA and eventually take the mission… that he doesn’t even want to complete. He also sends himself another message via morse code with the spaces on the bookshelf, that Murph correctly discerns as “STAY”. Conveniently, Cooper believes his own first message about the coordinates, but not his second message about staying and not taking the mission. How did he know to find NASA in the first place if he can’t get the coordinates from himself regarding its whereabouts without first finding NASA and going on the mission? Don’t ask.
But Cooper is very good at sending messages, using morse code again via the hands of a beloved wristwatch (don’t ask about that, either) to solve that Plan A equation that Professor Brand has been working on for years, now together with his Cooper’s full-grown daughter Murphy, well played by Jessica Chastain. Casey Affleck plays his adult son Tom, who has an underdeveloped subplot about his kids getting sick, and refusing to go with Murphy to a place of relative safety. That whole issue probably could have been cut out to shave some weight off of Interstellar’s bladder-busting 169 minutes.
Audio problems plague “Interstellar” in that during action sequences the music and sound effects drown out much-needed dialogue. In fact, near as I can determine given such conditions, Cooper eventually survives his 2001-esque 5th dimensional walkabout and communicates with his daughter via gravity across time and space because love. Our Alien Benefactors somehow recognized how strong their bond is, and allowed/helped him to do this…except after he eventually gets back home and sees her literally on her deathbed while he is still basically the same age, he leaves her. Leaves. Her. Leaves to hastily steal a ship and go rescue Amelia who was left behind to fulfill Plan B, who literally has all the time in the world. She will virtually not age at all while he’s on earth. Nolan’s own script explains this. So couldn’t Cooper have stuck around a measly hour to finally be there for his daughter after missing out on the last 70+ years of her life? To meet and shake the hands of his great grandchildren whom he’s never met, who surround his daughter while she passes? I know she asks him to leave and save Amelia, but so what? He hasn’t seen Murphy in decades, and after a minute or so with her he’s going to leave her again just before she dies, to go save a woman he’s not in love with? Apparently love can transcend time and space, but not the box office: enough of the father-daughter stuff, we gotta put some adult romance in this thing! Even though zero sparks flew between Cooper and Amelia on their trip. In fact, she’s in love with one of the astronauts who was launched through the wormhole previously. This is such a plot point that Cooper worries her relationship with him might bias her toward exploring that planet over other, more suitable planets; a suspicion which she reluctantly confirms. But no matter; good-looking guy go save pretty girl! Additionally, Nolan spends so much of the movie explaining just how difficult this trip is to make, only to have it seem like a dash to the store to pick up something you forgot. Where’s the drama in Amelia’s sacrifice if you can just pop on over and grab her?
Although both solid science and common sense are short-shrifted, “Interstellar” certainly still delivers some eye-popping opticals and great performances from its cast, and those are good reasons to see it, in IMAX if possible. Although it looks great, it sounds lousy, and it’s also convoluted and overlong. Ultimately, just like “Inception”, Nolan trips up over his own script. The lengthly runtime would have been addressed if the unnecessary subplots were removed. All of the well-researched actual science should not have been juxtaposed with lame sci-fi gobbledegook, and the romantic ending should have been left off. But when your director becomes a brand, and no one is there to tell him no, this kind of thing can happen.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action, brief strong language, and for tripping over itself