Interstellar is an Emotional Void
Christopher Nolan thinks big. There’s little question he has an impressive imagination and his body of work speaks to those larger issues. Often writing with his brother Jonathan, they have produced a series of films with a polish and gravitas that few other big budget spectacles can match.
And yet, in almost every case, the lapses in story logic rob the movie of its power so you always walk out of the theater shaking your head in bewilderment. The great ideas and execution found in Memento and again in Inception are spoiled in his other films, notably The Dark Knight Rises. Such was the case this weekend when we watched Interstellar. The larger theme of where we do go when we ruin the Earth beyond repair is a timely one as more and more reports indicate this is the century we hit the ecological tipping point.
In a near future that looks remarkably like 2014, a blight has decimated the world’s ability to feed its growing population. Federal resources have been yanked from programs that do not directly address the problem or so people are led to believe. It turns out NASA has become a black book operation, off the grid and dedicated to finding somewhere for us to go.
From there we’re propelled into the story of Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot turned farmer, raising his children Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) on the family farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow). Murph thinks her room is haunted until she and Coop realize there are messages and coordinates being sent by some intelligence. They follow the message and find NASA, which just happens to be in need of a pilot for their last mission. Just like that, Coop says goodbye with a promise he’ll return, while he rockets off towards a wormhole and whatever may be on the other side. Accompanying him are biologist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway); physicist Romilly (David Gyasi); geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley); and robots TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart). Back on Earth, Brand’s dad, Professor John Brand (Michael Caine), promises he will solve some of the physics that will help determine how to get millions from Earth to the stars. In time, the adult Murph will join his quest.
Basically, the entire second act of the film gets us to the other side where one of the three potential new homes for humanity turns out to be a watery dud and the second one is a frozen wasteland. There, they find Dr. Mann (Mat Damon), long believed dead, and here the conflict escalates with the fate of civilization hanging in the balance. Oh year, and thanks the time dilation effects from the wormhole, hours to them become years back home so video recordings show us Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck). growing up. Then things go very, very bad.
And then they get outright weird. Nolan offers us a heady homage to 2001 with the Tesseract within the black hole and all sorts of gibberish follows until the inevitable return to earth.
So, we’re left asking lots of questions about how the time dilation really works, why the gravity of the black hole doesn’t crush everything in its path, how it is anywhere near Saturn without wrecking the solar system, and so on. Coop spends zero time training to fly the new vessel or get to know the crew but when push comes to shove, he coaxes the starship to do amazing things that provide some of the few thrills. Other story logic questions plague the third act as well but for those who haven’t seen it yet, I’ll leave those alone.
For a movie that hinges largely on the relationship between father and daughter (now Ellyn Burstein), their meeting in the waning minutes is surprisingly mild and anticlimactic. Similar emotional peaks and valleys are missing from the film which spoils some fine performances, notably Mackenzie Foy’s young Murph. Some of the most intense moments are when Coop returns to the ship after the first world and catches up on 23 years of video messages from his kids. It stands out because so much is missing from the rest of the film.
As a story, it feels like bits and pieces have come from elsewhere, especially Stanley Kubrick’s head-scratching 2001. There is, therefore, one plot twist I didn’t see coming and it was a welcome surprise given how much else was predictable. Even so, so much remains unexplained, all of which robs the film of the greatness is aspires to.