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Movie Review: Interstellar

interstellar3An aesthetically gorgeous movie that fails to deliver on any other meaningful level.

NOTE: This review, particularly the latter portion, contains spoilers. If you wish to avoid spoilers altogether, you may want to look away.

Interstellar (Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Jessica Chastain

You may have heard of a little movie called Interstellar, which opened last week to audiences across the United States (to the tune of an estimated $52 million in box office revenue). You also may have heard of its director, Christopher Nolan, most recently of The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception fame. You might be familiar with the stars of the film, including freshly-minted Academy Award winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as well as Jessica Chastain and Nolan favorite Michael Caine. Shot and distributed in glorious 35mm and ginormous 70mm IMAX film, Interstellar is, quite literally, a big film. It’s a movie that I, along with countless other film lovers, sci fi geeks, and Nolan fanatics, awaited with bated breath.

Unfortunately, besides being a true marvel of visual filmmaking, Interstellar is bloated and emotionally hollow; it makes grandiose promises of space opera epic awesomeness, but fails to actually deliver.

In other words: I was not impressed with Interstellar.

The Good Stuff
First, the good. There is a lot to say about the ambition and sheer audio-visual spectacle of Interstellar. Nolan has always been vocal about his preference for shooting movies on celluloid film, and the flaws and fragility and nuance of that medium. I had the pleasure of watching the movie on film as opposed to digital projection, which was phenomenal – the luminescent image of the spherical wormhole, the silent specter of the intrepid rotating ship as it skims by Saturn’s rings and approaches Gargantua’s event horizon, the massive tidal waves on a supermassive planet with incredible time-distorting properties… it’s all breathtaking. The wonder of space is just one part of the film, though – the morose, dusty images of an America overrun by dust, the stark dirty smudges of sky, the homogeneous crops of dying corn and weary humans are equally as beautiful as the cold vacuum of space in their representation. Interstellar‘s visuals are gritty and resonant – in fact, ironically, these are the most convincing and genuine parts of the entire film. There’s a palpable sense of loss and desperation in every frame of this movie; even McConaughey, as he chews that scenery, has a beleaguered, hungry look to him throughout Interstellar‘s almost three-hour run time.

interstellar (Wormhole)

I can’t argue with the talent of the actors selected for the roles in the film, either. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is written as a one-note big damn hero, but plays the character with restraint and enough genuine charm to almost make up for the heavy-handed dialogue he has to deliver. Anne Hathaway (who plays fellow astronaut and scientist Doctor Brand), and Jessica Chastain (Coop’s grownup daughter, Murphy) may be two of the top billed main characters of the mission, and both are incredibly talented actors, but they don’t fare so well when it comes to story treatment or dialogue. (More on that later.) Michael Caine’s Professor Brand is a little less coherent in this film, but given the fact that most of his dialogue comprises repeating the first stanza of that Dylan Thomas poem no less than three times over the course of the movie, I can forgive him. Maybe. On the subject of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” – in which Dylan Thomas appeals to his dying father to rail against death – the literary application here seems a tad misguided. After all, Professor Brand is repeating this poem over and over again as a sort of plaintive rallying cry for humanity’s extinction above the individual. In fact, that’s the entire premise of the movie (especially one major plot point); to borrow from another science fiction cinematic tale, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. This particular poem, then, and its very personal, individual struggle against the dying of the light feels… misplaced. And used just because it’s always used. (It all starts to feel like those Walt Whitman Levi’s commercials.) But I digress.

Interstellar Tidal Wave

Let’s dig into the problems with Interstellar. In a nutshell: the plot is driven by contrivance, the dialogue is cringe-worthy (as is the treatment of female characters), and the big explanation for the core concept of the film is comical.

Plot Contrivances & Black Holes
Things just happen in Interstellar without any cogent reason. Somehow in this ecological post-apocalyptic and technophobic America, in which NASA has been defunded and forced underground, the organization is still capable of sending multiple missions from Earth’s surface to the depths of uncharted space. Coop, on a hunch, is able to find secret NASA after driving for about a day, thanks to some help from the Ghost in his daughter Murphy’s bedroom. (Hint: It’s not a ghost but gravity, which transcends space and time…) Upon reaching secret NASA, the head of humanity’s last ditch effort to leave the planet and survive – Michael Caine’s poetry-spewing Professor Brand – immediately seizes upon Coop as the pilot of the human-manned mission. Because even though they have supercool (and hilarious!) robots capable of recording and transmitting data from beyond the wormhole that has just opened up next to Saturn, humans gotta be the ones on the spaceship. For plotting purposes. And just like that, Coop is back in the pilot’s seat, performing incredible docking maneuvers without breaking a sweat (or even, at one point, without wearing a helmet). This is to say nothing of the fact that the one of the big exploration sequences on a planet at the other end of the wormhole actually serves no purpose in advancing the story. The ice planet with a surprise cameo highlights nothing but humanity’s survival instinct (yeah, keep that one in mind, because the character in question proselytizes this idea about 75 times in the span of 15 minutes before, during, and after getting into a predictable face-punchy fistfight with Cooper) and the fact that man is its own worst enemy. As Hathaway’s Brand points out so sagely earlier during the mission, Nature isn’t evil – lions eat gazelles and all that, ya know? – the only evil is within us.

The Ham-fisted Dialogue
But, ok, those are thrilling scenes with great visuals. So plot contrivances can be pushed aside, right? What about the actual storytelling? Sadly, the dialogue of Interstellar is very, very bad. Like, laugh out loud in the theater bad. There are copious scenes involving shitty exposition dumping – before they dive into the wormhole, astronaut and engineer Romilly does the good ol’ folding a piece of paper and punching a hole through it trick to illustrate the concept of a wormhole (see A Wrinkle in Time, Event Horizon, etc). There’s a grand scene involving Doctor Brand, as she theorizes that the fifth dimension is a dimension of Love – because Love, like gravity, transcends spacetime. (More on that in a bit, I promise.) There’s a scene where one character repeatedly asks another “DO YOU SEE YOUR CHILDREN!?” because a love for one’s children that we have yet to evolve beyond or something, I guess.

Also, can we talk about the pointlessness of Cooper’s son’s character – why is Casey Affleck such a jerk to his family? And can we also talk about the tragic figure that is Romilly!? When Coop and Brand Jr. finally make their way back to him from the surface of the water planet, twenty-three years have passed and Romilly has decided to stay awake and shuffle around the spaceship alone doing advanced black hole math research instead of lying down to sleep because… just because. Yet even here, even with this tragic character, unintentional hilarity is at play because of the crappy dialogue. (All I could think of was “It’s been eighty-four years!” when Coop and Brand finally team back up with poor Romilly.) And shortly thereafter, Romilly is blown up on the ice world.

Interstellar (Romilly)

The Science
So plot contrivances are exacerbated by bad dialogue. But what about the science, you ask?! Mind you, I’m just a lowly science fiction enthusiast without any actual background beyond an introductory college course in astrophysics, so I’m not really the best judge. There has been much to-do made about the science of Interstellar – theoretical physicist Kip Thorne served as an executive producer and adviser for the movie and even has a companion book out about the science behind the film. I’m not going to argue with Thorne’s science (although there are some interesting discussions out there on the internets). Personally, I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story – but where the film decouples from science and takes a bellyflop into the sappy pool that is the fifth dimension of love – no, I’m being serious – that’s where I tend to draw the line.

The Fifth Dimension of Love
In this movie, Cooper survives going through Gargantua – a supermassive black hole – and ends up in a fifth dimensional tesseract, which actually is a representation of Coop’s daughter’s bedroom library. In this magical library, Cooper is able to use robot TARS to transmit back the secrets of wormhole travel through morse code, as relayed through the wibbly-wobbly second hand on Coop’s wristwatch in the past. All of this, of course, powered by the Power of Love.

I repeat: the complex paradigm-shifting secrets of wormholes and spacetime are conveyed back in time from the fifth dimension, which is a dimension of love that exists behind Matthew McConaughey’s daughter’s bookshelves, in morse code. On the second hand of a watch. Because of the Power of Love.

Let that settle in a little bit.

Interstellar (Cooper and Murphy)

Supposing that I’m ok with this ludicrous answer to Nolan’s question, even supposing that I’m willing to suspend my skepticism for the transcendent power of a father’s love for his daughter (sorry, Casey Affleck), Interstellar is still deeply flawed and unconvincing. For all of the sentimentality in the movie, for all that McConaughey is fantastic at chewing the scenery and evoking emotion… Interstellar feels hollow. Hokey. It feels calculated, by rote, and instead of being inspiring or full of emotionally resonant gravitas, Interstellar comes across as almost comical, especially in its last act. (I’m thinking in particular of the intensely dramatic Zimmer-scored montage when Jessica Chastain’s Murph runs out to the central vestibule of Secret NASA and throws out papers yelling EUREKA! while a bemused SURPRISE! Topher Grace watches on.) I’ve read a few reviews that comment on this and I whole-heartedly agree: Nolan apes Spielberg in Interstellar and fails, spectacularly, because the emotions aren’t real.

And that brings me to my last and largest – if utterly personal – problem with Interstellar. The treatment of female characters.

Interstellar Hathaway

Representation of Female Characters
It’s not exactly news that Christopher Nolan is crappy when it comes to writing and portraying women in his films. Women exist in Nolan’s films to present problems for the central chiseled white male hero characters – they are femme fatales or helpful sidekicks, motivational catalysts for the brave, flawed men who for one reason or another are devastated or tortured by the crushing weight of greater, deeper pathos. In Interstellar, Nolan’s two women (there is a cap at two major female characters in his films, I’ve noticed) fulfill these supportive motivational, secondary roles. Hathaway is a scientist and an astronaut, but somehow is relegated to the role of emotional love conduit, given the honor of theorizing about the fifth dimension of love, and making calls because she wants to see her presumed dead lover on a distant planet. Brand is also portrayed as an emotional, havoc-wreaking woman when her effort TO GET DATA on wave planet led to the death of Hunger Games beard guy, and Romilly’s twenty-three year sojourn in solitude.

Interstellar (dammit gif)

Chastain’s Murphy seems to fare a bit better as she has a life on her own, she seems to be an established and clever scientist, dedicated to find a solution to the starvation of humanity. Oh, and she is eventually successful and credited for saving the world…

Except that it’s not really her that does it. Even at the end, when Future!Doctor on the Saturn-orbiting Cooper Station titters at Coop (freshly rescued from traveling through a black hole) for his misguided assumption that they named the station after him, and corrects him to say that they named the station after his daughter, the audience knows that all of Murphy’s scientific discoveries were really thanks to her dad. Murph just listened to the message Coop sent back through time on his sweet wristwatch in morse code – because that’s what ladies do in Christopher Nolan’s movies. They are the vehicles for and receptors of emotion, occasionally calling the hero out, but mostly serving as fodder for important plot advancement points. And that’s that. (Naturally, the last frames of the film, with Anne Hathaway’s character lamenting her lost love and waiting for her new one to show up are similarly eye roll inducing.)

In Conclusion
The tl;dr version: Aesthetically beautiful movie. Terrible writing, plotting, and characterization. I still think everyone should see it – and if you’re lucky enough to watch it on 35 or 70mm film, absolutely make that investment because the visuals (and audio, some overly dramatic scoring decisions aside) are the stuff of awe-inspiring theater spectacle.

But an aesthetically appealing movie – no matter how stunning and no matter which big name/celebrated director is behind it – does not a good movie make. Like Gargantua, the pivotal black hole at the heart of the film, Interstellar collapses under its own sense of hyper-inflated self-importance and grandeur, leaving nothing behind but a dark void.

Rating: 4 – Bad, but not without some merit

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9 Comments

  • Paul (@princejvstin)
    November 11, 2014 at 11:23 am

    with Anne Hathaway’s character lamenting her lost love and waiting for her new one to show up are similarly eye roll inducing

    Oh dear god, Thea, I was *so* mad at this. “No, Daddy, don’t watch me die, go and run and find the woman who has rejected you the entire movie instead. She’s waiting for you.”

  • Thea
    November 11, 2014 at 11:35 am

    YES, AS WAS I! Also, thinking about it more, the way the film resolves: Brand essentially becomes mommy to thousands of new little test tube babies.

    There are no words.

  • Kristine Smith
    November 11, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Funny. What I took away from those final scenes was that 1) Cooper was tacitly admitting that Brand was right all along, and that 2) his going out to find her was part of that admission. Maybe because I sensed no attraction between them? I felt that the main reason he left the station was because he saw no reason to stay. He was an explorer–it wasn’t his place.

    Maybe I’m too inclined to sit back and go where the storyteller takes me, but the film worked for me. There was a discussion over on Chuck Wendig’s Facebook page featuring wildly divergent opinions. For those of us who really connected with the film…it had to do with something in our family experience. The film hit us in a way that critique can’t touch.

  • Ashley
    November 11, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    I have to second Kristine’s comments. Though I completely see your reading of the film, I really enjoyed it.

    I do think more weight would be given to Murphy’s achievements if we’d seen more of it than “Eureka!” (a moment I rather liked because it showed her exceptionally sad character burst with an almost girlish reaction, as if she’d been holding it in since childhood). However, I did not take away that the accomplishments of the film were solely due to her father. Murphy was the one who had to put the pieces together that saved the human race and, eventually, led to the saving of her father. I DID think that he left suddenly at the end; that bothered me, but like Kristine points out, he was an explorer.

    I also agree with Kristine that his leaving at the end of the field is an admission that Brand was right all along (how would things have faired differently if he’d listened to her in the beginning?).

    I agree that some of the dialog was weak, and the jump from Cooper finding NASA’s HQ to manning the spaceship was too fast and, thus, contrived, but this didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. I actually found it rather brave that such a high-budget Hollywood film would put so much weight on what is often characterized as a “weak” emotion.

  • Catherine King
    November 11, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    A great review! I don’t know, everyone else seems to love Christopher Nolan for how smart his movies are, but as someone who gets bored with big action sequences, I don’t think that the tradeoff of “fun” for “meaningful” is worth it — especially when his “meaningfulness” is pretty ham-fisted.

  • Tez Miller
    November 12, 2014 at 8:49 am

    “Yes, Stan – there’s a BEHIND the bookshelf.” Roger’s (from American Dad) quote came to mind in the third act. Because when the film was trying to be deep about love, I was laughing πŸ˜‰

    Admittedly, I may have got more out of this film if I was a parent, but I’m not. And I don’t think there was a relationship between Brand and Cooper, but if the film had been longer the writers probably would’ve made it happen. But I’m glad they didn’t.

    Also, how did Tom’s first child (Jesse) die? I figured from asthma, or something else breathing-related.

  • Bookgazing
    November 12, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    I didn’t connect with this film on an aesthetic level at all but that might be because half way through I became too bored by everything else to care (whereas I did not enjoy Gravity but could see that some of the shots were beautifully composed).

    SO much wrong with this film that even the farmer family side only clicked a little bit with me (usually a big thing for me). I was super pissed about both Romily’s death & Murphy’s implied death & that the female pilot from the Lazarus missions died & Coop’s wife is dead. Also, that Brand had to be the one who wanted to go off making bad decisions because of love when CLEARLY that was way more in character for Coop. That whole bit where he’s like ‘here are all the practical, social reasons love exists – there’s nothing else to it’ was so wrong in his mouth. Although maybe not because his driving force is to get home & see Murphy but after two minutes by her dying bedside he’s off? ‘K. Does he even see Tom? Is he even still alive?

  • Andrea J
    November 13, 2014 at 9:53 am

    It’s an older one, but have any of you seen the movie Contact? You may find it less problematic. It also deals with what else is out there, how to travel through wormholes, and contact with beings in other dimensions, so I was reminded of it when I saw Interstellar.

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