Early in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” NASA-pilot-turned-farmer Coop (Matthew McConaughey) has to make a choice: Take part in a secret, last-ditch, one-way space launch that might find humanity a home other than the dying, desolate, used-up Earth … or stay and care for his son and daughter, still in their childhood. His father-in-law (John Lithgow) growls, with stern judgment, that Coop shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep. It’s a piece of advice that seems to have gone unheard by the makers of “Interstellar,” even as they wrote it. Promising outer-space majesty and deep-thought topics like some modern variation on Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Interstellar” instead plays like a confused mix of daringly unique space-travel footage like you’ve never seen and droningly familiar emotional and plot beats that you’ve seen all too many times before.
Set in a near-future—after the food riots, but there are still product placements for Dodge trucks and Carhartt clothing—“Interstellar” begins as Coop’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is convinced she has a ghost in her room, one that moves objects and knocks down knick-knacks. Whatever it is behind the bumps and falls, it also makes the dust, blown into the room from one of the regular raging windstorms that scour the landscape, tumble to the floor in deliberate places and varying densities, defying physics to spell out a binary-number code that signifies a set of coordinates. Driving to the coordinates, Coop finds a secret NASA base, where his mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) is startled to see his old protégé. Brand heads the team designed to launch a ship to find out what happened to the last group of 11 astronauts sent out into space on 11 different missions to find a new home for mankind, all of whom are no longer broadcasting back to Earth.
Helping NASA’s efforts is a gravitational anomaly that was not just recently found, but indeed recently created near Saturn, one that functions as a wormhole where ships can leap across near-infinite distances as easily as two dots on the other side of a piece of paper can touch when folded. It was left there, we’re informed, by super-powerful 5th-dimensional entities who apparently have an interest in humanity. All I could think when this plot point was explained was how that was really nice of the omnipotent 5th-dimensional entities, considering we didn’t get them anything.
Coop’s crew includes Dr. Brand’s scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), a sarcastic robot (voiced by Bill Irwin), and a few other human crew members who might as well be wearing red “Star Trek” jumpers. As Coop and his team travel closer and closer to the speed of light, time slows down for them. Back on the ever-worsening Earth, the now-grown Murph (Jessica Chastain) works for the NASA project herself, brokenhearted over what she thinks is her father’s death, but still soldiering on.
Nolan is a master technician, and the space flight scenes are stunning, whether in the still beauty of a slow pass by Saturn’s rings or the swift, silent terror of disaster destroying a spaceship in the void between the stars. While the great complaint about Nolan is that he’s too cold, too clinical, too unemotional, he’s over-corrected here to such a degree than instead of drifting a little from one side to the next, he plows, swiftly, and disastrously, into a ditch of his own making—or, rather, of his and co-writer Jonathan Nolan’s making. A film where any character says “maybe love … transcends time and space …” is not exactly an exciting prospect for a moviegoer interested in characters, ideas, and plot more than, or even as much, as they are in IMAX-sized visual wonder and all of the feels.
The film’s score, by Hans Zimmer, is all bombast and blunders, and the technical marvels cannot make up for the writing. When the silent monolith from “2001” shoved poor Dave Bowman up the evolutionary ladder against his will, the finale moved to a higher plane of cosmic strangeness. When the advanced beings pulling the strings in “Interstellar” finally intervene directly in Coop’s life and times, it feels less like cosmic strangeness than it does convenient sentimentality.
There are other mis-steps, as well, both individual mistakes that stand out as they happen and larger errors in judgment that suffuse the whole piece. A familiar face shows up as a bit of stunt casting, and it’s a decision that pops the audience utterly out of the movie, delighted by a name-brand actor when they should be being pulled in. A framing device from the very beginning of the film tips the hand of the rest of the movie. The super-powered entities are both all-powerful enough to make time and space dance but still apparently need McConaughey to act on their behalf as they, for reasons only explainable by lazy writing, cannot. And it’s not just that the film’s climax requires the sudden appearance of an all-powerful object that can perhaps set the universe right and save the day in a example of deus ex machina, it’s that the script makes the lead character himself the all-powerful object that can perhaps set the universe right in the first ever example of deus ex McConaughey.
After all the jaw-dropping cinematography and carefully-buffed CGI, in fact, “Interstellar” winds up fitting into a fairly narrow and deeply tired sub-genre alongside films like “Frequency,” “Contact,” and even “Field of Dreams“: Dad Issues from Dimension X. It’s impossible to not admire the technical achievements of “Interstellar,” but as Michael Bay and so much more modern moviegoing has proved, rapturous visuals can’t make up for a ruptured script. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” spends hundreds of millions to take the audience on a journey to the farthest parts of the cosmos … so they can be told sentiments as close, and as cheap, as any of the offerings at your local Hallmark card retailer. [D]