There’s an undeniable beauty to science fiction, and Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated futuristic epic Interstellar is a mostly beautiful thing to look at. Notice that I said, very specifically, “to look at,” because no matter how good it looks, it’s impossible to endorse a film that’s so silly and takes itself so seriously and at face value. It’s so goofball in its vaguely worded, Capra-esque sentimentality, and yet so po-faced in its relentless sermonizing to the audience that it forgets to be fun and thoughtful and settles for cloyingly manipulative, jingoistic, misguided, shockingly unoriginal, and sloppily plotted. It’s as thoroughly moronic and scientifically dunderheaded as Michael Bay’s Armageddon, but like that same material is being delivered with the swagger of a doctorate candidate that’s blissfully unaware that they’re going to fail their thesis defense.
In the distant future, the world has been torn apart by an unseen war that dropped the world’s population from about eight billion to an indeterminate, but small amount of survivors. Humanity has endured, but somewhere in farm country – since mostly everyone left has become either a farmer or an academic of some sort –there’s a big problem. The Earth seems to be revolting against those who live there, causing blight and dust storms that have left corn as the only crop still capable of surviving. At least it will survive for the time being. NASA has gone secretive and underground after being disbanded by the government, and they have been investigating the appearance of a man or martian made wormhole that has appeared somewhere around Saturn. Through that wormhole lies another galaxy with planets that are potentially capable of sustaining life. But with most of the world’s best scientific minds jettisoned out into the galaxy as explorers, it’s up to one man and his crew to figure out if there’s any potential life on these planets.
Enter Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot haunted by dreams of a crash that never gets explained beyond one brief flashback at the start. He’s a widowed family man, raising a son (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter (Mackenzie Foy) with the help of his father-in-law (John Lithgow). Hesitant to go on a trip that might be a crapshoot, haunted by a bunch of touchy-feely, wibbly-wobbly, tomey-wimey hokum that would make M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Moffat collectively roll their eyes, and distraught that his daughter sees his desire to save humanity as a form of abandonment, he goes along anyway. The data collecting mission – which could likely take decades due to the relativity of time on other planets – puts him into a sometimes contentious situation with Amelia (Anne Hathaway), daughter of the head of the program (Michael Caine) who might be stacking the facts to suit other more personal motives.
Anyone that’s seen any science fiction film since the dawn of cinema has seen Interstellar already. From the aforementioned Armageddon to other better films like 2001, Upstream Color, Mission to Mars, Moon, When Worlds Collide, Sunshine, Solaris, The Black Hole, Signs, and dozens more that I could list off endlessly out of anger, know explicitly what kind of film this is. The only difference comes in the form of Nolan’s own cheeseball hubris that suggests a delusion that he’s created something truly deep, when he’s really created something that on a narrative level would barely pass muster on the lower half of a 1950s drive-in double bill.
But then again, originality isn’t the greatest virtue of the sci-fi genre. Plenty of great films have been made that liberally cribbed plot points wholesale from other better movies. The problem comes from Nolan’s curious blend of obvious politicking and relentless sense of direction, both of which seem to have been put in place to curiously obscure the fact that nothing anyone does makes logical or emotional sense and that none of the film’s myriad of plot points ever build to any explanation, pay off, or even anything worth puzzling over once the credits roll.
The politicking comes early on during the earthbound moments. The only two things in lifestyles still worth valuing are those of the agrarian proletariat or the unseen movements of the academic. Of course, the academics tend to be wrong, exemplified by the film’s most dreadfully inexcusable moment of obvious right wing bluster when Cooper has to dress down his daughter’s teacher for expelling his kid because she thinks the moon landings were real and not staged. This world has reversed its history, but Nolan and McConaughey stage things so hamfistedly that it comes across as a polemical delivered to the audience. It’s as uncomfortable at that time Peter Berg told an Israeli reporter they needed to join the army for the well being and protection of their country. It’s a disgusting and disgruntled bit of bias in a film that will do everything possible to forget that scene ever happened. That only makes it a film that can’t keep its politics or themes straight.
The father’s relationship to his children is nothing short of a joke, and considering the film wastes the first of its ungodly three hours on barely developing any characters beyond blatant archetypes, it’s a massive cheat. McConaughey – previously so great in so many films – Hathaway, and Caine are forced to go so far over the top with their performances to convey the messy nature of family that they almost lapse into parody. None of it feels believable, and the material always gets delivered with the force of a nuclear blast at all times instead of letting moments that should be quiet and reserved play out realistically.
Speaking of a nuclear blast, even in the film’s time on the farm (speaking of which, I hope you don’t want to know anything beyond what’s going on beyond this community because you’ll never find that out) it feels like Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer are actively trying to deafen the audience with low end rumblings and monotonous music. It’s like a calculated attempt to drown out the actors (which happens, in several scenes) so the audience doesn’t hear the kind of ludicrous dialogue that’s worse than what cinephiles have been crucifying James Cameron for over the past several decades.
But back to the family thing being useless. Once McConaughey goes off to space, the kids grow up to become Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastian, two fine actors who get stripped of any sort of dignity with their threadbare roles here. The daughter is still miffed at her father, but she agrees to work for his old boss in hopes of bringing the mission to a close. The son has become an obstinate farmer who doesn’t care if his family lives or dies as long as they can keep their land to the death. To some degree, Affleck and Chastain are playing with something interesting about adults with abandonment issues, but that’s only because they give the only naturalistic performances in the film. But since Chastain has nothing to do but break down and cry all the time, and Affleck can only glower and sneer, it comes across as the film’s biggest waste of talent outside of the effects department and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.
Actually, the biggest waste of talent in the film would be Topher Grace, who plays a doctor that works alongside Cooper’s daughter. His job: react to everything Chastain says and later stand do nothing in cutaway shots during the film’s bludgeoning and exhausting climax other than watching a field burn and screaming “Hurry up! We don’t have much time!” It’s a character that’s indicative of most of the film: something that has no practical purpose, doesn’t need to be there, and simply exists to just waste time needlessly. No actor has had a more thankless role in any film this year.
But there are a lot of moments like that throughout Interstellar. The creation of this vague future hints at a lot of cool things that don’t shape the rest of the film. They’re brought up so people start thinking about them, but it’s all typical Nolan misdirection, and it doesn’t add depth. It adds running time and a sense of unnecessary convolution. The film’s easy to follow because once you start cutting out everything that never went anywhere, there’s precious little left.
Okay, fine, when the film makes its way to space there’s one great and stunning action sequence unlike anything seen before. It’s a moment where Cooper attempts to dock one ship with another that’s spinning wildly out of control. But even the scenes of derring-do in the vast expanses of the universe rng hollow after last year’s deeper, shorter, and more intense Gravity. There’s more interesting subtext in the final ten minutes of Alfonso Cuaron’s work than in the entire 169 minutes of Nolan’s here.
Nolan thinks he’s making a film about the endurance of the human spirit, but the most endearing character comes in the form of the space station’s sarcastic robot (Bill Irwin, voicing nothing more than a walking rectangle). What he has created is a melding of two of the worst forms of shorthand: underbaked and manipulative melodrama and a script that forgets to have an actual story because it’s just a dumping of plot points. It all exists to lead into a climax that even apes his own previously better work in Inception, but this time it feels punishing rather than inspired.
I want to get into spoilers, and I find it hard to bite my tongue about a film where every single scene makes no sense as part of a greater whole. Every scene can be broken down and examined because of how wrong they are either narritavely, scientifically, structurally, logically, or psychologically. It truly is a film that gets nothing right from top to bottom. And yet, I think a grander discussion of Interstellar’s shoddiness needs to wait. I so desperately want to talk about sequences where gravity starts sending characters messages, or the midpoint appearance of a character (played by a famous actor in a not-so-secret-anymore cameo) who has the stupidest sense of self-preservation in film history, or the fact that the film egregiously misinterprets Dylan Thomas several times over. There’s so much about this film that’s aggravating and aggrandizing, and yet, so many people reading this want to see it that I am practically bleeding from the mouth to keep from shouting it all out and spoiling it.
The one thing that’s apparent and spoiler-free is that it’s far and away Nolan’s worst film. It feels like the work of a visionary that’s run out of new ideas. It’s tiresome, overstuffed, incoherent babbling delivered with a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. To compare this film with any of those previously mentioned in this review would be a travesty. And yet, it’s so singularly the work of Christopher Nolan that those who can be easily duped into liking a film strictly for the name attached to it will probably think it’s great. They will be wrong. And this honestly comes from someone who has liked mostly every other film he has made if anyone wants to think that I am “trolling” or making unfair comparisons or trying to get hits out of people. (FYI: The Prestige is the other one I don’t like, but it’s a masterwork compared to this.) It’s genuinely that terrible. Your enjoyment will probably hinge on just how much you think Nolan rips off other previously established films, artists, writers, and concepts.