By John Isom (White Salmon, Washington, U.S.)
Well, I’ve done it. I finally sat down and watched Christopher Nolan’s sweeping science fiction epic, Interstellar, granted about a year behind everyone else who’s seen it. Why did it take me so long to watch this film and on a DVD that I rented from a grocery store for $1.25? The hype for the film was substantial, although at times it got lost in the shuffle of other blockbuster movies coming out around the same time such as Disney’s Big Hero 6, Mockingjay Part 1 and dare I say, Horrible Bosses 2. The reviews for this film were for the most part, glowingly positive. Here are just a few reviews culled from Rotten Tomatoes:
“One of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.”—Richard Roeper, Chicago Suns-Times
“Interstellar is chockablock with philosophical ideas, visual effects and theoretical physics from Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, who co-wrote the script.”—Rob Lowman, Los Angeles Daily News
“This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and the ghost that haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.”—Sean Axmaker, Parallax View
Its sounds pretty damn good. And most audiences loved the film too. They lauded its technical achievements such as cinematography and visual effects. It was even regarded as another great example of Director/Writer, Christopher Nolan’s mastery at combining the cerebral and the emotional. Even the science behind the film was a bold statement, using actual research based off the work of theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne.
But as with all artistic expression, the film has its detractors as well. Many fall outside the Nolan camp and say that the movie fails on several crucial filmmaking elements such as character, story, flow, sound, score and a lot more. The primary problem some audiences have with the film seems to be the convoluted plot and the nearly three hour-long running time. Understandably so, as no one wants to sit that long through a film if they feel no connection through most of it. Here are what some critics who find fault with the film have to say:
“Nolan is a well-appointed mainstream fabulist who uses a great deal of money and technology to no great artistic purpose.”—Rob Gonsalves, eFilmCritic.com
“After building up the drama of personal sacrifice, it feels too much like a cheat no matter how many endings are tacked on before the credits.”—Kevin A. Ranson, MovieCrypt.com
“This is a film rife with mistakes that even a rookie director wouldn’t make. How this ended up being made by Nolan blows my mind.”—John Rico, About.com
Yeouch. And those are just a few; same goes for the film’s supporters. So again, why did it take me so long to finally get around to seeing it a year later? Well, work, life, stuff, the usual. Actually, to be completely honest, I’m a fiction writer and I’d toyed with an idea for a story about an astronaut in a distant future where resources are nearly dried up and humanity faces extinction. The astronaut also loses someone he loves, his wife, in the pursuit of a dream of finding a new home in another galaxy. So he and a no-nonsense intellectual, female crew member and an asshole A.I. embark on an expedition into a wormhole in order to find a new home for humanity and save the guy’s wife.
That’s just a rough summary too, there’s also a ton of stuff in my outline describing alternate worlds and such, but do you see the striking similarity to the film I’m currently reviewing? And I came up with the outline for this story already mapped out two years before Nolan released his sci-fi magnum opus into theatres across the nation. I felt a little betrayed, like Christopher Nolan, the captain at the helm of some of my favorite movies like Dark Knight and Inception, had come into my room in the middle of the night like a sadistic tooth fairy/boogeyman, cut open my skull, reached into my subconscious and stole this inkling of an idea for a great space odyssey. And he cackled madly into the night believing that he had found the Ark of the Covenant of film ideas, one that would absolve the studio’s mass production of marketing-to-movie stagnation and saved us all from a creative landscape devoid of ingenuity. So yes, naturally, when I read a brief summary of the film and saw a couple trailers, I was very reluctant to see the movie.
I was so convinced that the movie was going to be an original, sweeping space opera extravaganza that went beyond even what Kubrick thought possible. Everyone would be talking about this movie for years to come and it would be a timeless epic to be shared with each following generation about the possibilities of space travel and our future in the stars. I’d have no chance in creating anything as half as good as Interstellar. I was done, my work was purposeless and I’d just go back to writing about some inane bullshit like Nikola Tesla riding in a magic chariot and laughing in the face of Zeus.
But now I’ve finally seen the film. And what do I think? I have one word to describe how I felt in the aftermath: numb. That’s right, after a year of being jealous of this film, I feel numb.
I will attempt to explain the feeling of numbness this film has impressed upon me. I will lay this extended review out in three sections that cover what I feel to be the most invaluable parts of this film, if not all film: story, character, and technical aspects. Let me also state that everything here is subjective. No one should take this review personally if this is a film you truly adore. You’re allowed to adore it. It spoke to you. I’m not here to take that away from you. I’m simply here to talk about what I thought of the film. Take it or leave it. Maybe through this review, I will gradually warm myself and be able to see the movie’s merits along with its faults. Perhaps you will too.
Now, like the famous Dylan Thomas poem, “let us not go gently into that good night.” Let’s dive into the unknown. First things first. Story.
All great fiction is governed by story, so are our lives. It stands to reason that this is a central element and one that can’t be overlooked when reviewing a fictional work like Interstellar.
The story follows Cooper or Coop for short, played by Matthew McConaughey, a former astronaut turned farmer. He lives with his two children Tom and Murph and his father-in-law, Donald, played by Jon Lithgow. The Earth is becoming more and more inhabitable for life as overpopulation becomes a concern as well as a growing food crisis. Yearning to do something other than wallow down on the farm, Coop wants to return to his former glory days. One day, he and his daughter Murph stumble upon a secret NASA base and he meets Dr. Brand and his daughter, played by Michael Cane and Anne Hathaway respectively. Cooper discovers that he is needed in a mission to find another place for humans to live amongst the stars. There’s much more story beyond that and many competing plot points but I’ll get to all that soon enough.
I’ll start by saying that, in spite of the story’s numerous flaws, it is a novel concept. As I’ve mentioned, I’m jealous someone used this idea before I did. The idea of exploring far beyond anything the human race has comprehended to find a new home is brilliant and the relationship between the father and daughter to give the grand story emotional heft is a great idea too. Even the film’s climax was something I thought was done very well, for the most part.
But the part I find most discouraging about it is that the story relies too heavily on exposition. From beginning to end this movie was a sit down chat about theoretical physics with a few action set pieces thrown in. I realize this point has been made many times before, but it’s true. There’s exposition to forward the story and then there’s just telling. There’s no opportunity to revel in the fantastic cinematography of this film because half the time characters are talking about it in half-whispered dialogue.
Another problem is pacing. Due to these long exposition scenes, the film drags. With a bloated running time of almost three hours, we mostly get filler scenes of scientists talking about what each of them already know. Or at least, they act like they all know what they’re doing all the time. There’s no room for atmosphere (it’s a movie in space, atmosphere is practically mandatory) and there’s no room for the film to take a breather and take it all in. The movie just keeps talking and going, talking and going. But probably the thing that bugs me the most is that the film spends almost an hour of its running time on Earth! That’s right, a film about the height of exploration in space and the urgency to find a new home is kept on the backburner for an hour so we can see what a nice guy Cooper is around his kids and how much of an asshole the public school system is because they were forced to only teach out of textbooks that claim that the moon landing never happened.
A silver lining of this movie that I enjoyed was the science behind it. As everyone’s figured out by now, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan worked with Kip Thorne, a famous theoretical physicist in order to write the script. Kip Thorne has written a ton of research papers on the subject of gravity waves, black holes, neutron stars, and even time travel. He even wrote a best-selling book on these subjects called Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. I’ve read it and it’s incredibly profound stuff. Hell, even the prologue to the book is basically a what-if science fiction story to help introduce every single topic he covers in the rest of the book, which frankly Christopher Nolan just ripped off. The book’s genius and it inspired tons of current theoretical physicists. Neal Degrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking also applauded the film for its realistic interpretation of all of these theories. You know what this movie should have been called though? Black Holes and Time Warps: The Movie. Because that’s what it is, an interesting physics lecture that was made into a movie. I almost expected to see Neal Degrasse Tyson riding a little spaceship and waving to us in several scenes. These two things can exist in a movie, but there needs to be a balance. And there just wasn’t.
But what’s the rest of the story? Well first of all, spoilers. If you haven’t seen this movie already, go see it. For better or worse, it’s something to see. I’ll wait. Anyway, once the ship and its crew blasts off from the secret NASA base (why is it secret? Do human beings become cowardly assholes in the future and not turn to advances in science and technology to come up with a solution? Are we all just dumb rednecks in the future? Okay, end side note). It comes into contact with a centrifuge docking station (seriously, read Dr. Thorne’s book, this is in there too, so is the smartass A.I.) and begins its mission to Saturn, where Dr. Brand says some benevolent force or advanced being placed a black hole to go through. They go through it and enter another galaxy or possibly another universe altogether and look for the ideal planet to live on. There are three choices for planets and crews long ago made trips to the planets to do the same thing that Coop’s crew is basically doing. There’s a rocky, ice planet, a water planet and a sandier planet that we don’t see until the end.
The crew lands on the water planet first and discovers huge ass tidal waves that end up killing one of their human exposition characters named Doyle (played by the guy who was the evil game maker from Hunger Games, another movie with an apocalyptic bend) and they’re forced to leave. They go to the icy, rocky planet next and meet up with Mr. Mann, one of the last surviving crew members of a ship called The Endurance. He’s an asshole. And for some weird reason, Nolan decided this movie was really missing a villain. On the one hand, I liked the dialogue between Mann and Coop and that Mann is the darkness of man where we lose all hope and start to hate ourselves. The angle works for a little while but ultimately it just winds up turning into a pointless fist fight in an icy crevasse and then later he just gets offed with no other reason other than he was being an asshole.
That’s not the true problem though. The true problem comes in when Mann and a video of a much older Murph reveal to our characters that it was never Dr. Brand’s intention to send the crew to save humanity on Earth. The crew was just supposed to go out and recolonize and that even proves fruitless since Mann basically just tells them that the icy planet is uninhabitable. It’s kind of like we lost focus there with another colliding plot point. I was assured in the first hour of the film that the focal point of the movie was all about Cooper trying to get back to his daughter Murph, you know like he promised. But then that begs the question, why the hell did Cooper just up and leave to go to space? There’s no scene where he struggles with the decision that could alter both their lives forever. It’s just, oh, you’re mad at me, huh? Well, see ya later then. And yeah, I realize that his sudden departure is an important plot point later on the film but even with that, it still doesn’t work.
So once Mann is dead and the remaining crew members of Coop and Brand (Hathaway) are back on their way to finding the last hope of an inhabitable world, Coop suddenly decides to abandon Brand at a crucial moment and enter a black hole to get back to Murph. I’m assuming that’s what’s happening because why else would he do that? And then we finally get back on track to the main point of the story, a father trying to reunite with his daughter. Coop enters the black hole and winds up in a portion of space time where there are literally millions of possibilities of just one place: Murph’s bedroom. Behind the bookcase Cooper tries to communicate with his daughter through binary code, which ends up translating to STAY meaning Coop was meant to stay with Murph instead of go off into space. I loved this part of the movie and it was beautifully shot and it was very emotional, it was pitch perfect.
That is of course, until the “L” word showed up. Love is quantifiable? I can understand where Nolan was trying to go, I can even see the movie that he and his brother were originally trying to make. But this saccharine-sweet ending does not work with a movie that, up to that point was all grounded in the intellectual. The love message feels aimless and it drifts through space like our crew’s ship, not really knowing where it’s going to go next. It also feels forced. A lot of the last minutes of the film feel like that. After sitting through nearly three hours of this movie, the universe shattering conclusion that’s been building all boils down to the same way Leloo and Corbin Dallas save the world in The Fifth Element? (I’m sorry, a far superior science fiction film in my opinion).
Plus, the ending is insulting. Forget the fact that there were almost as many endings in this movie as Return of the King and none of the open box that Inception was. It was like the Nolan brothers just received so many complaints about a possibly grim, yet cathartic ending that they scrapped it for the multiple endings we get stuck with. Like why is it that after all Coop’s been through to get back to his daughter, does he suddenly decide to leave her again? Is it just because she tells him that he shouldn’t see her die of old age in front of him? Is it just because that she wants him to go back and find Brand for a passionate tryst that’s never established in any other part of the movie? But those are exactly the two reasons he decides to leave Murph behind for the second time. In my opinion, the ending was the final nail in the coffin for me. Remember the numb feeling I mentioned earlier? The ending is the reason for that. This movie is as cold and lifeless as the vacuum of space. And I’m not just talking about story, I’m talking about characters too.
Uggh, I didn’t like these characters. Well, I didn’t like a vast majority of these characters. I actually really liked Murph and Cooper and I include all of Murph’s ages by the way. The relationship between these two characters is the best part of the movie, it’s the anchor. Without it, it really would have been a physics lecture set to organ music. McConaughey is very likable as always. He has a charisma that really shines in all of his roles even if the movie sucks. Nobody gives him enough credit for that. And with something that’s often very bleak as the Nolanverse, he can still laugh, joke, cry and exhibit someone whom the audience cares about. He’s still our everyman even though at times, I felt like this movie sucked a lot of his charisma out. Someone made him whisper all his lines to the camera like this is a Shyamalan movie and he apparently just knows as much as the other scientists on board. He can’t be our link.
Then there’s Murph. There are three different ages she appears as in the film. There’s child Murph played by Mackenzie Foy, there’s adult Murph played by Jessica Chastain and elderly Murph played by Ellen Burstyn. All of these actresses are perfect in these roles. Mackenzie Foy is a great child actress, exhibiting all the fears of a child who might not see her father again, realistically, I might add. She’s also very precocious and hyper intelligent, sort of a child prodigy which is why there’s such a strong bond between her and her father. Jessica Chastain also is great as adult Murph and gives the character some dignity as a female role. She’s always getting things done, forging ahead and making the best of a shit situation like realizing you’re stuck on Earth to die. She’s also a pivotal part of the climax of the story. Things would be lost without her. And Ellen Burstyn of course gives a pretty good performance of a contented Murph that knows that her father was always with her even though the accompanying ending was awful.
Beyond those two characters, there’s not much to work with. Jonathan Lithgow as the father-in-law does a serviceable job, but he’s a pretty one-note side character as is Coop’s son Tom who, for some reason Coop doesn’t care as much for as Murph. Why? Is it because he’s not a super genius like his sister? He’s still Coop’s son, so that shouldn’t matter. Nonetheless, Tom just gets dad-blocked and by the end of the movie he just becomes a miserable dick for no reason.
Michael Caine is Michael Caine and he does a very respectable job as Alfred from The Dark Knight trilogy. Anne Hathaway as Brand’s daughter is…mystifying. At first, I really liked her character. She’s a smart, no-nonsense badass scientist who’s going to give Coop what’s what. But as the movie slowly progresses, that trait wears off and by the end she just becomes a simpering mess that goes and cries in the corner. When they’re on the water planet and the wave’s about to crush them, she gets stuck, has to be saved and even then still doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing and ends up getting one of her crew members killed. After that she cries all defeated, saying there was nothing she could do. What? And then later we find out she wants to jeopardize the entire mission just so she can go be with her boyfriend on the sand planet that we don’t see until the end of the film. That’s her only reasoning behind wanting to pick that planet over the ice planet where Mann is located. Granted that was a mistake, but they didn’t know that. In the last moments of the film, she just ends up being some love interest for Cooper that was never brought up once in any part of the film. Why have a love interest at all? That’s not what the film was about. But that’s the conclusion we’re left with. Love conquers all, I guess.
Then there’s a grab-bag of other characters that just serve as doom fodder. There’s Doyle and Romilly who both get killed off for no real reason other than the story demanded it. We don’t know anything about them, we don’t get to know them either. They just vomit exposition as needed. There was only one scene where Romilly played by David Gyasi shows some character depth and it’s when he tells Coop about how fragile they are drifting through space with only millimeters of metal protecting them from an endless and deadly void. That’s powerful and it worked, but that’s all we got. Just a couple minutes and then it’s back to spouting exposition and then he dies in an explosion.
There’s also Mr. Mann, played by Matt Damon in a special guest appearance that audiences didn’t know about until they saw the movie. He’s great as always, but then they decided to make him a bad guy and everyone was just supposed to accept that. Like I said before, I liked some of the dialogue between him and Cooper, but only up until the part where they get in a fist fight and Mann decides to be a murderer. It all comes out of left field and it has little bearing on the rest of the story whether he turns on the crew or not.
You’ve also got a couple of robots that look like vending machines called TARS and CASE that talk like every other cardboard cutout in the movie. But it’s okay to make them cardboard cutouts because they’re robots. The fact that the voice doesn’t match the body, it’s really distracting.
From a technical standpoint, this film is beautiful. The visuals are some of the best in a motion picture. Scenes of Saturn, traveling across galaxies, journeying into a black hole, that scene at the end, it was all poignantly beautiful. It’s why I’m kind of sad I had wait an hour to see any of it. That was another disappointing thing I noticed. For as much beauty as was depicted in the movie, there wasn’t enough of it. There weren’t enough shots of the ship just going through the bleakness of space. But for what was seen, it was remarkable and it was something that I really wished I’d seen in IMAX instead of off my laptop.
The sound in this is also pretty amazing too at least in terms of knowing when not to have it. The sound of silence is just as powerful as having a big boom and I think for the most part, this film did very nicely at that.
The score of this film is pretty incredible too, describing the chaotic qualities of space and objects in it. Hans Zimmer is king of the bellicose arrangement. There’s a big booming organ that amps up the majesty of space. But I did have a problem with the music overpowering the dialogue at times. It seems there were moments when no one could figure out when you needed thunderous music and when you needed it quiet.
But this problem is a problem I have with a lot of Nolan movies, the music and the dialogue has to be right on top of one another as if the characters depend on the dire notes to accentuate their points. The communication of a plan can’t happen without Hans Zimmer breathing staccato down your neck. Inception did that and it kind of annoyed me, but it snuck its way back into this movie too and somehow it’s worse.
So what do I finally take away from this Nolan epic? Well lots of things. But the big thing is cold. Nolan movies are a cold and dark universe. I suppose that’s the state we’re in these days after all that’s been happening in the world. This movie was so promising in everything it was delivering. It gave me hope, even during the long-winded monologues and the pointless plot points. All the while, I was thinking, Coop and Murph are about to make a truly powerful connection, an iconic one like all the movies we remember seeing growing up. That special, warm glow of hope would be just like in E.T. when Eliot says goodbye to his alien pal or in Star Wars when Obi-Wan tells Luke the force will be with him or hell, even Nolan’s own Batman Begins when Batman tells Racheal Dawes “It’s not who I am underneath that defines me, it’s what I do.”
So we almost get that truly powerful moment, but what do we get instead? A half-assed message about the power of love and an ending that totally negates the catharsis that Murph feels when she finds out that the ghost in her room was always her father, who was always right there with her.
This movie is ultimately frustrating in that it was so long and yet by the end it doesn’t say anything new. You just feel empty and numb like I did when I walked out into the cold, winter’s night and delivered my rented copy back to its receptacle at the grocery store. The weird part was that I didn’t feel glad or disappointed that I saw it. It was an indifference that sums up this latest Christopher Nolan outing.
Am I still jealous of the film and wished I could have gotten my story out sooner? Yeah, a little bit. But only until I realize that I really had nothing to be jealous about. There’s still room for space operas and epics out there. Another Star Wars movie is right around the corner. Remember that news a year ago? Maybe there’s still a warm light for humanity left in the universe, one that takes all of our frustrations and anguish over our current situation and puts us on the right track to believing once again in a bright future out among the stars.BEST QUOTES