By Linc Leifeste | November 5, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Wes Bentley, Mackenzie Foy
Where to start with Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s latest? Truly an ambitious piece of filmmaking, Nolan put together an amazing cast for this visually stunning multi-layered tale of humanity’s last gasp at survival in the face of imminent extinction. No doubt he deserves praise for his ambition and scope as well as for his insistence on shooting on actual film. He deserves credit for swinging for the fences. But while in his obvious mastery of the visual elements of storytelling he shows he has the major league power necessary to knock it out of the park, his (and his brother Jonathan’s) writing abilities are purely bush league. Thanks to brilliantly crafted trailers that were more emotionally rewarding than the 168-minute film itself, and despite Nolan’s past films having been more miss than hit for me, I went in with sky-high hopes. But no matter how grand the designs, regardless of how visually striking, when all is said and done if there’s no connection between the audience and the film’s characters, you’re left with a grand, frustrating mess on your hands.
In a not-too-distant future taken right out of the past, former test pilot turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is living with his two children and father-in-law (John Lithgow) in a farmhouse that appears to be right out of Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma. This feeling is only augmented by the rapidly deteriorating environment which is causing dust storms of increasing ferocity. As a result, society is having to focus all its resources on trying to produce enough food to sustain life. Space travel is obviously a thing of the past.
But everything changes when Cooper and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) begin to receive mysterious communications that ultimately lead them to a top secret NASA base, where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is heading up a space expedition to potentially save the human race. And he’d like nothing more than to have expert pilot Cooper lead the charge. It seems someone or something has opened a wormhole through which Brand and his team believe lies a potentially livable alternative to humanity’s dying earth.
Cooper reluctantly signs up for the obviously deadly mission despite the catch that he will have to leave his children behind for decades, if not forever. Oddly, he asks few questions of the Professor and it seems there’s no training required for such an unheard of, desperate mission. Have rocket, will travel. It seems his Chuck Yeager-like presence should be enough even if the film’s lack of characterization and scantly supplied plot details leave the viewer feeling emotionally and intellectually removed from the story that’s playing out.
As Cooper and his crew, including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), blast off we move from the earthly realm of Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl meets late-70’s Spielberg to the space-epic feeling of Kubrick’s 2001. But unlike in that masterpiece or even more recent sci-fi thrillers such as Moon or Gravity, the Nolan brothers manage to numb the audience into a state of lethargy through what feels like endless, conceptually challenging scientific speechifying that ultimately comes off as mostly nonsensical gobbledygook involving a mash-up of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, astrophysics and the power of love.
Along the way several big name actors pop up in unexpected roles, playing characters for which the Nolan brothers do none of the heavy-lifting-characterization required to write characters with which audiences can connect. “Look, it’s Matt Damon!” “Well, hello Casey Affleck!” “Isn’t that Topher Grace? It is!” Throughout all of this, Nolan repeatedly manages to momentarily draw viewers in through his grand visuals and bursts of action. But alas, viewers soon crash back down to earth. “No, this story doesn’t seem to make much sense but isn’t the view of the ship spinning through space beautiful?” “No, I don’t really care much if most of these characters survive or not but that water planet with waves as big as mountains that threatens to engulf their ship and doom humanity to extinction is an awfully grand sight to behold.”
By the time Interstellar ground to it’s interminable end and Cooper had discovered his place in Dr. Brand’s schemes and in the universe as a whole, with a final chapter that has the feel of an overly sappy and poorly executed bid for emotional appeal, Nolan’s bold filmmaking ambition was rivaled only by my sense of frustration and disappointment at having sat through his mess of a film.