On my way out of the Interstellar press screening, I passed a movie theater employee. “Was it awesome?” he asked. I paused, and thought. It was certainly awesome in scale, and there were moments that were kind of awesome…so I nodded my head yes, but I felt a little guilty because I hadn’t answered the question he was actually asking.
What he really wanted to know was, “Was it the epic mindfuck game-changing event movie of the decade?” The answer to that question would certainly be no. That was last year’s Gravity, which deftly combined innovative technology with focused storytelling to bring us into space in a way no film had ever done before.
Interstellar not-so-boldly goes where many sci-fi (watch where my phaser is pointed before you try to take my nerd card away for not saying “SF”) films have gone before — including the films that phrase comes from, the Star Trek stories that regard trans-dimensional portals as doors to the mysteries of the heart.
Christopher Nolan’s new movie takes place on both sides of an interstellar gateway: one that’s mysteriously but conveniently appeared near Saturn to give humans an escape route from an Earth that’s rapidly becoming uninhabitable due to a crop-killing Blight. (You can hear the capital B when the characters talk about it.) Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a single dad, which is tough luck because he’s also the only space pilot with enough experience to captain an expedition through the wormhole to see what’s become of the first explorers who dove through the hole.
If “mission to explore cryptic anomaly near Saturn” starts ringing 2001 bells (in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Discovery’s destination was Saturn, though it became Jupiter for the movie), wait until I tell you that the mission crew includes an eerily calm talking but faceless robot who may or may not be revealing everything he knows about the mission. Films like Interstellar are why the stature of 2001 continues to grow, as filmmaker after filmmaker nods in Kubrick’s direction while en route to a destination that’s much more mundane.
It’s no wonder the world was excited about the prospect of Nolan making a thinking fan’s space thriller: Inception (2010) propelled viewers through a vast inner space, creating a new reality every ten minutes while never letting the suspense flag. Interstellar tries a similar trick — it’s an action movie with interwoven story threads unfolding simultaneously in different solar systems — but while individual sequences work, as a whole the film sags.
McConaughey’s casting isn’t the reason for that, but it’s symptomatic of the reason: Nolan and his co-writer Jonathan Nolan seemingly want this character to be all things to all people, so someone who can play laconic, lovable, and intense must have seemed like the right way to go. Though McConaughey gamely goes through the rounds, the film’s approach to his character is generally to tell rather than show.
We’re informed that Cooper’s frustrated at being earthbound, but when he’s given a spaceship, there’s not so much as a moment taken to let us enjoy a sense of wonder — he says his goodbyes and wham, he’s off with gritted teeth. When, much later, he sees a key character after an amount of time that varies depending on each character’s proximity to black holes but either way is really long, he sheds a quick tear and then whoop, the plot requires Cooper to get his ass in gear again. His relationship with fellow wormholenaut Brand (Anne Hathaway) is monklike in its utter remove from any suggestion of sexual chemistry, because there’s no time for a hard-on when the world is coming to an end! Whatever you say, screenplay.
Meanwhile, less essential scenes with supporting characters seem to drag on forever, as do extended sequences of pseudo-science. We all understand it’s bullshit, which is where Star Trek gets this kind of thing right: just shout some mumbo-jumbo from the engine room and we’ll believe you. Spend time establishing the characters; you don’t need to explain why this wormhole is shaped like a sphere unless we’re going to encounter some other, pyramidal, wormhole later.
Expectations were high for Interstellar, and it falls short of those expectations insofar as it’s no Inception, or Gravity, or 2001; nor does it use its big-screen deep-space CGI as elegantly as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. That’s fine, though, if all you want is a big crazy sci-fi movie with wormholes and robots and alien planets and debates over whether or not it’s insane to try to fly through the middle of a black hole. I won’t reveal what happens when Cooper has his ultimate encounter with what’s on the other side of the wormhole, but as the headline of this post indicates, I have a pretty good idea of what David Bowman’s review might be.