HERE BE SPOILERS, YE BE WARNED
Historically, I like Christopher Nolan. I consider him one of the few true auteurs in modern cinema—auteurship being defined as more than just a distinctive visual style, but as having a unifying philosophy or narrative principle uniting a filmmaker’s work; in Nolan’s case, it’s identity and the various ways in which we shape and reveal them. But The Dark Knight Rises was a mixed bag and Inception is a case of diminishing returns—once you know how the plot works, sitting through all the exposition in that movie is an exercise in tedium. And it seems like, the bigger his movies and budgets have gotten, Nolan is maybe losing something of himself in the process, that in telling BIG stories, he’s forgetting to tell GOOD stories.
Interstellar is set in the near-ish future in which it is implied that climate change has gotten the better of us and we’re stuck in a global dust bowl that is slowly starving the human race. There’s some really great world building in the first act, establishing a world in which any science that isn’t focused on food production is being marginalized, and most kids are being trained as farmers, not allowed to pursue higher education or individual goals. It’s a frankly terrifying vision of the future handled in the least terrifying, most mundane way, which makes it all the more effective.
The story revolves around Cooper (an extra-crispy Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot who’s been shunted into a farmer’s life. He has two kids, Murph and The Boy—his name doesn’t matter because he’s completely superfluous—and a dead wife because Christopher Nolan. The only crop left to farm is corn, and it’s only a matter of time before blight wipes it out, too. Seriously—the world building is pretty great in these scenes.
As a child, Murph’s bedroom is plagued by a “ghost”, but because Cooper is a folksy genius he realizes that the ghost is actually a gravitational anomaly and that it’s revealing coordinates to a secret underground NASA base. Err…sure. Like most of Nolan’s movies, we’re asked to make some pretty big logic leaps, and this is the first of many in Interstellar. (The reason The Prestige stands out as one of Nolan’s best is because the only really big leap of logic is that Nikola Tesla’s duplication machine works, and then it’s never explained, the film simply commits to the idea that it does work, and the audience follows.)
Michael Caine shows up to deliver some exposition—to Interstellar’s credit, it handles this better than Inception does—and Cooper leaves his family to pilot the last rocket ship humanity has in the hopes that previous explorations may have found habitable planets on the other side of a black hole. The story gets a loosey-goosey in order to get Cooper into space, but once he goes things tighten back up for a bit until ultimately falling apart completely.
I won’t shit on this movie for having Big Ideas, or for trying to present Big Ideas and theoretical science in engaging ways. Nolan doesn’t treat his audience as dumb and that’s great—more filmmakers, especially at the blockbuster level, should have such faith in the viewing audience. And there’s a lot about Interstellar’s space science that I like—the spherical black hole, the giant waves on the water-planet that sits next to the black hole, the commitment to relativity around a black hole. But then Nolan starts trying to solve quantum mechanics and shit just goes sideways. At the point that Cooper is falling through a black hole and the truth of Murph’s “ghost” is revealed Interstellar has become irrevocably silly. As my friend Meghan points out over at Decider, Plan B to save humanity makes no goddamned sense.
At nearly three hours Interstellar is a slog, too. It’d be one thing if all parts of the movie were equally engaging, but they aren’t. Jessica Chastain as the adult Murph and Casey Affleck as The Boy Grown Up are pointless. The stakes are established in act one, we don’t need to keep revisiting Cooper’s grown family to be reminded what’s on the line for him, or for humanity. In one sequence—the most thrilling of the entire movie—everything is going to shit in space but we keep cutting back to crappy Earth and its crappy problems, which we already know all about. It doesn’t matter that the Cooper family farm is dying—we knew that in the first ten minutes of the movie. What matters is whether or not Cooper and his robot sidekick can save the spaceship.
Also, casting an actor of any prominence in a small role in a movie like this guarantees that character is going to be a bad guy. The minute Matt Damon appeared it was blatantly obvious he was going to turn out to be a nutjob who tries to kill everyone. It’s like Robert Redford showing up in a Marvel movie—OF COURSE he’s the bad guy. If it was just an expository role, any character actor would do. But a big A-list name used in a small part that enters in act two or later is always a villain.
And that’s pretty much Interstellar in a nutshell. Ambitious and yet completely pedestrian. Great technical aspects undercut by a silly story. Good acting wasted on underwritten characters. Big Ideas served in a movie that is ultimately unsatisfying.