Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Dir. Christopher Nolan
3 out of 5
Interstellar, being a Christopher Nolan film, promises many things: secrecy and revelation, the inevitable re-framing of narrative boundaries, a sense of (or at least an attempt to achieve) real wonder or terrific awe. What I wasn't expecting were sass-talkin' robots. Even though they're medium-sized details, those glorious machines are proof that Nolan is self-aware and still attempting to grow, even as Interstellar is clearly of a piece with the rest of his filmography. It's less of a puzzle box than anything outside of his Batman trilogy, yet still contains twists and surprises revealed with the smug sense of satisfaction usually reserved for tech product announcements. It considers the human element and blends it with a welcome respect for science, but it ultimately seems to be saying, Now, wasn't that thing I made pretty clever?
And yet, Nolan cares enough about his brand as a maker of "intelligent" blockbusters that he actually does try to do smart things with them. Interstellar is an ambitious sci-fi epic that blithely introduces advanced astrophysics concepts like wormholes, relativity, and extra-dimensional travel while stumping for the continued human exploration of space. All of this is idealized within the movie's protagonist, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Formerly a NASA test pilot, he is now a farmer - one of many struggling to maintain the Earth's food supply after an unexplained plant disease and apocalyptic dust storms have driven most terrestrial crops to extinction. Along with his science-prodigy daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Cooper discovers that NASA has been surreptitiously sending manned probes into deep space to search for other habitable planets.
Interstellar begins to pick up steam the farther it gets away from Earth. Before you can say "destiny," Cooper makes the difficult decision to leave his family and captain the ship sent to retrieve the probes, in the hopes that at least one of them has found a suitable colony. Bringing along scientists Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) - the astronaut business is is a surname-only affair - and a couple of impractical-looking yet extremely versatile A.I. machines, the mission predictably runs into complications and devolves into a series of gripping life-or-death choices.
The problem with Interstellar, however, is that Nolan frequently sacrifices clarity for density, and then confuses it for depth. This is a film that feeds off furiously-scribbled diagrams and magic equations, all directed toward a reveal of the convoluted and silly explanation for what sets the whole thing in motion. Nolan also gets bogged down in scenes on Earth with the older Murph (Jessica Chastain) and her brother Tom (Casey Affleck), who age to adulthood while Cooper is still out playing spaceman, thanks to the wonders of relativity. And for a guy often lauded for his vision, Interstellar often feels like a bibliography for other sci-fi classics. It takes its designs and daring from 2001: A Space Odyssey, lifts the dread about a dying planet and a doomed species (not to mention its boxy robots) from various '70s sci-fi movies, and features a father-daughter relationship that quotes heavily from Contact - a film that McConaughey himself starred in nearly 20 years ago.
Drawing inspiration from other sources isn't a bad thing. Neither is taking the kernel of a scientific truth, then making up a bunch of interesting and dramatic stuff to place on top of it. But it's hard to deny that overcooked, bloated storytelling often derails Interstellar, a film of so many wonderful individual beats that never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole. It's a gorgeously-rendered hymn to the spirit of discovery that nonetheless struggles to determine what it wants to be, though my theory is that it's a lot like the monolith from the aforementioned 2001: big, bold, and inscrutable, pulling us closer whether or not we understand its purpose.