Sitting down in the theater for Christopher Nolan's newest film feels oddly like embarking on an amusement park ride. This is not to say that Interstellar is a “rollercoaster ride” of a film—far from it. This movie feels like one of those virtual reality simulator rides built in a box that moves just a little to simulate the sensation of real plummeting dives and gut-wrenching turns. From the start, the score is intense--so much bass that it shook and distorted the speakers. At times, this sensation is helpful, like when a spaceship travels through a wormhole and the shaking makes it feel like the whole theater is about to collapse, but in the opening few minutes, Hans Zimmer's bassy score hits these same notes, distracting from the establishment of emotional ties. It's as if the only way the film can draw out emotion is by blasting the score up to 11.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst, Emma Thomas
Writers: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editor: Lee Smith
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Mackenzie Foy, Elyes Gabel, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, John Lithgow
US Theatrical Release: November 7, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The plot opens in a near-future world where an unnamed disaster has caused a huge reimagining of society's role on Earth. Wracked with apocalyptic dust storms and global blights that have killed nearly all food sources (the only remaining viable crop is corn), the planet is in dire straits. Innovation and that capital-driven American spirit have been all but eradicated in this version of the Midwest. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a dissatisfied former NASA pilot who runs a farm in the new agrarian society—a schoolteacher says “we’re a caretaker generation,” a phrase that rankles Cooper’s good old boy adventuring spirit. Soon Cooper is conscripted to fly a spaceship on NASA’s “Lazarus” mission—helmed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway)—to find another potential home planet for the continuation of human life. But Cooper is a relatively devoted father with two kids, Tom and Murphy, who he is forced to leave behind in the care of his father-in-law (John Lithgow).
With all this big name acting talent and the many complicated layers of this setup, you would imagine that these characters would have complex interlocking relationships and feelings, but sadly they are little more than archetypes. Cooper bemoans the death of his wife and misses his children, but these motivations read like Nolan never fleshed out the treatment. These are cookie-cutter motivations that are constantly referenced verbatim. (A good drinking game to go with this film might be to take a swig every time someone in space mentions Cooper’s kids.) Perhaps some of the fault lies in the performances of the young children, with child actors cast less for talent and more for their similarity in appearance to their adult corollaries—Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck play the grown-up kids—but most of the flatness is in Nolan’s bland script. The script skillfully establishes the post-apocalyptic world with somber moments instead of expository dialogue—most beautifully summed up in a scene where John Lithgow wistfully remembers his youth, when they used to invent something new every day (is John Lithgow a millennial!?). But when it comes to introducing character or relationships, the script falls flat, opting instead for purely expositional bouts of character explanation.
The script is just as abysmal at avoiding exposition in its other dialogue—particularly the tech-heavy explanations of astrophysics that seem to be pulled word-for-word from a college physics textbook. Surely Nolan was worried about the considerable scrutiny his film’s science would undergo, but that’s no excuse for replacing characters with lore-spouting manuals who are only onscreen to satisfy an oddly science-hungry crowd. (Since when do our Hollywood blockbusters have to double as an intro physics course?) Nolan reportedly consulted with several astrophysicists to make sure all the science checked out—a strange hope considering that this film goes far beyond the observable knowledge of astrophysics and into the mostly theoretical realm of Einsteinian supposition—but it seems like he just sent them a script and let them fill in the blanks. And some of his moments of theoretical physics experimentation seem to counteract the possible drama that should exist in the film—particularly a cross cutting climax that seems ignorant of the fact that it is only possible through time travel. Nolan hasn’t figured out how to build suspense when time, that inherent basis of the filmic medium, is no longer relevant, but he doesn’t let it stop him from cutting it just like D.W. Griffith would have, directly between two dramatic spaces.
While it may be narratively flawed, visually this film is another matter entirely. Nolan has always been obsessed with his visual effects, like when he built a hotel hallway that could spin 360 degrees for Inception, but here, in his chance to pay homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan’s mastery is incredible. It’s hard not to see Nolan’s insistence on releasing this film on 70mm as a direct shout out to Kubrick, since 2001 is one of only a few films commercially released on 70mm. Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who brought the same sense of extraterrestrial grandeur to a futuristic downtown LA in last year’s Her, Nolan’s new film glistens and glows somewhere in every shot. Some of the alien worlds and seemingly alien shots of earth are truly breathtaking. Of particular note is a wormhole the crew finds in space, which one of them describes as being a hole in four-dimensional space that would then look like a sphere, just as a hole in three-dimensional space looks like a circle. That expository textbook dialogue may conjure up in your mind a bland blue ink diagram, but Nolan’s interpretation is wonderful, a dark living sphere, moving and shimmering with another three-dimensional world on the other side of it.
During a dust storm early in the film, Cooper and Murphy watch dust settle into intricate patterns on her bedroom floor. "It's the ghost," she tells him, but Cooper corrects her. "No, it's gravity." You might be able to say the same thing of Nolan's whole enterprise: no, it's Gravity. Like Alfonso Cuarón's vapid, beautiful space thriller, Interstellar wastes no time thrusting us into space, and from Gravity (and also 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and many more) Interstellar borrows the idea of space as an alien, foreign environ. Perhaps these space movies are only borrowing that idea from all the WWII submarine films that came before too, but whatever the case, there is never a moment in which the imposing, permanent threat of death doesn’t lurk right on the other side of a few inches of aluminum. While these near-future spaceships are slightly less fragile than Gravity’s, which seemed to be made mostly of tin foil, the threat still looms.
The intrinsic problem at the heart of Nolan's latest effort is his characters–as in many of his films, he spends so much time on visual and auditory potency that he forgets about characters and feelings. His trademark philosophical meanderings are sophomoric and shallow, saying very little about the human race or the meaning of our place in the universe, but saying it with the fervent intensity of a high school boy discovering Nietzsche. Yet despite these glaring shortfalls, the film is held together by incredible, astounding aesthetic technique. Though Interstellar’s characters are lame, and its plot predictably archetypal, it’s still miles beyond the soulless emptiness at the center of Gravity. This is a better movie than Cuarón’s, and just as beautiful.