Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.
Running time: 169 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
Yes, I recognize the egregious tardiness of this review. “Interstellar” has been out for over a week now. I’ve started and stopped writing about it a good, solid half dozen times, including a three-day hiatus while I was at a ladies’ getaway weekend in Palm Springs with a bunch of school moms. Being functional was not on the agenda.
Now it’s time to buckle down and dig in, and I’ll try to do it with both the brevity and directness Christopher Nolan’s film is lacking.
It’s a tricky thing, writing about “Interstellar.” Nolan’s latest provokes intense and conflicting reactions, more so than any of his previous films. (And for the record, I’ve been a fan — I love “Memento,” “Inception” and “The Dark Knight.” “The Dark Knight Rises,” not so much, as you may have heard.) It’s a film I didn’t exactly enjoy and can’t say I would recommend. And yet as an event, as a singular movie-watching opportunity, it’s undoubtedly worthwhile. How often do you get the chance to see a film projected in 70mm IMAX? It’s awesome and overwhelming, but also overbearing and ultimately kind of silly. But that’s only the beginning of the contradictions, which are many and maddening.
Nolan’s space odyssey features some truly striking imagery, and you certainly have to appreciate that he remains a fervent champion of shooting on film. (Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose previous beautiful work includes Spike Jonze’s “Her” and the original Swedish vampire thriller “Let the Right One in,” is the cinematographer.) Individual moments of grandeur are jaw-dropping, including the sight of a spaceship passing as a tiny blip against a massive Saturn and its rings in various shades of brown and gray. But strangely, other shots – including some of the exterior of the ship against a vast blackness, or docking into a space station – look conspicuously like models.
“Interstellar” boasts a strong cast filled with Oscar winners and nominees, and it places them in scenarios which are sprawling in their ambitions and dizzying in their scientific complexity. But then the dialogue they’re stuck working with often inspires either dozing or unintended giggling. The script — which Nolan wrote with his brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan Nolan — is terrible. It alternates between dry and expository high-tech jargon and weepy, overly simplistic notions of love. Nolan is not exactly known as the most emotional director — although I appreciate the clockwork precision of his filmmaking — but here, when he tries to get a little gushy, the result is just laughable.
That gushiness also comes with the accompaniment of a typically insistent Hans Zimmer score (which is different from the signature WHOMMM from “Inception,” FYI). But “Interstellar” also suffers from some muddled sound issues. You may find yourself straining to hear the dialogue at times — not that you’ll necessarily want to hear it.
Another frustrating inconsistency comes from the film’s pacing, which alternates between draggy and relentless. It takes a long time to establish this post-apocalyptic near future, a withering place where farming has replaced technology as the planet’s primary purpose. And then, poof! Matthew McConaughey’s character is saying good-bye to his kids and heading into space, having been asked to commandeer a dangerous mission within minutes of discovering NASA’s clandestine headquarters.
McConaughey’s Cooper is a widowed former astronaut now living in a modest farmhouse with his inquisitive daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), his teenage son, Tom (Timothee Chalamet), and his circumspect father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). It’s a world where the powers that be are erasing the accomplishments of the past, and where regular folks are struggling to survive just one more day. (The massive, Steinbeckian dust storms that smother and swallow everything are a frightening sight to behold.) As is the case with most McConaughey characters, Cooper gets by on his charm; “Interstellar” requires him to deliver many intricate lines, but doesn’t ask him to stray too far beyond his confident, charismatic persona. His strongest moments actually come when he’s playfully bantering on Earth with the spitfire Foy and earnestly promising he’ll come home to her.
A series of mysterious signs leads Cooper and Murphy to NASA’s underground operations, and to some semblance of hope. As they learn from the dignified gentleman who runs the place, Professor Brand (Michael Caine, Nolan’s go-to voice of reason), a dozen brave pioneers shipped out a few years ago in search of other planets that might be habitable. They accessed these far-away lands through a wormhole near Saturn, which space aliens may or may not have placed there as a gift. (Who’s to say? Aliens are mysterious creatures.) Now, Cooper has the opportunity to save all of humanity by hopping inside a rocket with a group of brilliant scientists — as well as a clunky but omniscient HAL 9000-like robot named TARS, voiced by Bill Irwin — by visiting three of these planets which seem like the safest destinations.
The only one of these supporting characters who gets much of a discernible personality is Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway). “Interstellar” goes out of its way to establish her as supremely qualified for this mission — one of the top experts in her field — which is commendable. But eventually, the film reveals that it doesn’t think much of its women as it undermines both her and Jessica Chastain’s character, who arrives much later as the grown-up version of Murphy once decades have passed on Earth. (There’s a convoluted space-time continuum issue which complicates matters.) Both women are clearly geniuses, yet they make decisions based on romantic impulses which seem not just contradictory to their natures but stereotypically chickish. If I were an astronaut, I’d be seriously offended.
Eventually, there is a massive, third-act twist. I’m not going to ruin it (although I have a theory about what’s actually going on with it). Regardless, it feels like a cheat, and it doesn’t work. “Interstellar” begins life with great aspirations and originality, but it ultimately devolves into a sorta-clever “Twilight Zone” episode. Still, if you’re going to see it, you may as well do so on the biggest screen you can find. Unfortunately, it won’t stay with you for long afterward.