Overview: A former pilot departs a ruined Earth, leaving his family behind in search of habitable planets outside of our galaxy. Syncopy/Paramount Pictures; 2014; Rated PG-13, 169 Minutes.
Launch: The barren fields surrounding Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) dusty farmhouse might not be suitable for growing much more than corn, but they could have provided the ideal landscape to harvest plenty of audience emotion. Instead, the first hour of Interstellar moves at baffling pace, cramming in (and wasting) so much movie that it almost qualifies as a cheap montage. Christopher Nolan and his brother/screenwriter Jonathan employ cheap narrative tricks (small example: a magically repaired flat tire), conveniently broad political banter, simplified and fast-forwarded explanations of complex quantum physics sprinkled with new age speculation. When Coop and his family talk, they speak in generic, hollow recital and every single sentence sounds like it was written to make the final trailer. Specifically, Professor Brand’s (Michael Caine) contributions seem inserted to make sure the trailer has a voiceover.
Before we’re allowed one moment of contemplation, Cooper moves from Midwest farmer to the pilot of an intergalactic mission to save the entire human race. This career bump is accomplished in seemingly one day of the film’s timeline. And so, there is established no distinct connection to him, his children, or anyone else in the equation. The performers onscreen emote, but the bridge is never built to share the experience with the audience. At one point Cooper’s father-in-law explains that Cooper doesn’t need to worry about his son before he leaves, but he should take care of his daughter. This is the script’s embarrassing attempt to avoid having to figure out how to make both children matter. (Incidentally, later in the movie, the adult version of the son, played by possibly the most talented actor on the cast, is reduced to a pointless two-scene villain).
Thrust: There are moments in this film where the Nolan team partakes in the right exercises to flex its strongest muscles. The short segment of the film in which Cooper, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and crew land on the first hopeful planet is one of my favorite bits of movie this year. It exhibits stunning visual work from Hoyte van Hoytema, disciplined pacing, and precise editing. A few of the space sequences seem poorly arranged as the camera feels too closely mounted to the bulky equipment, but at other times, the intergalactic traveling sequences are breathtaking and hypnotic. The same holds for the score. Hans Zimmer’s musical composition is never in question, but the value of his music is debatable on a scene-by-scene basis, given that silence creates the most tense, dramatic, and thrilling turns.
Docking: Ultimately, Interstellar never fully recovers from the skipped steps in the opening act which leaves everything thereafter unsupported and, at times, unearned. The onscreen performers do their best, but because so much of the movie is taped together by generic exposition, when the narrative slows, it frames McConaughey, Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain as over-actors. And this ungraceful progression is punctuated by a conclusion that requires such a leap of scientific and narrative logic that it might leave a lot of viewers exhausted.
Overall: Because of its subject matter, setting, and aim, some may feel compelled to compare Interstellar to the seminal space films of Stanley Kubrick and (God help us) Andrei Tarkovsky. Such comparisons would be completely unearned. This is just a Nolan film. That’s not necessarily an insult. Historically, what the Nolan tandem does well, they do better than almost anyone. But they do not do enough of that in Interstellar. One has to wonder if the two might need a third party to steer them, someone to refute the vision, a harsher buffer to polish the product into the milestone work of art they seem to believe they’re making. This movie is not a milestone work of art. It is occasionally really fun. It could have been both.