Sunday, November 9, 2014


 3 / 5 

Of the many paradoxes and contradictions in Interstellar, perhaps the biggest is this: The movie works best if you shut off your brain, but if you shut off your brain you'll miss what makes the movie work.

Christopher Nolan's science-fiction epic consciously references Stanley Kubrick's landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey over and over, but despite the visual majesty on display, it misses that film's cinematic poetry and ambition.  Kubrick and science-fiction Arthur C. Clarke contrived a story as simple as it was infinitely complex. Nolan and his co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan aim for something similar with "Interstellar" but can't resist doing exactly what Kubrick refused to do -- explain.

Interstellar spends a huge amount of time explaining mundane things while missing some of the bigger ones, so that by the time the film enters one of its climactic sequences (minor spoiler alert) inside a black hole, you understand way too much about what things are happening and just enough about why to make it all feel maddeningly insignificant and borderline silly.

Still, Interstellar has much to recommend it, and despite its shortcomings, do not let it be said that this is a film without ambition.

It begins sometime in the near future when Earth's wheat crops have been wiped out by blight, with corn as the only source of nutrition, which is the first of the many plot points in "Interstellar" that don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny.  Not just America but the whole world (though, the film seems to argue, mostly America since the old U.S. of A. is still the country that will save us all) has become a dust bowl.  People are starving.  They stopped fighting wars because they're so hungry.  And somewhere along the way some seriously warped revisionist history has taken hold, and NASA has been relegated to the status of a giant hoax.

All this sociological backstory turns out to have very little to do with the rest of the movie, but it establishes the character of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot who wants to instill his ambitious sprit in his daughter, Murph. The story kicks in when Murph starts seeing odd things happen in their old farmhouse. She chalks them up to a ghost.  Turns out, the source is even more fantastic -- and stretched my credulity to its breaking point.

With a nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the father and daughter decipher cryptic messages and wind up in an old NORAD bunker now being used by NASA to spend untold billions on a spaceship that can take mankind to a wormhole that has opened up near Saturn.  (Why should such trivial concerns as how much money is being spent on the spaceship matter?  They shouldn't, but the screenplay raises questions like that at least tangentially, so they do stick in the craw.)

Lickety-split, Cooper turns into his namesake and becomes the fastest man alive by piloting the ship without much training, joining Anne Hathaway's Amelia Brand and two other astronauts who have so little to do it's hard not to correctly guess their fate.

From here, Interstellar achieves some wonderful moments as the spaceship, aptly named the Endurance, makes its way to the wormhole -- which, it turns out, they are not the first humans to encounter.  (For being highly secretive, NASA apparently has been spending a lot of time flying around in outer space.)  In the film's emotional high point, all the theoretical discussion about relativity becomes real when Cooper realizes he has been away for 23 years already and watches video dispatches his son has sent been sending him for two decades.

It's up to the intrepid crew of the Endurance to journey to three possible worlds that humans can populate now that they have thoroughly mucked up Earth.  Interstellar spends a mind-boggling amount of time trying to explain all the details of just how they will populate the selected new world, and those explanations are so detailed they begin to seem silly.  Watching Interstellar reminded me of listening to a habitual liar: As the stories become increasingly complex and detailed, you begin to doubt everything about them.

As they journey from planet to planet, the Endurance crew understandably frets about the passage of time and begins to wonder if they'll ever succeed.  But they farther they get from home, the less pressing the story seems.  Frequently, Interstellar cuts back to Earth, which seems, despite all of its crises, to have changed remarkably little in two decades, and Jessica Chastain has a lot of screen time as the grown-up version of Coop's daughter, Murph -- who, despite her anger at her absent father, has dedicated herself to the same cause of saving the planet.

Interstellar journeys across the cosmos, but stays rigidly true cinematic convention.  There's even a surprise mano-a-mano fight on one of the distant planets that is pedestrian and obvious; why bother create a whole new world light years from Earth only to have it serve as the backdrop for a fistfight?

When the film finally gets where it's going, what happens there feels cliche: Cooper needs to emotionally connect with his daughter in order to save the entire world.  The on-screen action begins to beg some uncomfortable questions: Why is his story more important than the stories of the other astronauts?  Why does the entire story, in all of its elaborate circularity, hinge on the action he takes here? Nolan is trying to make a grand (literally universal) statement about love and family, but set against this impossibly giant canvas of the entire cosmos, of all space and time, it seems trite.

That's not to say Interstellar isn't impressive, but its long running time seems determined less by having some wonderful things to show us than by having some sentimental things to say.

It's a big, long, visually splendid, sloppily emotional shaggy dog story that could have led its audience down a remarkable rabbit hole instead of taking them to the ends of the universe only to remind us that love is important.  There's nothing wrong with that message, of course, but a movie that calls itself Interstellar seems to promise so much more.

Viewed Nov. 9, 2014 -- TCL Chinese Theater


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