Maybe this is an example of the Hollywood hype machine working too well. I feel like I should have liked “Interstellar” more, much more. Christopher Nolan has directed some of my favorite films and I can’t wait to see each new movie he creates. This movie was basically made for movie nerds like me. But I just didn't like "Interstellar" that much.
After watching the trailer for the first time a few months ago, I turned to my husband and said "Goosebumps". After watching the film, I turned to my husband and said "Let's go", anxious to leave the theater after sitting for almost three hours. Not exactly the feeling I anticipated.
Christopher Nolan is clearly a director with vision and innate craftsmanship; each of his last few films have been outstanding. He has had few stumbling blocks (his remake of "Insomnia", a good film that didn't catch on) and seems to be the rare director who can combine the artistic with the commercial, creating blockusters that become instant classics. "Interstellar" is an ambitious, grand, well-made film, just the type to have me lapping it up like a cat with a fresh bowl of milk.
But there are a number of significant problems that serve to detract from the overall feeling of sitting through three hours of narrative. We'll discuss those in more detail later.
In the future, a drought and a blight wipes out the crops, creating another Dust Bowl. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a one-time pilot for NASA, now tends the family farm, trying to grow one of the last remaining crops, corn, to keep his family alive. His son, Tom (Timothee Chalamet), is bright and could be an engineer, but the world doesn't need engineers, they need food, so he is destined to become a farmer. His daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Renesmee in "Twilight: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 & 2") believes there is a ghost in her room, not the scary kind, but someone trying to communicate with her by knocking books down from her bookshelf. And Coop's father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) lives on the farm with them and helps take care of the kids. One day, Coop and Murph stumble upon a secret NASA site and they are surprised to find Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), one of Coop's old professors, and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway) leading a team to send a new voyage into outer space. The mission's purpose is to visit a few planets that may have hospitable living conditions for a human settlement. They have already sent a number of probes and now need to find out if the information is correct. If it is, they will send a colony. They just need a pilot; Coop was once a NASA pilot, before the program was called off. So, Coop is the new pilot. The new mission may last years, decades, if they are even able to return, so Murph isn't too happy and lets Cooper leave without saying goodbye. The Lazarus takes off with four crew members, Coop, Amelia, Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley). There is also an advanced on board computer called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), which helps them both on the shuttle and as they set foot on other planets. After take off, they connect to the Endurance, a space station, and begin their mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. During the mission, the narrative cuts back to Earth and we see Tom and Murph as adults, now played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain, as they deal with life on our dying planet.
Co-written by Christopher and his brother Jonathan, the Nolan brothers have collaborated on most of Christopher's directorial efforts. And their previous efforts have been better.
McConaughey's Coop has the benefit of a lot of screen time to develop and become someone we care about. We watch as he struggles with the acceptance of the situation he and everyone else are forced to live in. And these moments help us care about his character. But once he goes into space, he doesn't have a lot of time to do anything but figure out how to control bad situations or to stay alive. There is one moment when he watches some video messages from Tom and Murph and the waterworks begin. It seems like the Nolan brothers flip a switch turning off his humanity. Then, in the middle of the film, as he returns to the space station, he receives a bunch of video messages from his son and Murph. Flip the switch again and the waterworks begin. Coop cries. And cries. And cries. This is clearly meant to remind us that the pilot is human, but the sheer amount of screen time spent watching him cry is a little jarring and has an adverse effect. His image of strength and resolve seems to shrink a bit, making him seem a little less invincible. Not exactly what you want from someone trying to save humanity.
Hathaway is a good actress, but her performance here seems a bit lopsided. I don't think it is her fault, I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Nolan brothers. "Interstellar" works very hard to make us connect to the main characters, and we spend a lot of time with Coop and his family. But we don't really ever get to know that much about Amelia. Even when they are on the spaceship, headed for the Endurance. When she finally does show some emotion, and we learn a little bit about her, it is a bit too late to work up any feeling for her situation. Also, because we have spent so much time with Coop and his family, it seems like the director is playing favorites. It doesn't work very well and seems like sloppy storytelling. And sloppy storytelling is something I have never accused Christopher Nolan of before.
Michael Caine, who has been in every Christopher Nolan film since "Batman Begins", plays Dr. Brand, the man trying to figure out how to save the human race. His performance is good, but it doesn't have the energy of his previous work. I understand both the character and the actor are old, but this is the first time I think Caine has played someone who seems old. In Caine’s autobiography, he comments that actors should never play ‘drunk’. When they do, it seems unnatural and phony. Here, it seems like Caine is playing ‘old’, because it looks too on-the-nose and draws attention to the fact.
John Lithgow is solid as Cooper's father-in-law, who now helps out at the farm and provides help looking after his grandchildren. Mackenzie Foy and Timothee Chalafant are also both good. Later in the film, Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck take over these roles as adults. carrying on the characters as established by the younger actors. Chastain carries Murph's hatred for her father into adulthood, thrusting herself in to Dr. Brand's scientific community, trying to carry on his work and figure out how to help save humanity. Affleck's Tom stays on the family farm with his family, raising corn and trying to stay alive amid the constant dust flurries. He shows Tom's declining ability to deal with the worsening situation and he seems to become more mad than Murph.
Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace and Ellen Burstyn all make cameos, providing interesting moments of distraction.
The problems! Hold on a moment while I turn the music up and drown out what I am about to write. There we go... Did you get that? Then I haven’t turned up the music enough. So, that is the first problem. Given the usual attention to technical detail in a Christopher Nolan film, this problem is very noticeable. Every time McConaughey, Hathaway or Caine are about to talk about some important detail, their whispering voices are drowned out by a huge swell in the music. It's terrible and makes it more difficult to understand the complex science presented in the film. The rest of the score is great - when they are outside a space ship, no sound, inside, sound. Check. But that swelling music always seems to hit just as we are about to get a major piece of exposition. It's kind of maddening. It reminded me of a comedy show on TV when they are trying to obscure a character's use of the f-word or some other bad word. Just as the character is about to say it, a break bell goes off, obscuring it. Or a band member uses the cymbals. Or a fire truck goes by, the siren blaring. Then the character continues speaking and is about to use the word again and another fire truck goes by. And another. In “Interstellar”, just as any character is about to give the audience some guidance to the plot, the music swells, drowning out their whispers. Maybe the filmmakers are trying to obscure the science, to prevent any criticism on that front.
There is a big plot twist introduced very early. When this pays off, at the end of the film, it doesn't come as a big, shocking surprise. In fact, it seemed kind of obvious. And because it was obvious, it was disappointing.
And there is a cameo by a famous A-Lister. I didn't like the character they were playing, their actions didn't make sense and this detracted from the rest of the narrative.
There is a lengthy sequence at the beginning of the film when Coop and his two children chase an Indian (yes, as in the country in Asia, Mumbai, Bollywood, etc.) drone that is flying over their land. They want to capture it and wrangle the power source for use on their farm. This is interesting, but it doesn't resolve and we don't learn how this power source could or did help them. The entire sequence seems superfluous.
I can look beyond all of the flibbertigibbet with time and gravity and talk of 'other beings', the cornball dialogue, but the problems I discussed almost ruined "Interstellar" for me. I still enjoyed parts of the film, but it wasn't the spine-chilling, goosebumps-inducing experience I was anticipating.
Every film director has a handful of unsuccessful films to their credit, some more than others. I am sure that Nolan will make many more films that reach the heights of his best films. Hopefully, "Interstellar" is a temporary blip in the fabric of time.
Nolan’s next film hasn’t been announced, so it will probably be two or three years before he releases a new film. I can wait. I will wait… two or three years. Groan.