Review: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ is a Cold-Hearted Spectacle

By November 5, 2014
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Like most of his movies, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is about the conflict between human weakness and human ambition. Whether it’s an amnesiac tracking a killer, a troubled billionaire dressing as a bat to wipe out injustice, or the last remnants of mankind seeking a new Earth, what we want to do is often far greater than what we’re capable of.

Some Nolan characters brood and beat themselves up over these shortcomings (I can easily imagine Nolan being the same way), but Cooper, the protagonist in Interstellar, is more of an optimist. He’d almost have to be, being played by Matthew McConaughey. Cooper named his daughter after Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”) because he sees it as an affirmation: “Whatever CAN happen, WILL happen!” Late in the film, in a bit of dialogue that’s almost thrown away yet seems to encapsulate the whole thing, he calls for a course of action and is told, “It’s not possible.” His response: “No, it’s necessary.”

Interstellar is hugely ambitious, a 169-minute sci-fi adventure that takes old tropes (space travel, alien planets) and applies fresh new studio money to them. Visually, it’s a triumph. Nolan and his team (including cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema) use seamless special effects and models to create an awe-inspiring view of the solar system and beyond. They even manage to convey a four-dimensional concept in three dimensions (well, 3D for the characters; 2D for us), just the sort of mechanical wizardry you’d expect from the guy who made cities collapse on themselves in Inception merely as a visual aid.

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But like so many Nolan characters, Interstellar (which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan) bites off more than it can chew and comes up frustratingly short. We’re supposed to feel a strong emotional connection to the story (perhaps a first for Nolan, who’s usually stark and unsentimental), and all the elements are in place to make it happen … and then it never quite does. Instead, we have a film that’s often fascinating, sometimes thrilling, sometimes tedious, but always strangely aloof, despite its best efforts. The movie’s easy to admire, hard to love.

Cooper and his kids, science-minded Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and undefined Tom (Timothee Chalamet), live with their grandfather (John Lithgow) on a dusty farm a few generations from now. After being decimated by famine and drought, what’s left of the population is rebuilding society, hoping it’s not too late for Earth to be made habitable. (There’s that optimism again!) Meanwhile, NASA types played by Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi have been working on a secret plan to find a suitable new planet, aided by a wormhole out near Saturn that’ll get you to another galaxy lickety-split. Cooper, once the military’s best pilot, is tapped to lead the expedition to determine which (if any) of the newly discovered planets will work.

So … SPACE ADVENTURE! That means cryo-sleep, deceptively analog-looking robots, and weighty conversations about dimensions, limited resources, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Time works differently near a wormhole, you know. A few hours out here could be years back on Earth. It’s a reversal of McConaughey’s famous line from Dazed & Confused: the people on Earth get older while he stays the same age. And it matters because Cooper wants to return home before his children have lived out their lives.

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Nolan periodically intercuts between the action with Cooper and his fellow astronauts and the scene back on Earth, where time has indeed passed and Cooper’s children Tom and Murph have grown up into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain. The parallel stories and themes (stubbornness, frailty, hubris) add depth, but it’s undercut by the curious neglect of Tom as a character, leaving him as dead weight. Why give Cooper two children when you only needed him to have one?

Missteps like this are disappointing because when Interstellar is good, it’s magnificent. The action scenes set on alien planets are exhilarating, outer space looks gorgeously vast, and the idea of love being a powerful force in the universe is ennobling. This is certainly the most humanistic movie Nolan has made, the one that feels closest to the real emotions of actual people. But it’s still off the mark, a sci-fi spectacle full of fine, teary-eyed performances but powered by a cold, mechanical heart.

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Eric D. Snider
Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.
  • Tokyospike

    I feel terrible for reviewers who are expected to step out of a single viewing of ‘Interstellar’ and immediately write something coherent and useful. I have been sitting with my reaction for 24 hours now (had ‘Interstellar’-related dreams last night I can’t quite remember), and I still can’t put better words than these to my experience. As with most of Nolan’s non-Dark Knight work, unpacking what the heck he’s actually saying seems to require multiple viewings — and in spite of being exactly his target audience (a father with a daughter, a Nolan fan, a sci-fi film and literature afficianado, a believer in the method of science and the aim of religion, fairly well-read in relativity theory), I suspect it’s going to take a lot longer to come to rest with this film than with any of his others. So . . . does that make it more or less successful? I’m glad it exists, I look forward to seeing it again on the biggest screen available. But I doubt that anything written or said about this film is going to be remotely definitive for years — and that’s probably it’s biggest parallel to ‘2001.’

  • Ananya Bhardwaj

    I pity you Mr. Critic.
    You simply werent smart enough to digest the movie.
    Nolan comes up with the greatest movie of the decade. Or maybe the best movie ever based on science and emotions both and you still find errors in the movie and you call it hard to love?
    I’ve never felt emotionally more connected to a movie than this one. This movie was the perfect blend of every emotion felt ever.
    You should probably go to Mann’s planet cuz you are cold.
    The movie wasnt.

    I wish to see this movie again, a hundred times.

    • Rich

      Ananya – I agree with you almost 100%. The possible exception being complete blend of emotions. I’m not sure about that, but I’m sure about the rest of your points. I saw the movie twice, and got more out of it the second time. Perhaps this critic should do the same. Magnificent movie, and possibly the best sci-fi movie made – ever.