Anne Hathaway Christopher Nolan

Interstellar Review: Bad Habits Get In the Way of Greatness

Friday, November 14, 2014 Rob Samuelson


Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway

When I walked out of the theater after Interstellar ended, a woman commented loudly, “Maybe they'll have translators waiting for us to explain to us what that meant.” Either she wasn't paying attention or she doesn't have working ears, because Interstellar is a movie that fails the old “show don't tell” test at every turn. How anyone could walk out of a theater confused by a movie so burdened by over explanation is astonishing to me. Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception) has a habit of holding his audience's hands, not allowing his evocative visuals and stellar casts to do the heavy lifting they could. Maybe he isn't sure of the strength of his visual acumen or maybe he doesn't believe in his audience, but either way the result is preventing the audience from being able to make up their own minds about his movies. They tell us exactly the filmmaker's intent, an often suffocating one-way street that takes out a lot of the fun, and sometimes the longevity, from his films.

Interstellar suffers this problem more acutely than many of his other films. Whereas Inception was a movie built like a multilayered puzzle, with completely fictional rules that needed explaining, Interstellar takes place in a possible future for the world we live in, much of it well researched by Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan. The concepts of relativity, space flight, global warming, wormholes, the effects of loneliness, and parenthood are explicated ad nauseam. It's a shame, too, because Nolan, through the use of the camera and his actors, especially conflicted protagonist Matthew McConaughey, makes the emotional effects – emotion being the thing cinema does best – tangible. When McConaughey explains his decision to go on the humanity-saving mission to Anne Hathaway's scientist-astronaut, he makes platitudes about how parenthood is all about making your children feel safe. This was made abundantly clear in his loving – and occasionally truth obfuscating – interactions with his children in the hour or so the (nearly three hour long) movie spends on a dying Earth. We don't need the movie to tell us this, because we're already hard-wired to understand visual stimuli, particularly the kind related to self-preservation. The same goes for Nolan hammering us with information about why the Earth is ravaged by climate change and how it works – we get it with the dust storms, the dying crops, the people dying of lung infections.

And unfortunately, the worst of it is in the space scenes, including a planet on which spending an hour equals seven years in Earth time. The initial mention of it is fine to make sure the audience understands the stakes, but the hemming and hawing McConaughey and company do once they land is exhausting and undercuts the thrill of seeing the existential danger facing them. This continues time and again, all the way through the climax, which takes place in what looks like a box covered in puke green plaid wrapping paper – go see the movie and you won't be able to unsee that description – a scene that could be done in complete silence and it would still be fairly clear, but with more subtlety and, heaven forbid, some ambiguity.

But I mean it when I say go see
Interstellar, because, for all its faults and distrust in the audience's ability to stick with it, it remains thrilling and emotionally satisfying – from a full range of emotions. I mentioned earlier how the first hour takes place on Earth, and despite the qualms with explanation, it's not boring. McConaughey's character, Cooper, is a man stuck in a bad situation trying to make the best of it. He's a former pilot and engineer pushed by circumstances into farming, which the conventional wisdom of The People says is the only truly noble occupation in a world where a harshly warming planet makes every morsel necessary – other occupations and ambitions must be put aside to ensure a survival that still isn't likely. He lost his wife because of that deemphasis on grander plans, and he sees things getting worse. His son is locked into a life of farming, too, because of mediocre test scores. His daughter, Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult), is clearly brilliant and driven to be in charge of her fate. The connection between father and daughter is the crux of the film, and the scene when McConaughey must say goodbye to Murph after deciding to embark on the adventure at the cost of possibly never seeing her again is a doozy, packed with the weight of Steven Spielberg's best – it makes sense, given that Spielberg was originally slated to be Interstellar's director. I got a lump in my throat, which is rare for me in a movie, and even rarer for a Nolan film, given his emphasis on the brain in lieu of the heart.

Interstellar is a solid adventure film despite its flaws, but its disappointment lies in how close it is to being a great one. The bones are in place for sublimity, but its constant insecure – whether that insecurity is linked to Nolan's belief in himself or the audience, I'm not 100 percent on – insistence on explaining itself shoots itself in the foot.

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