“Interstellar” Reaches for the Stars but Gets Stuck in the Clouds

Interstellar

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Dust is everywhere. The only crop that can still grow on earth is corn, but every year more crops fail. Most of the world’s population has died, and the remaining humans struggle to make ends meet, and view science – which they imagine as responsible for their dreary fate – with great skepticism. New textbooks claim that the 20th-century moon landing was faked, and anyone who disagrees is seen as a troublemaker. It’s only a matter of time, though, until the ever-multiplying dust clouds kill off the last people on earth. This is the future as imagined by Christopher Nolan (Inception) and his brother and frequent co-writer Jonathan (The Dark Knight), and it’s a dreary, but not unusual (these days, anyway), cinematic scenario.

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) plays Cooper, a former NASA pilot who know farms corn and does his best to raise two kids: an older boy, Tom – who will be played as an adult by Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) – and a younger girl, Murphy (or Murph) who will grow up first to be (disappointingly), the lightweight Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and then (less disappointingly) Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream). Murph is the true apple of her father’s eye, and a dreamer like him. As first incarnated by young Mackenzie Foy (The Conjuring), she is a powerful intellectual and creative force, and we understand why Cooper would invest so much ardent energy on her. And it’s important that we do, for their relationship is the key to the entire film. Without these early scenes on earth, the rest of the movie would have little emotional resonance. That the movie works at all (when it works) is in no small part due to the rapport between McConaughey and Foy, both of whom deliver electrifying performances.

This (dust-choked) idyll is soon threatened when Murphy and Cooper, tracking coordinates mysteriously spelled out in dust on Murph’s bedroom floor, come across a secret NASA bunker, where Cooper reunites with an old mentor, Professor Brand, played with his (now) usual curmudgeonly charm by Michael Caine (Batman Begins). Brand has a daughter – also a “professor” – known simply as “Brand,” and played with a delightful combination of whimsy and seriousness by Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), an actress I don’t always like, but very much do here. It turns out that father and daughter have designed an interstellar mission to reach a wormhole that they’ve discovered near Saturn. On a previous mission – departed a decade prior – over a dozen astronauts traveled through that wormhole to a distant galaxy in search of new planets to settle, since ours is so quickly failing. Since they haven’t returned, NASA plans to send a new vessel to the wormhole, and needs an experienced pilot like Cooper in charge. Cooper – bored with farming and needing no convincing that this is the only way to save our species – signs on, but not without great regret, since that means leaving Murphy (and Tom) behind. Fortunately, crusty father-in-law Donald – played by a fine John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun) – can fill in as parent, but Murph is devastated, and will spend the rest of her life bitterly angry with her father for abandoning her.

The rest of her life? Well, yes, because beyond the set-up of the film’s core relationship, the other thing Interstellar does well is to dramatize what we know about time dilation in space travel: how people stuck on earth would age more rapidly than people traveling great distances at close to the speed of light (as a kid, one of my favorite books about this phenomenon was Robert Heinlein’s Starman’s Quest). As Cooper and Brand (daughter) journey first to the wormhole and then go through it, they age in months and years, while their family on earth ages in decades. It’s a steep price to pay, but the stakes are nothing less than the survival of the human race.

The problem with Interstellar, though, is that it can never figure out what kind of movie it wants to be: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films deal with humans desperately seeking answers in the cosmos, but the former traffics in trite (if entertaining) action clichés, while the latter tackles large existential issues with finesse and grace. Nolan, who has made a career out of combining pop-cultural aesthetics and metaphysical questions (the best of his work remains Memento), here gets the equation all wrong. He steals the banal concepts from Scott and the (by now banal, because repeated ad nauseam since then) visuals and action sequences from Kubrick, rather than emulating Kubrick’s philosophical meditations and Scott’s sense of pace. So we get a slow – if beautiful – story about not much at all. Yes, we are doomed, but the method by which we eventually rescue ourselves from oblivion manages to be both impenetrable and hackneyed: love it seems, conquers all. Sweet, but . . . that’s it? Still, awkward pacing and silly ideas and all, even at almost 3 hours the film is not without interest. It’s just, sadly, without a lot of interest.

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