3.5 / 5 stars
For all the drama and enormity of Christopher Nolan’s last two Dark Knight entries, Interstellar is the director’s true massive, magnum epic. It’s a 2-hour, 45-minute drama about the hunger for survival, American pluck, life beyond our solar system, the theory of relativity, the power of love, and decision-making that would fry most humans’ thought processes. It’s a physically overwhelming space mega-movie that often fires on all cylinders, but sputters toward the journey’s end. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
At minimum, Interstellar is 2-hours-plus of high concept and tight tension, two typical Nolan strengths dating back to his breakthrough, Memento. The action begins on Planet Earth, where the environment has all but ruined the food supply, reducing the population to failed farmers heading toward human extinction. The setting and design is classic Americana, creaky rural homes in the midst of the nation’s next Dust Bowl, Nolan nodding to familiar history in an unfamiliar future.
The setup details are revealed carefully, if sometimes a little too giddily. Matthew McConaughey is heroic protagonist Cooper, a former NASA pilot and single dad raising two kids with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), lamenting what the world’s become. He chases down a stray drone device so we can learn what it may have been used for. He meets with his daughter’s teacher so we can hear about the rewriting of scientific history. Nolan, with co-writer / brother Jonathan, keeps the pace exciting but generally in check. It helps us ignore McConaughey’s frustrating delivery, the usually fine actor conveying dejection by way of an overly affected deep whisper. (His performance improves, thankfully, once he leaves the planet.)
The Interstellar crowd, however, is coming to see Nolan handle space exploration – and that’s where the film reaches its greatest heights, and the director enjoys his greatest achievements. With the hope of finding new places for humans to colonize, Cooper leads a crew of four beyond Saturn, and the details are both lovely and thrilling, from the quiet crunch of a spacesuit’s fabric to the strange limitlessness of a newly charted planet.
The Nolans’ script swings across a few different focal points, to varying effect. When Interstellar leans on science, the result is very strong, as the astronauts are forced to give intense consideration to relativity, and how their actions might affect everything they know about their Earthly relationships. The concepts are gigantic, authentic and terrifying (especially to a non-science brain like mine). When Nolan relies on more common narrative elements like love and trust, the story feels rushed and unpolished, closer to a Nicholas Sparks adaptation than a potentially brilliant space odyssey.
Speaking of space odysseys, yes, Nolan borrows liberally and happily from Stanley Kubrick (cue the pipe organ!), but not terribly often, and not closely enough to piss off those who regard 2001 as an inimitable religious experience. Nolan also lifts from James Cameron – as much from Titanic as The Abyss – as well as his own work, primarily the fragility of time he examined in the fascinating Inception.
It’s easy to embrace the head rush that most of Interstellar delivers, a trippy science lesson wrapped up in a confident, conventional action movie set in the outer limits. But as the wild ride reaches its apex, the script feels constrained, the Nolans opting to tie loose strings together via a set of rules – like the overly architected structure of an M. Night Shayamalan movie. For a film that has so much going for it, the payoff should be blue-sky beyond most viewers’ imaginations. Instead, it plays like someone explaining how to complete a jigsaw puzzle.
But Christopher Nolan and his ambition prevail, the unabashed thrills and emotions more infectious than troubling. Interstellar is notable science fiction filmmaking, flawed but ultimately satisfying.