interstellar review: was this the final cut?

Summary

A review of Christopher Nolan's latest movie Interstellar. To put it briefly, rarely has a movie so vastly deviated from my expectations going in. And not in a good way.

The first Interstellar trailer promised a return to the glory days of NASA, when as a nation (meaning the United States) we dreamed of going to the stars and the magic of scientific discovery and power of engineering excellence appeared boundless. Fast forward half a century and our space program is (by some measures) listless, there is a creeping pessimism and shortsightedness, and a myriad of other dream-destroying occurrences going on in the realm of space flight (notwithstanding SpaceX and several other bright spots). And so when that first trailer hearkened back to old times and promised a glimpse of the future, I was excited. I thought we might get a combination of Moon + 2001 (minus the last half-hour or so) + The Right Stuff. Maybe a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy's taste for adventure minus the slapstick, Marvel humor and several gallons more realism. That didn't happen. What we ended up getting was a confused, horribly paced, and misguided film.

And no, saying that this movie is high concept doesn't save it; neither does building detailed defenses about the films atemporality, meta-viewing experience, and other academic nonsense. That Nolan wanted to create an epic film doesn't make it so. That people want to project complexity, meaning, and interpretations about how the film reflects the passage of time and our inability to stop it has less to do with the films merits and more to do with people wanting to demonstrate how many classic films, books, legends, etc. they can reference and compare to Interstellar. While the film is technically excellent in most respects, it lacks narrative focus, which ultimately ends up being its undoing.

Note, this review contains SPOILERS! But considering the pacing and plot twists of this movie, that doesn't really count for much. Read the synopsis of Interstellar's plot if you want to get up to speed on the plot and what happens. Else, I'll describe it in bits and pieces throughout the review. The premise, in brief, is that crops on Earth are being ravaged by the Blight, humanity is on its last legs, and civilization has regressed to a degree. Cooper finds out NASA still exists and due to him being a former test pilot, he decides to help out with their mission to travel through a wormhole near Saturn. The goal is to report back on the mission success of twelve astronauts who already went through in search of new, habitable worlds. So Cooper leaves his family on Earth, joins three other astronauts, and has several 'adventures' on the other side of the wormhole.

Let's just start from the top, what was Interstellar's theme or topic? From the trailers (see above) and the film's beginning, it is clearly about exploration and discovering a new frontier. The United States is a nation that is (was?) built around this theme (as Elon Musk is wont to mention) and after the initial launch toward the wormhole near Saturn, it appears we are in for boundless, breathtaking adventures on unknown worlds in strange, new galaxies. We are about to boldly go...that didn't happen. No, about two-thirds of the way through we find out that it is actually the power of love that is the main focus of this film. That love is more powerful than the laws of physics. That it transcends space and time. And so on. I would be fine with the shift in focus if there was a shred of believable love between characters created in this film. Some might complain that this thematic switch never occurs since there is a father/daughter relationship established early on that foreshadows later events. However, given the tone of the movie, it would have worked better as a prelude to the idea that exploration does not come without loss. Instead we are left with: if you love someone enough you can accomplish space magic.

Moon was in many ways grounded by a singular focus on Sam Bell, the sole astronaut tending a colony on the Moon to mine helium-3.

Interstellar's cast of characters is rather expansive given the (supposedly) minimalist tone of the movie but their individual contributions don't sync up to enhance the overall story and justify their screen time.
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To put it bluntly, there were no (human) characters in this movie that were truly relatable. Matthew McConaughey, as the main character Cooper, gave a good performance along with old (Jessica Chastain) and young (Mackenzie Foy) Murph, his daughter. Casey Affleck and Timothée Chalamet each do decent job portraying Tom, Cooper's son, but their roles are largely forgettable. Anne Hathaway (as Brand, a astronaut on the mission) never quite comes together as a character, shifting between independent woman and Disney-princess modes (e.g. when she reveals that she wants to visit a scientifically unsound planet just to see if her boyfriend (?) is there). But given her performance in Les Misérables, overacting at its finest, well...not much was expected. There are several other characters (Michael Cain reprising the same wise Uncle-like role he plays in every Nolan flick), but they aren't central to the plot. There are also two robots that attempt to provide some comic relief, to mixed results. And lastly, the two other astronauts (Doyle played by Wes Bentley and Romilly played y David Gyasi) on the mission aren't even properly introduced, they just appear when Nolan skips to the ship leaving Earth orbit to head for Saturn (where the wormhole is) and die just as readily.

And this last part is a key issue with the movie and why I left utterly disappointed: there are abrupt jumps in the story without any explanation and things just seem to happen. This might be fine if we are talking about an avant-garde film, but Interstellar is not. A 20 second scene right before lift-off would have established relationships, status, and maybe a semblance of a plan. Instead we have several astronauts suddenly on a ship and by their interaction it is unclear whether or not they actually trained extensively together. This is reinforced by scenes in which they explain to one another basic facts that they should all know (e.g. what a wormhole is, how to execute a gravitational slingshot, etc.). The silent landscape and sharp transitions in 2001, such as the brilliant I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that scene, are still coherent and never leave the audience feeling like time has passed without explanation. It could be argued that this is a meta-narrative device Nolan uses to have the audience experience the same disorientation Cooper and the other astronauts feel at the warping of time.

Despite its trappings of an Epic, which contrary to what many are claiming it is not (for an example of one, see Ben-Hur), the film ends up feeling remarkably small and pedestrian. Why? We are never quite treated to the grand scale of the human plight or experience. We are given a very narrow view of the current Earth, which besides the dying crops and Dust Bowl-like weather appears rather normal. For example, there is a scene in which a baseball game is going on and nothing quite seems out of the ordinary (the only contrast given is a dust storm, which we already experience here on Earth in the American Southwest, the Middle East, and elsewhere). What is the rest of the world doing? Is this a do-or-die for America or for humans. That's a very clear distinction. The movie implies the later, but we are not given ample cause to believe that to be true. The Blight, which is destroying the crops, is only vaguely introduced and not very well. The movie lacked narrative clarity and cohesion, instead it opted for vague references and a focus for cramming in scenes with beautiful cinematography (take the dust storm rolling in during said baseball scene) without regard to how they helped move the story along and help establish a credible view of the world for the audience.

Look familiar?
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Interstellar doesn't quite develop the story surrounding why humanity needs to leave Earth. It seems shoehorned in, rather clunky as a narrative device, and lacked real gravitas.

The central problem of this movie is that it breaks a fundamental tenant of science-fiction stories: establish the rules of your world, stick with them, and be clear what the limits are. A lack of thought in this regard is clear, such as the fact that they can send entire ships through the wormhole but have trouble sending data back through. The audience should be surprised by the application of those rules or some event that takes advantage of the rules, but don't paint a hard science-fiction tale then start throwing soft science-fiction mumbo jumbo into the mix then hide under the cover of having Kip Thorne as a scientific advisor. I don't doubt the science for most of the film is correct (except the ice clouds on the second world they visit, that's pushing the limit), but the ending is such a 180 that we should stop for a moment to consider it. Even if it was 'foreshadowed' by Brand (Hathaway) touching a higher-dimensional being on their trip through the wormhole.

People will talk about how this movie explores the 5th and higher dimensions. Thus, the excuse to have Cooper get sucked into Gargantua (a black hole around which one of the planets they visit is orbiting) and suddenly arrive in a time-manipulating tesseract that he uses to send information back to Murph (bit-by-bit...but we'll ignore the transmission issues), allowing her to save humanity. Not only does the tesseract appear cheesy with questionable CGI, his ability to find precise times in the past to manipulate (given this is his first time navigating such an environment), and that the only area of the past that he can manipulate is his daughters room is absurd. And to top it off, Cooper then appears orbiting Saturn at the exact moment a ship is flying by to save him from running out of oxygen. That is sheer nonsense. I know we get an allusion to the scenes around Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it just doesn't work here.

2001: A Space Odyssey did a better job at capturing the tension between technology and humanity along with the dangers of exploration. The focus on minimalism in tone and content was consistent throughout the movie, as were thematic elements. This was absent from Interstellar.
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Unless the black hole is really just a artificial construct created by humans in the far future, then it's all quite ridiculous. Further, if the future 5th dimensional humans could make a time-manipulating tesseract, why not just alter the past themselves? Does this universe have some rule against that? If so, why? Unclear, because Nolan doesn't establish or stick to a set of clearly defined rules. And to those who claim that we don't know what goes on inside a black hole, that's a valid point. We have never gone beyond the event horizon or even near one. I'm not questioning the hypotheses this movie throws around, but the manner in which it sets up its 'big reveal'. The tesseract scene is a middle finger to the audience. A deus ex machina so blatant viewers are not sure whether or not they are being pranked. And this problem of jarring/abrupt introductions and shifts in tone throughout the film extends to other aspects.

Matt Damon as Dr. Mann was one of the worst casting decisions I've seen in a film recently, in terms of its effect on the movie's pace and suspension of belief. Maybe it is because Damon's most recent sci-fi outing in Elysium was such a disappointing bit of preachy cinema, beyond the eye watering special effects, or that the reveal makes it seem like Jason Bourne has suddenly made an appearance, but after his introduction, everything seems off. The weird fight scene between Cooper and Dr. Mann is humorous at best and downright unrealistic at worst (why doesn't Cooper use his jets or some other tactic to stop Dr. Mann's extremely slow headbutting to bread his visor?). An odd inconsistency becomes apparent in the fact that Romilly (the other remaining astronaut that isn't Cooper or Brand) doesn't appear to have mentally suffered from years of isolation aboard the space ship (when Cooper, Doyle [the one who dies], and Brand go down to the surface of a planet orbiting a black hole where an hour of their time is seven years in ship/Earth time) yet Dr. Mann does. Interstellar does a good job of capturing what isolation can do to a person in Dr. Mann's case, but as an audience we are let down by the improper casting of an (unadvertised) A-list star who appears half-way through the movie only to create some semi-artificial tension along with an inability to maintain consistency (in this case regarding human psychology) throughout the film.

Near the end of the movie, I found myself rolling my eyes. Why? Because it became so coincidence filled that I gave up on the story. In all honesty, what ended up happening to Brand—by herself on a new world with a trailer full of fertilized eggs representing humanity's future—should have been the movie's end. A couple of astronauts with the fate of humanity in their hands and the old remnants left behind on Earth. It would have been a much more truthful and stark message: that sometimes you have to break with the past, and those you love, to move forward (something that the excellent Snowpiercer captures with a relentless, single-minded glee). That is a hard pill to swallow and Nolan could have built off his success with similar themes in his previous movies (e.g. Batman needing to let go to allow Gotham to recover). Instead he goes for the cheap tug at heartstrings scenes like when Cooper watches video mail sent to him by the now grown up Murph and Tom (his children).

Where do they get the resources to create spaceships like this on a dying world without government or large-scale societal funding?
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When the movie shifts focus to Earth, we are treated to more bizarre, unexplained scenes. For example, Murph goes back to the old family house where her brother, Tom, lives. While there, she has a NASA friend check on Tom's wife and son, who are coughing due to the dust. Tom becomes angry that a doctor is trying to help, but the motivation behind this is unclear and appears slightly out of character. And it helps drive the fake drama when Murph burns down Tom's crops to distract him while she helps her friend put the wife and son in their car (out of place casual kidnapping). However, when he gets back in time before they leave, instead of being crazy angry at her, she just hugs him and we move onto a new scene. No consequences. No rage at the deceit and attempted kidnapping. Nothing. Again, horrible pacing and actions that don't seem to jive with the characters as we know them beyond attempting to create tension and gravitas when none is warranted.

And then there is the emergence of 'love' in the movie. Brand (i.e. Hathaway) says at one point that 'love transcends the limits of space and time'. WTF? That it is 'an artifact of a higher dimension'. Ummm...no. We could go into the biological basis of love and give it a concrete definition. However, that is rather academic, so I'll grant Nolan artistic license to make metaphors about love. But don't try to make it a new fundamental force in the universe. And this type of dialog pervades the movie. The stilted, attempting to be profound type of dialog, which John Brand (Michael Caine, who leads the NASA efforts) adds to with his constant refrain of 'Do not go gentle into that good night', pervades the movie. Directors should have actors read the dialog in the setting of a cafe and see if it sounds real or feels natural. Ultimately, the introduction of 'love' into a supposedly spartan tale about exploration adds a layer of complication that feels undeserved, shoehorned in, and only properly resolved through classic movie tropes.

And lastly the sound. There was a scene during which Michael Cane's character is dying and his speech, which is supposedly important for the plot, is completely inaudible. This happened several times and others who saw the film with me mentioned the same problem. But among the larger problems, this is a minor one so I won't dwell on it long. In general the sound is excellent.

Watching Guardians of the Galaxy earlier this summer, I was enthralled. I couldn't wait for the next scene, the next weird visual splendor that would be revealed or a new character to introduce. That movie was shorter than Interstellar and yet I came away knowing many more characters and cared about them to some degree. I looked forward to the next adventure. Moreover, I came away with that childish sense of wonder. I didn't want the movie to end. I honestly was waiting for Interstellar to end. The feeling in the crowd during the movie and talk in the theater afterward seemed to agree with that feeling. People talk about the visual splendor, but I honestly had more fun watching Transformers 4. While Guardians and Interstellar had two very different goals, the former succeeded due to a tight narration and focus on the characters while the latter seemed unable to decide whether it was an idea-driven epic, a personal story about the power of love, or something else entirely.

Is Interstellar about the astronauts journey to a better future or a tale of a dying world and those left behind? Should we care about Cooper's loss when we are constantly switching back to Earth and know everything is apparently going swell (in that people don't seem to be having nervous breakdowns about the imminent extinction of humanity)? These are among a myriad of questions that, for reasons of space, I'll leave up to the reader to consider. But they all point to the same problem I've mentioned throughout this review: the movie would have benefited from a tightened story and a clearer idea of what message it wanted to portray.

Sometimes 'high concept' sci-fi movies seem to forget that you still need to have cohesion to get your novel concept/point across (other big budget sci-fi films last year suffered from this problem, e.g. Oblivion and Elysium). Overall, Interstellar was a massive disappointment and a mess of a movie. Maybe it will become like Children of Men, which I hated the first time I watched it but came to love on subsequent viewings. But I doubt that will be the case. The vistas are few and far between: we in essence only explore two other worlds, both of them of the same color palette, tone, and narrative purpose (to kill of Doyle or Romilly), and catch a brief glimpse of a third. And the problems with the plot too glaring and front-n-center distracting to just let this be a visual splendor. Hopefully someone will take the ideas in Interstellar—show us how a real exploration of 'our greatest accomplishments can not be behind us, cause our destiny lies above us'—and craft a cohesive and inspired hard sci-fi epic that spans the cosmos and fills us with wonder at its vast, haunting beauty.

-biafra
bahanonu [at] alum.mit.edu

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©2006-2017 | biafra ahanonu | updated 12 december 2017
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