November 05, 2014


This is my theory: One wintry evening by the fire, writer-director Christopher Nolan was reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to his kids when suddenly he realized his next movie project was right in front of him. In A Wrinkle in Time, three children travel through space by basically bending time in half to cover the same distance much more quickly. (Remember the Tesseract?) The novel even includes a handy diagram of how this works as it’s explained to the children by three old women named Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. (They are actually shape-shifting star-goddesses that later turn into magical talking unicorns.) Yes, we may in fact have Madeleine L’Engle to thank for Interstellar, which plays like a grown-up version of her supremely odd children’s novel but fashioned for a 21st century audience. Nolan's characters somehow manage to loop time too, only there isn't a giant talking brain controlling everything in Interstellar. (Actually, this might have been an improvement.)

Inception, Nolan’s last non-superhero project, wrung high praise from movie-goers who felt that their beloved maestro had borne unto them a mind-blowing cinematic experience. The same expectation is in the air for Interstellar, as the breathless, exhilarated tweets and blurbs from certain critics and fans indicate. But I wonder how many of them will admit that what Nolan offers in both Inception and Interstellar is really just mass confusion. As a director, Nolan is fond of grand themes and big concepts, but he falters in his efforts to knit them all together into one cohesive piece of filmmaking. Interstellar is much too thin in places while being far too thick in others. And regardless of how the film was incepted into Nolan’s mind, I wish his editor, Lee Smith, had taken some garden shears to it. At 167 minutes, it’s a magnificently overblown plod through the tedious infrastructure of space and time.

(The next three paragraphs contain mild spoilers.)

The plot of Interstellar isn’t quite as bonkers as that of Inception, but its concepts are equally faux-complex and misguided. The film is set in the not-too-distant future when a worldwide blight has pressed the human race for so long that extinction looms like an ominous shadow on the horizon. A former engineer and pilot (played by Matthew McConaughey) who’s now a farmer in some Midwestern location, accidentally stumbles across NASA, which was secretly restored by the government in order to mine other galaxies for livable planets.

So McConaughey, three other scientists, and two robots (who talk and crack jokes and look like rectangular Rubix cubes) embark on an unprecedented journey that may or may not save the human race from total extinction. Apparently, the real point of Interstellar is to bring new validation to the space age because it represented such a strong mythic tradition for certain generations.

We’re meant to believe that Matthew McConaughey’s accidental meeting with NASA—which quite literally launches him into a space quest—is some kind of cosmically ordained event. But later, we find that he’s not really the key to it all. It’s his daughter, who’s played as a child by Mackenzie Foy, as a grown-up woman by Jessica Chastain, and eventually as an elderly woman by Ellen Burstyn. There’s a scene near the end of the film where McConaughey hurdles through space only to find himself inside time represented as a physical dimension. There he can see the past unfolding again, and communicate with his daughter, now a grown-woman, in the present. The explanation for this and other ideas in the movie is always a bit fuzzy, just like it was in Inception.

As much as Nolan—who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan—claims to love and appreciate the film medium, and as much as he pontificates about making movies for people who love movies, it’s remarkable how little Nolan has learned about the whole process of telling a story cinematically. Interstellar is technically well-made and has scenes of grandeur and beauty, but it doesn’t actually tell its story visually. The Nolans’ script relies stubbornly on clunky dialogue to move the film along. The script is full of seemingly complex ideas that apparently have no way of being explicated except through scenes of endless prattle between characters.

It’s hard not to compare this movie to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is overrated but still worth seeing. One can certainly see the Nolans reaching for the same level of transcendence. But where 2001 succeeds is in its stubborn resistance to dialogue. There are long moments of nothing but the film’s ostentatious visual grandeur and the equally high-minded concepts beneath the visuals. 2001 is showy but beautifully made, the story is relatively simple, and despite some long and boring parts, Kubrick’s film works on a level that Interstellar does not. Looking at 2001 might evoke boredom, awe, wonder, terror, annoyance, and fear. I never felt any of these things in Interstellar. I wasn’t really even bored with it, just uninvolved.

Where 2001 imagines big, self-important themes visually (and thus, somewhat more subtly), Interstellar pounds away at them in the writing. There are whole chunks of textbook-sounding dialogue or big pronouncements from characters revealing to us the film’s noble themes: heroism, love, life and death, and, perhaps most importantly, the unmitigated majesty of the space program. We get repeated grumblings about the good old days of space exploration such as, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder…Now we just look down.” The film achingly longs for the past, and it’s tempting to read this as coming directly from the Nolans, as though they’re two curmudgeons bemoaning the dismantling of NASA as the end of the American ability to dream and wonder.

The film does have exciting moments, tense moments, powerful moments, but they are delivered with a very heavy hand. It’s as though every scene in the movie requires those penetrating gongs from the 2001 theme, and we’re supposed to erupt in a chorus of weepy-eyed excitement and applause. The emotions in this movie are big and grand too, and they’ve been paired with a race-(against time) -in-space plot to elevate them. Big, noble themes require a big production and a sweeping, life-or-death journey. There’s no room for anything small here. Even when the movie goes dead silent, it’s a ruse. We’re waiting for the next gong to sound, or the next emotional wallop.

As I sat through Hurricane Interstellar, I remembered the feeling I got during Inception four years ago: I just didn’t care about its silly overcomplicated plot, and I felt disconnected from the movie because of how insipid, how exhaustingly “over-thunk” its concepts were.

Jessica Chastain is, for me, the only breath of fresh air in the movie. Anne Hathaway feels wrong for her part as the ambitious scientist, one of the crew members who accompanies McConaughey on a ship called Endurance. (Presumably an allusion to the ship that became trapped in the snow in Antarctica in 1914.) Hathaway exudes a certain brattiness when she needs to appear tough. (It makes one really appreciate Sandra Bullock’s performance—and screen presence—in Gravity.) And the movie’s only way of humanizing her is in making her out of the loop. (She finds out she was tricked about something major, which I won’t mention here for the sake of spoilers.)

McConaughey is fine, but he doesn’t really connect, as much as he tries to. There’s a scene in the film when he watches 23 year’s worth of video messages transmitted from his kids—who are getting older while he has remained the same age—and he dissolves into a blubbering mess of tears. The movie wants us to feel for him, but the scene isn’t affecting. There are multiple scenes of this kind, and it becomes clear that the filmmakers are just cruel to their characters, forcing them to suffer so that they can experience emotional torture and “connect” with the audience. It feels like a cheap, manipulative play for affection. Nolan is going for catharsis in space, but the humanity and the emotions in Interstellar feel forced and calculated, striving for importance with their bigness. 

With Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart as the voices of the two robots (neither of these character registers the way HAL or R2D2 do), Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Topher Grace and Matt Damon.  


Anonymous said...

Just saw it. You're spot on.

pannedreview said...

Why thank you.