For All Its Merits, Greatness Isn’t in the Stars for ‘Interstellar’

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Following the commercial, critical, and cultural successes of The Dark Knight and Inception, Christopher Nolan was elevated into the stratosphere of today’s top working filmmakers. The fervent following that Nolan has built has led to a certain segment willing to overlook the weak aspects of Nolan’s work – heavy reliance on exposition and poorly constructed action scenes. Coming off The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s weakest film to-date, the filmmaker returns with Interstellar. While it would seem simplistic to compare Nolan’s space adventure to Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan himself fills the work with numerous allusions to 2001 that the comparison is inevitable. Interstellar is a film of high-minded ambition, but for each of its merits there’s a negative to counteract it. Interstellar isn’t a bad movie, nor is it a great one.

The Earth is the midst of an ecological disaster. There are dust storms and food shortages, the last ever batch of okra was just harvested. An engineer and former NASA pilot turned farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a widower trying to raise his children, Tom and Murph (Timothée Chalamet and Mackenzie Foy as their younger incarnations, Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain as the older versions), with the help of his father, Donald (John Lithgow). When they soon experience weird happenings on the farm, Coop and Murph follow the clues which lead to a secret NASA base. There Coop reunites with Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a former teacher of his, who explains that a wormhole by Saturn might lead to other inhabitable worlds. Brand wants to recruit Coop to pilot a mission that would follow the Lazarus mission, which 12 astronauts launched a decade earlier to survey possible worlds. After much deliberation, Coop, with Professor Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and other astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) agrees to leave the world they know and their loved ones behind in search of something more.

It’s not the stars that are out of reach for Nolan. The space exploration scenes are truly incredible, especially in the IMAX presentation. From every technical angle, with its heavy reliance on practical effects, Interstellar delivers. Nor is the film poorly acted, every member of the cast gives heartfelt performances. The film’s failings are all on the written page. The emotional relationship between Coop and Murph never resonates. Sure, there are a lot of tears shed between the two of them, but it never crosses over to the other side of the screen.  It certainly doesn’t help that many of these scenes could be removed and not affect the overall story. What these scenes really do is affect the pacing of the film, which is crucial as the film is nearly 3 hours in length.

Nolan is a smart, ambitious, and deadly serious filmmaker. Aside from the emotional aspects of the film, Nolan weighs down the film with so much deadening exposition. It’s like he never met a line of exposition he didn’t like. There’s no ambiguity here, no wonder, no mystery. Every minute detail is explained, sometimes more than once. Leaving Interstellar, I never had the feeling that there was more to mull over. Nolan does slip in a few twists and turns – some are legitimately surprising and effective, others are so predictable that they’re groan-inducing. A side-effect of Nolan’s serious nature and over-reliance on exposition is a lack of quiet moments of character. There’s nothing about these characters that isn’t explicitly stated. At least Nolan does include a few moments of levity to crack his serious facade.

There’s plenty to like about Interstellar, however, it still must be registered as a disappointment. It’s a big film with big ideas and middling execution. Like The Dark Knight Rises, the film touches upon political issues but you can’t really claim that there’s any coherent political bent to the film. Had Nolan reigned in his scope a made the film closer to 2 hours, I feel there was a potential masterpiece within. As I said before, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s most certainly not a masterpiece. Interstellar will go down as Nolan’s most divisive film to-date. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

 

 

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