Film Review: Interstellar

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Director Christopher Nolan is, to put it lightly, a maestro of big-budget blockbusters that tries (and sometimes succeeds) to throw simplistic drama onto the most illogical of premises. With Interstellar, the mouth-gapingly gorgeous visuals are sedated by the dullest human elements to show up this year in any tent pole film. Love transcending through time and space is usually Spielberg’s forte but with this new venture, Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, argue that heart holds more weight in the universe than actual scientific exploration. Exhilarating at one point and downtrodden by generic sci-fi tropes in another, this tale about searching for what lies beyond the stars takes off, finds some cool territory, and then stalls out.

Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe) plays Cooper, an ex-spaceship pilot/engineer who now devotes his time to farming because of a worldwide drought called the blight. After being brought in the loop about a top-secret mission about saving the earth from “The Blight,” Cooper is relied upon to save the world by Interstellar travel through a wormhole. Accompanied by Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (Cloud Atlas’ David Gyasi), and Doyle (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley), the crew must search for a habitable planet for mankind. Back at home, Cooper’s son and daughter, Murph and Tom (Jessica Chastain & Casey Affleck), are fighting against time as the earth becomes more and more inhabitable.

Space, the final frontier, is one of the most used locations in cinema today. In Interstellar, Nolan builds off of what we already know about what lies out there. We know that we are not the only galaxy in the universe, we know what the planets are, and we know the prospect of using wormholes for travel without knowing what’s on the other side. The whole project does nothing to convince us that it has a different take on all of that. Instead, the narrative plays it safe by lacing itself with messages about how love is the binding force in the universe, how hope is what will drive the human race, not science. Unfortunately, love tries to be the binding force behind all of the human race and it falls flat.

Dramatic set pieces are slogged down by tried solemnity and come off as didactic instead of resonating. McConaughey makes for an amicable lead, someone we can relate to. His struggle with leaving his family behind for a greater cause is understandable but gets lost in the great void that his space voyage carries. Jessica Chastain, playing the older version of McConaughey’s daughter, is the only redeemable human link back on Earth in the story. Chastain is one of the only actresses today that has the ability to elevate whatever material she takes upon herself and in here, she does nothing to disprove that fact. Casey Affleck on the other hand, plays a grumbling and disjointed mess of a man who has no more depth than being a dissenting opinion about the Earth’s failing status compared to his sister.

Interstellar is a film that is deeply rooted in films that have come before it. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Nolan’s newest takes bits and pieces from sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien to fortify his grand structure. Instead, we only get shadows of what made those aforementioned films so great. Another booming score from Inception composer Hans Zimmer doesn’t help the matter, either. We get moments where we are supposed to feel for the characters only to be forced down our throats by the overpowering organ strings and bass sensations that are so relevant in Zimmer’s work.

Specific gripes aside, Interstellar has a lot to put up on the screen in its 169-minute runtime. Nolan, being as much a realist as he can be with big-budget pictures, makes his sets feel natural although they are primarily overtaken by stellar visual effects work. Ditching the dark and gritty on the production design of the planets explored, the crew opts in for a bleaker stare at what may or may not be in reach by space travel. Never boring, Interstellar stages some familiar material against some stunning and original backdrops that you may see repeated upon again and again. It’s not often that we get a film that will have you dropping your jaw in awe, drawing a tear or two in a sequence, and then end up leaving you underwhelmed.

Seeing Interstellar in IMAX was still a treat and I convince every aspiring viewer to see it in that format, if possible in 70mm. We, as viewers, get put into a precarious position with such ambitious projects as this. We want, with everything in our heart, to believe that something big coming out of the studio machine like this will surpass expectations and find its way into our mental library of classic film. Believe me, I wanted that to happen to. Missed opportunities aren’t what makes Interstellar Christopher Nolan’s weakest and most underwhelming film. It’s the prospect that we as viewers look to audacious projects like this, expecting more, hoping and wishing that something churned out of the big-budget studio system might restore our faith in great cinema. Like Cooper’s faith though, it seems as if those hopes are spun out into a vast and open vacuum that feels futile to escape from.