Escape to the Movies
Interstellar - Doesn't Live Up To Its Own Name

Bob Chipman | 5 Nov 2014 12:00
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Nolan's attempt to make a Spielberg-esque film doesn't work.

Releases November 5th. Actors: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain. Director: Christopher Nolan. Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Advance screening provided by the distributor.

interstellar poster 01

A question people sometimes ask film critics in what we're (still) calling the information age is whether following the development-cycle of movies lessens some of the "magic." Honestly? Sometimes, maybe, a little bit -- hey, y'wanna know how Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII end?

But much more often, I find that it helps with contextualizing how a film's moving-parts all fit together and how it got to the point where it works or it doesn't. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is probably going to end up as my new gold-standard example of this, because at least as of this recording -- mere hour after having viewed the film -- knowing the project's unusual development history (i.e. this was originally developed as a project specifically for Steven Spielberg, and was picked up by Nolan when studio contract-issues made that original plan unworkable) feels like the key to decoding the entire movie... and why it just doesn't work.

But first, our scenario: It's the near-ish future, systemic environmental collapse has created a seemingly worldwide Dust Bowl effect that's slowly choking the life out of the planet. As part of an effort to buckle down and make life livable while we've got it, mankind has turned almost-religiously against science, engineering and exploration -- even going so far as to teach schoolkids that the Moon Landing was faked in order to encourage more people to become produce-farmers than scientists.

But some, like Matthew McConaughey's former would-be space shuttle pilot Cooper, haven't lost the drive to adventure. And when a "mysterious phenomenon" glimpsed from his precocious daughter's bedroom leads him to a secret installation where the last remnants of NASA are plotting a daring mission to a mysteriously-generated wormhole to find a habitable new home for humankind he signs up to fly the ship so fast you almost don't have time to think "Wow! That's an astronomically-unlikely coincidence!" and thus figure out what's supposed to be one of the film's three big twists -- two of which are depressingly easy to predict and the third of which is "surprising" only because it's so stupid and pointless.

Still, to say any more -- at least in this review -- about the story would be both impolite and unnecessary. The fact is, it's not all that narratively complicated: The big idea here is staging a classically-pulpy sci-fi yarn about rocketing through portals to alien galaxies but adhering as closely as possible to hard science: So we see wormholes, unexplored planets, singularities and even extra-dimensional space realized with unprecedented fidelity to what we can extrapolate they'd actually look like, and the film wrings extra tension out of digging into seldom-explored concepts like the relativity of time, at one point staging a scene on a planet whose increased gravity causes mere hours there to equate to decades in Earth-time.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't seem content to simply have made one of the most hard-science-heavy speculative-fiction blockbusters ever... they're also very, very concerned that we know how much homework they did in getting it all right. Which means that scene after scene that might've delivered a high-impact sense of awe, transcendent transportive wonder or even simply a powerful, iconic visual is undercut and undermined by reams and reams of intermittently-interesting but most deathly-dull explanatory exposition -- as though instead of worrying about telling a compelling story, Nolan and company were petrified that Neil DeGrasse Tyson was going to burst into their editing bay and ask to see their figures.

interstellar poster 02

But still more unfortunate is that the mood-killing info-dumps are revealed as symptoms of a deeper rot at the core of the piece. Even amid all the explaining and dogged commitment to realism, Interstellar actually still wants to be a movie about humanity, human beings, families, emotional connections and, well... feelings -- which means its actual thematic underpinnings could not be less suited to Christopher Nolan, whose meticulously-cultivated directorial persona is that of a clinically-observant asexual humanoid computer.

He's a great filmmaker, certainly -- that Interstellar remains just engaging enough on a purely cinematic level as to not exactly be "bad" is perhaps the ultimate testament to that fact -- but we all have our limits, and his sensibilities are utterly adrift when it comes to the emotive/humanistic heart-over-mind stuff that the film eventually decides it wants to "really" be all about. Once it gets all the way to toying with metaphysical notions of love as a quantifiable force on-par with gravity and energy, the whole apparatus starts to come apart at the seams, twisting into a warped self-caricature that resembles nothing so much as a fundamentally inhuman alien intelligence struggling to grasp basic human emotions -- or, rather, Christopher Nolan trying to make a Steven Spielberg movie.

And make no mistake: Just as a hypothetical "Spielbergian" take on, say, Inception would almost certainly have devolved into gooey treacle, pretty-much every spot where Interstellar trips over its own moon-boots feels like stuff that the Wizard of Whimsy would've knocked out of the park.

Time and again, the film keeps smashing into schizophrenic, self-contradicting wall of its own making: The audience is forcibly jerked-away from its immersion in sequences that might have been epic and awe-inspiring if left to simply play out by a need to over-explain the how's and what's. Emotional beats and character exchanges that might've been heartbreaking if communicated through simple truths or a glance keep feelings at arm's length by endlessly stating the obvious -- to the extent that McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain all managing to register solid, recognizably human performances feels like a herculean feat. And it's all buried under the pounding sonic weight of an even more oppressive than usual Hans Zimmer score, which bizarrely fails in obvious attempts to create its own spin on both John Williams heartstring-pulls and 2001-inspired classical tone-setting.

What a shame. I had high hopes for this one, folks... but in the end Interstellar is a major misstep, and easily the weakest film in Nolan's catalogue thus far.

Bottom Line: So utterly convinced of its own transcendence yet so profoundly not transcendent, it's hard to recommend it as anything more than a film-buff curiosity.

Reccomendation: As an IMAX showreel of sweeping spaceflight sequences overseen by a handful of decent performances married awkwardly to a Contact-style scifi yarn it's serviceable -- "workmanlike," even. But far from a must-see.

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