‘Interstellar’ is visceral but imperfect

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Director Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated space-adventure film Interstellar has been generating hype for more than a year, and has succeeded in polarizing audiences with its combination of raw ambition, dazzling successes, and glaring failures. The combination makes for visceral–if imperfect–cinema. Interstellar is set in the nearish future, when crop blights will soon make the planet uninhabitable. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a single father of two children, resigned to a life of farming that doesn’t bode well for his romantic fascination with science. He is recruited by a secret NASA mission to investigate potential new home planets that are accessible due to a newly and mysteriously opened wormhole. Cooper abruptly abandons his children, leaving them only a promise that he will return. He and his crew explore these new lands, while his daughter tries to save humanity by cracking quantum gravity.

This is Nolan’s first film in which he really tries to let the emotional core of the film play off its subject material. In movies like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, the plots’ staggering ambitions and deafening score drown out most human drama–which seems to have been thrown in haphazardly anyway. In Interstellar, Nolan juxtaposes his signature grandeur with a poignant father-daughter storyline, contrasting vast emptiness with intimacy. For the first time, however, Nolan’s ambitions come at the expense of a coherent story. In order to bring Interstellar full circle, he derails the logic of the plot. Nolan’s aesthetic is as spot-on as always and his pretentiously clunky dialogue is in there with heavy doses, too. Even though he is much more successful at connecting the film’s plot with its human element, the effort falls well short of overcoming a subpar storyline.

The best demonstration of Nolan’s human touch comes about an hour into Interstellar. Cooper, Brand (Anne Hathaway), and a fellow crewman explore their first new planet. Because the planet is very close to a black hole, every hour they spend on it corresponds to seven years on Earth and for the final crewman, Romilly (David Gyasi), who is manning the spacecraft orbiting far above. (Numbers aside, this is real science.)  Brand doesn’t return to the ship fast enough, which forces the crew to idle with a waterlogged engine for a few hours before launching back up to space.

The ship emerged unharmed, and a few hours doesn’t seem like so much time, even though we are repeatedly reminded of how much time will pass back on Earth. When they dock back in orbit, however, Romilly emerges bearded and exhausted, wearing the burden of a twenty-year wait. He shows Cooper two decades of video recordings from his children. Cooper can do nothing but cry and shake as he watches his son’s life pass before his eyes. His daughter offers only fury over his abandonment.

This is the most emotional moment that Christopher Nolan has ever achieved in his films. Even on Earth, waiting lasts an eternity, while being waited on doesn’t. Nolan capitalizes on this familiarly disparate passage of time and magnifies it to powerful effect. This one scene echoes the emotional heart of Interstellar – the pain Cooper feels from being isolated from his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy then Jessica Chastain).

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Even if displayed only at times, this connection between Interstellar’s emotional core and its physics-heavy subject matter is its biggest strength. The vastness of the universe and the differing passages of time are vehicles that continuously emphasize how hopelessly and profoundly removed Cooper is from his daughter. We are treated to powerful scenes in which Cooper and Murphy undergo parallel tasks in their united purpose to save humanity, separated by lightyears. Hans Zimmer’s organ-heavy score furthers the effect by making space a massive, empty cathedral.

Once again, Nolan nails the aesthetic. The wormhole and black hole are especially gorgeous, and designed based on real physics. The waves on one planet imbue palpable texture on a Godzilla scale and the dustiness of a doomed earth feels both believable and apocalyptic. Docking scenes capture a sublime grace and intensity similar to those in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gravity.  And since aesthetic is incredibly important in space movies, this alone goes a long way towards making Interstellar an enjoyable three-hour journey.

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While the cinematic elements soar, the script struggles, as Nolan’s problematic characters are saddled with questionable dialogue. In the biggest example of this, the crew members argue about their next course of action, and Anne Hathaway’s character Brand, desperate to visit a planet on which her former lover is stationed, is relegated to spouting the movie’s theme: “love is the force that transcends space and time.” Problem is, it’s a sentiment so illogical to the discussion at hand that it makes a mockery of Brand’s character. When Jessica Chastain’s character Murph echoes the phrase later on, it fails to land there as well. Nolan is so good at showing Cooper’s love for Murph transcending time and space, that it is disappointing when he feels the need to tell us outright, and in so obvious a manner. This disparity between “showing” and “telling” comes further into clarity in Interstellar’s third act, where a few science-fiction buzzwords and a big reveal predictable from ten minutes in attempt to patch up the story’s logical inconsistencies. These inconsistencies are not just frustrating in the moment, but also prevent the ending from paying off emotionally. I’m not sure if the problems emerged from scores of rewrites, or if the idea was plagued with logical gaps in the first place.

I enjoyed Interstellar for its visceral aesthetic–the texture of the rocket ships, the enormity of the score. But the script’s failings prevented me from enjoying it any further. Interstellar is worth seeing as a sweeping cinematic experience, but the story’s problems and erratic emotional poignancy leave a lot to be desired.

Photos courtesy of Interstellar

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