My apologies to Matt Damon
by Thom Yee
There are a lot of stories surrounding Interstellar, mostly because of director Christopher Nolan. There are stories about the technical detail Nolan displays in the film’s direction and in its science; there are stories about the film’s place in the pantheon of Nolan’s almost universally well-received movies; and there are stories about Interstellar being Nolan’s most ambitious film yet. But mostly the biggest story seems to be that Interstellar sucks. And that it got beaten at the weekend box office by a Disney movie.
If you didn’t see Interstellar this past weekend, that wouldn’t be a huge surprise. Interstellar’s opening was obviously never going to compare to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy $100 million plus openings (because no Batman), but even compared to Nolan’s overtly intellectual Inception, Interstellar pulled in about $15 million fewer dollars.
Why does that matter? Why should you care? You probably shouldn’t, but that’s the kind of stuff people are talking about when they’re talking about Interstellar. Opening to mixed reviews, against an unexpectedly strong Disney-Marvel animated collaboration, and with a three-hour running time, Interstellar failed to live up to the stratospheric goals of its studio and its subject matter.
But should you see it? I would say the answer lies somewhere between how much you can tolerate sharp tonal changes and how resistant your ass is to getting sore in a movie theatre seat.
In a future distant enough that the world’s food supply is nearing unsustainability but not distant enough for people to drive cars that we wouldn’t recognize from today, farmer, engineer and former test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his [genius] daughter Murph decode the pattern of a gravimetric anomaly that leads them to the last remaining vestiges of NASA, now a secretive institution thought to no longer exist by the greater public. There, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) tells Cooper about NASA’s Lazarus missions, twelve separate manned space flights exploring the twelve potentially habitable worlds identified on the other side of a wormhole near Saturn. NASA’s scientists believe this wormhole was left behind by a mysterious, unnamed alien collective and was intended to save the human race. Brand enlists Cooper, his biologist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), two helper robots, TARS and CASE, and two other scientist red shirts to fly into the wormhole, secure and examine the findings of the three mission worlds that had sent back promising data, and hopefully find humanity’s new home planet.
On a certain level, it’s actually really comforting that we have a highly marketed, big budget space exploration movie two years in a row. In the wake of Gravity’s success, Interstellar — though obviously more out there in terms of its storytelling path —feels like the next chapter in a concerted effort in support of our space programs, not only because science, but maybe even more notably as a concerted effort against the wide-scale ignorance of the 2000s-era Bush administration. There’s a palpable sense of the return of humanity to exploration and the inherent wonder of discovery, and it’s that space in which Interstellar works best.
Interstellar looks like an important movie. Trading in plots concerning the potential extinction of the human race, it’s obvious that it’s going to seem important, but the sensibility the film exudes through director Nolan’s storytelling choices is what converts that sense from seeming to feeling, evoking notions of our natural curiosity, our need to find and be part of something greater than ourselves, and yes, in many ways, the American dream. Initially set in the heart of the country’s agricultural belt, the film’s first hour concerns itself primarily with small town iconography and even smaller town attitudes, where farmers are more important than engineers (which is a complete mindf*ck of a concept for those of us who grew up here in oil-sands Alberta), entire crop species are being wiped out (though really, who’s gonna miss okra?), and childrens’ career choices are set in the name of society’s greater needs and far before they finish high school. Bookended by documentary snippets of farmers describing the sense of betrayal they felt as crops failed and once life-giving soil had turned against the people, the world of Interstellar verges on hopelessness and despair as people’s choices are limited, humanity’s options are eliminated, and even something as quintessential as a baseball game can be interrupted by the all-too-common dirt storms that temporarily envelop entire towns. Importantly though, it’s not a dour or oppressive world, particularly when juxtaposed against the joyful fascination Cooper and Murph find as they discover and decode the odd gravitational occurrence that leads them to finding NASA and Professor Brand’s plan to save humanity.
The relationship between Cooper and Murph far outweighs any others in Interstellar, and it’s what makes Cooper’s decision to pilot the last manned NASA shuttle so difficult. Cooper, Brand, and the rest of the crew of the spaceship Endurance are some of the only people on Earth who know how close the food supply is to extinction and that Murph’s generation will be Earth’s last, and though Cooper knows that it’s his duty to find a new world (as well as his desire to finally fly in space), that doesn’t make the decision to leave his family behind any easier.
Interstellar’s second hour comprises the majority of the film’s space travel component, and at least from an outsider’s perspective, the science is at once sound and completely absorbing in its scope, marrying the far-out sci-fi concepts that fascinate storytellers with the type of grounded, real-world exposition that makes it all seem plausible. The first world our crew visits is too near the Gargantua black hole event on the other side of the wormhole, intensifying that world’s gravity. In search of that world’s crew’s data, Cooper, Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and CASE descend on the watery planet only to find nothing but the crew’s beacon separated from anything else of importance, and more importantly that the severe gravity causes massive tidal waves so enormous that the crew initially thought they were far-off mountains. The sheer scale of the waves as they crash against our crew’s lander (as well as robot CASE’s rescue of Amelia) brings to mind the vertical city-bending scenes of Inception while far outstripping the weight of anything else in that film, and for me at least, it’s really the kind of scene that permanently cements Interstellar in my movie-contemplating mind.
That first planet also amplifies the sense of separation between Cooper and Murph as the planet’s severe gravity is also responsible for a time dilation that converts relative hours into years back on Earth. By the time the crew escapes the planet, after having already lost years to the cryogenic sleep necessary to reach Saturn, they’ve lost more than a decade back home.
Upon their return to the orbiting Endurance, Cooper rushes to his family’s video correspondence whereupon he sees his family grow up within a matter of minutes, drawing tears from the character that feel so genuine that they successfully wipe out any greater concerns we may have about McConaughey as an acting force as opposed to mystifying and indecipherable American luxury car monologuist. At the same time, McConaughey’s Cooper also receives the lion’s share of emotional content to the point that he almost robs the rest of the cast of any of their own, and if there’s one thing I would level against the movie at this point, it’s that it’s hard to care that much about anyone else. The speech asserting the thematic importance of love as one of the only truly transcendent forces in the universe given by Anne Hathaway’s Amelia comes across as almost laughably cornball since McConaughey’s Cooper has already exhausted most of the movie’s core emotionality, and even under the best of circumstances, that’s a concept that’s hard enough to credibly deliver in such a hard-science-oriented film.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Murph is now an adult (played by Jessica Chastain) and one of the lead scientists at NASA, still bitter over her father’s departure but very much involved in Professor Brand’s work. The emotional toll of her father’s absence has had a clear effect on the course of her life and that of her older brother’s (Casey Affleck) who has tended the farm and started his own family while his father’s been away. Though only hours have passed to Cooper and Amelia, more than twenty years have passed on Earth, and back on the Endurance, having exhausted more fuel than they had initially planned, the crew has to make a choice between the two remaining worlds. Deciding on the world explored by Doctor Mann, lead scientist and one of the biggest inspirations of the Lazarus missions, Cooper and Amelia descend on the wintery planet.
In my mind, Interstellar completely holds up and is completely engrossing in its first two hours, almost perfectly capturing the pioneering spirit inherent in space exploration and successfully marrying that sense to the emotionality inherent in the distance between explorers and their families.
But there’s still one more hour to go.
One tiny crack in the hull, and our blood boils in thirteen seconds. Solar flare might crop up, cook us in our seats. And wait till you’re sitting pretty with a case of Andorian shingles. See if you’re still so relaxed when your eyeballs are bleeding! Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.
~ Leonard McCoy, noted physician
Up until now, most of what I’ve provided is the synopsis necessary to convey my sense of the movie and why I liked it as much as I did, but herein lies at least one true spoiler. There’s just no other way to discuss further without it.
Doctor Mann’s world is a cold landscape where even the clouds freeze over, and it’s not until our crew finds Doctor Mann’s cryo-chamber that they find any real hope for the world. In a surprise casting choice, Doctor Mann is played by Matt Damon. As in usually receives-top-billing Matt Damon. Mann introduces Cooper’s crew to his findings, most importantly that the core of the world has proven itself capable of sustaining human life. All too soon, however, Mann’s true intentions stand revealed, brought on partially from the desperation he felt as the last survivor of his group, but probably more from his own hubris, and it’s his character’s betrayal that stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the film and sets Interstellar on the path of a movie incapable of fulfilling its promise. Matt Damon, normally a charming, stabilizing presence, winds up almost singlehandedly destroying the movie, pulling it down from a hopeful, wondrous dialogue between viewer and audience into a cynical, predictable diatribe.
Doctor Mann’s part of the film alone isn’t enough to ruin Interstellar like a Japanese banquet*, but it sets a new tone for the film that betrays its main characters even as it betrays audience sensibilities. The film soon becomes the schmaltzy, overly metaphysical piece we assumed it wouldn’t. Revelations on the founding principles of the Lazarus missions undercut the optimism that the film had created. The five-dimensional alien presence responsible for the Saturnian wormhole is eventually revealed to be exactly who you’d think it is. Core relationships start not making sense, making the film’s bitter sweet ending all the less appealing. Even the one slightly odd outlier from the film’s documentary bookending snippets reveals its hand too early. It’s all incredibly deflating.
At its best, Interstellar is a hopeful, ambitious work, and it speaks to the greater comparative value of a spectacular failure over an insufferable bore. It’s the only Christopher Nolan movie with a significant flaw, and as such, it’s far from ruining his reputation. It’s probably the most heartfelt of any of his films, even if its resolutions turn out to be one big circle jerk. Its strengths are massive in scope and numerous in detail, its artistic merit is obviously present, and it’s a big enough and great enough movie that you should probably still see it, especially while it’s still in theatres and while it still holds cultural significance. It just becomes maddening at times and doesn’t pay off in the end, an end you’ll have to wait three hours for.
Interstellar final score: 7.5
On the Edge
- *Points to anyone who gets that Japanese banquet reference.
- Seemed wrong to not have a picture of Anne Hathaway in this review, so here’s one:
- Cooper’s Lincoln commercials may be better, but Doyle drives the much cooler car: