There is no shortage of memorable images in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. From a dust storm in the ecologically devastated future United States to distant planets circling a black hole, the cinematography is expertly rendered and often magnificent. The frequent use of practical effects gives an effective patina of stark realism to the sci-fi scenery. Yet it’s one of the humbler shots from the beginning of the movie that really captures its wasted potential.
In a practiced gesture, the main character Cooper (a fairly one-note Matthew McConaughey) wipes a layer of brown dust off his kitchen table. It could be a scene from the 1930s—until the camera pans to show his laptop, buried under the same dust. This single shot tells us almost everything we need to know about the outside world: human society has stagnated, and the natural environment is failing. A familiar and unfortunately believable premise today.
It’s too bad that Nolan doesn’t trust his visuals to do their work. Instead we’re hit over the head with multiple statements of the same conflict. Cooper argues with his daughter’s teachers, who direct their classes to focus on the world around them and forget about mankind’s past achievements. Later conversations with his father-in-law and NASA scientists provide some inspirational quotes, but don’t significantly deepen the theme. The status quo is “caretaking,” subsistence farming to survive a year at a time, when humanity should be learning, exploring, and moving forward. Well before Cooper leaves the farm and puts on a spacesuit, we get it.
The premise isn’t the problem. It’s a basic return to the humanist optimism that characterizes much classic science fiction. While works in this genre often tread a fine line between story and exposition, the excessive world-building here reflects a larger issue. The film forces its characters’ dialogue and emotions to match the scale of their actions, and those actions include traveling through a wormhole to save humanity. The 169-minute runtime could have created something epic; it clocks in just eight minutes longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which Nolan clearly intends to pay homage. All too often, however, Interstellar just feels bloated and unsubtle.
Cooper and his fellow spacefarers nobly sacrifice decades back on Earth (thanks to the perils of relativistic travel). They monologue about the transcendent nature of love. They spout simplistic analogies about scientific phenomena that are obviously there for our benefit. Some of Cooper’s emotional development felt convincing to me, especially in the first act, as he interacts with his daughter Murphy and son Tom on the farm. But as the plot takes over, he and other characters become passive vehicles for melodrama and revelation. The film fumbles its portrayals of human relationships despite its ostensible focus on them.
Two of Cooper’s crewmembers have no family at all, and subsequently no real importance. Brand (Anne Hathaway at her blandest) suffers over two long-distance relationships to mirror Cooper’s, but never really emerges as an autonomous character in her own right. While the movie defines them all by the people they love, it doesn’t always succeed in demonstrating that feeling. Sometimes the comic relief robot shows more personality than any of the humans around it.
These flaws, notable as they are, shouldn’t necessarily keep you out of the theater. Interstellar’s bombast, from the Hans Zimmer score to the vast extrasolar landscapes, is enjoyable on the big screen. If you’re tired of the recent spate of dystopian hellscapes in science fiction and miss the grand visions of old-fashioned space opera, you’ll probably appreciate Nolan’s attempt to reclaim the final frontier. Just don’t expect too much in the way of depth or plausibility.
A gorgeous spectacle with muddled substance.