By Chaz Lipp
Empty-headed but admittedly fun to watch (for the first two hours anyway), writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar entirely deflates in a nonsensical, paradox-hampered third act. In his attempt to craft a “hard” sci-fi examination of humanity’s struggle to avoid extinction, Nolan (who co-scripted with his brother Jonathan) wind up dipping into near-fantasy. Further discussion requires diving into spoiler territory, but I’ll offer a warning before anything major is revealed. It’s worth pointing out that anyone with a passing awareness of sci-fi cliches will solve the plot’s twistier questions long before the solutions are revealed.
The best sequences in Interstellar occur during its Earth-bound first act. Set in the near future, life on our planet has reverted to something approximating the North American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, only on a globally detrimental level. Medical science has returned to pre-Industrial Age levels, public schools teach that the moon landings were a propaganda-fueled lie, and farming has become humanity’s most noble profession. The U.S. has demilitarized and its entire population has become fixated on preserving what little sustainable agriculture remains. There’s no place for pastimes in this depressing future. The Nolan’s best gag (actually one of precious few in this largely humorless film) makes it clear that even professional sports, in this case the MLB, have degenerated into an amateur hour joke.
Nolan takes his time carefully setting up this survivalist, retro-styled world. We meet former astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family. Most important to Coop is his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, delivering the film’s best performance). Next would be his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Curiously under-appreciated is Coop’s son, with whom he has an inexplicably distanced relationship, Tom (Timothee Chalamet). His wife passed away and now Coop lives to keep his family fed. Murphy is keenly interested in gravity, which is believed to have some effect on the failing crops, and uses her high intellect to decode Morse code messages from what she refers to as a “ghost” haunting her room.
Suffice it to say, Coop manages to stumble into an opportunity to be an astronaut again, leading a mission intended to discover an inhabitable world to which humanity can relocate. To call the mission risky would be to understate the ordeal faced by Coop and his crew – which includes Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), daughter of scientist mastermind Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a pair of former military robots , TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart). They must breach a wormhole that mysteriously materialized near Saturn, theorized to have been deliberately placed by alien beings, in order to travel to a different galaxy. And, of course, to do all this Coop has to leave his family behind. Due to relativity, if he manages to return he might be the same age as his daughter after experiencing a different rate of time passage.
So far, so good. Not exceptional by any means, but for the first two-thirds of the way, Interstellar offers an engrossing adventure. But even some of its big F/X set pieces only serve to fill time. When the crew lands on a waterlogged planet (seen prominently in the trailer, not really a spoiler), the mountain range-size wave functions as a video game distraction. The astronauts’ entire experience on this waterworld is nearly meaningless. Time on this planet passes differently, with one hour equally seven years. Nolan needed a way to dispose of some characters and have others age dramatically, so he has us sit through a superficial episode in order for this to happen. A stretch spent on a frozen tundra-like planet is similarly unnecessary in terms of advancing the plot (though the frozen clouds provide cool visuals).
Spoilers begin here, so consider yourself warned. The train wreck third act is too mind-numbingly dumb to explain (it doesn’t make sense, for starters, rendering any attempt futile). In one of the more egregious time-travel paradoxes ever presented, Cooper utilizes technology developed by humans in the distant future to communicate with Murphy from decades earlier. However this baffling fifth dimension communication system works (its architects apparently could’ve have been bothered to leave any instructions), it couldn’t have been invented without Cooper and company’s mission being successful. But when young Murphy initially receives said messages from Future Coop, the success of that mission had not yet been secured as a reality. Jessica Chastain plays Murph as an adult and, like most of the cast, is saddled with playing a thin sketch rather than a fleshed-out character (at least she has more to chew on than Casey Affleck, as the adult Tom).
The convoluted pointlessness of Interstellar’s resolution truly must be seen to be fully appreciated. Nolan seems to think he’s offering something intellectually invigorating, but there’s nothing particularly interesting behind all the superficially “mind-blowing” concepts. In fact, the whole movie plays as a variation on the whole “All You Need is Love” tepidness that Luc Besson once foisted upon the public with his embarrassing folly The Fifth Element. Interstellar, even with a nearly three hour running time, is simply too ambitious for its own good.