If any director can take us to the stars and back it’s Christopher Nolan, a man who makes his ambition exceeds his grasp, punching through to the next dimension. His prowess at creating a universe far grander than anything Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron touched isn’t in doubt, the complications lie with a story that never feels as big as the universe itself. That’s partially the point Nolan is making: that we can’t see past our own families, pain, loves, in order to take in the larger picture. And it helps that a sentimental story like this boasts awards-worthy performances, particularly from Jessica Chastain and Matthew McConaughey, who make an argument for the preservation of humanity by their acting talent alone. I just can’t help thinking we should have been given more?
Since George Melies took audiences on A Trip to the Moon in 1902, we’ve loved how movies can show us the world beyond our own. Just last year, Gravity took us into the darkest depths of space to show us the crushing loneliness and humanity found within. In the wake of our disbanding of the NASA shuttles and other questions about our space program, movies look to be our only source of interstellar travel, and yet Interstellar tries desperately to remind us why we don’t need much more than what we already have here on Earth.
In the wake of a humanity crushing “blight” and a return to the dustbowl, small-town farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is tasked to take a small team through a wormhole to seek out a new world for humans to live on. Time is short because the increasing dust is killing people and rising nitrogen levels threaten to suffocate everyone. Cooper and Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) will go through the wormhole and visit worlds where other astronauts have been sent, with the hopes that one of the planets has something in which to sustain life. Back at home, Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult) must cope with the sudden loss of her father and her treatment of him in the wake of his departure.
If my synopsis wasn’t enough to showcase the immensity of Instellar’s plot, perhaps the prodigious 169-minute runtime will. It’s hard “summing” up a movie like this because there’s the surface plot, and then there’s the far grander and complex deconstruction within. At its heart, Instellar is a film about fathers and daughters, or, parents and their children (unfortunately, this reminder is given to us several times courtesy of McConaughey’s Cooper). The almost psychic bond between parents and their children, and the fear that parents are mere “memories” for their children instills much of the movie’s emotion, particularly in the heartbreaking moments between McConaughey and Foy. Their interactions are natural and genuine, providing a tight balance to the film’s remaining esoteric themes. As much as Cooper loves his children – who are we kidding, he loves his daughter a touch more than his son, Tom (played by a marginalized Casey Affleck as an adult) – they become the monkey on his back as he’s forced to wonder whether his actions stem from a desire to save the rest of Earth or the two people he knows personally.
Outside, literally and figuratively, Cooper’s immediate sphere is the majesty of the universe itself. Take away the story and Interstellar is awe-inspiring. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera takes in the world, unafraid to slowly slide through the universe. The travel through the wormhole itself is wondrous, particularly since so much about wormholes remains conjecture. The joy of seeing this in IMAX comes during this sequence and a later moment with a black hole. The rumble of the chairs places the audience within the frame, experiencing just a taste of the pressure of the characters. The various worlds that are visited aren’t revelatory – an ice world and a planet filled with water – but they feel fully created and terrifying in their own ways; their evidence for not containing life are obvious.
Unfortunately, too much of Interstellar feels common and obvious. The emphasis on parents and children, the idea of love transcending, feel overly sentimental and never fleshed out enough. The questions left unanswered feel more like black holes themselves, unfilled by the script because they didn’t want to answer them but masked over as ambiguity (Anne Hathaway’s character seems to bear the brunt). Nolan’s script wants to be universal, but comes off as myopic. There’s also the inclusion of an uncredited actor whose storyline is supposed to be “Very Important,” but plays like it belongs in another movie. Other elements, the thrown away line about how Americans believe we faked the moon landing, and the final revelations about a ghost, feel like cheap political pandering and easily figured out, respectively. The deus ex machina at the end notwithstanding, for where we started, you think we’d end up further than the almost fairy-tale ending we get.
Again, the story is secondary to the visuals and the acting. Goodness, the acting! Coming off his Oscar nominated performance in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey wastes no time continuing to ride the wave of the “McConissance.” His scenes with Foy I’ve already mentioned, but the brutal anguish he endures, particularly in the third act, creates as much of a transformation as his character in Dallas Buyers Club. He may not go through the same physical transformation here, but his internal transformation shines through. Jessica Chastain is luminous as the adult Murph, a woman who’s felt a lot of bitterness, rage, and a tinge of regret. We meet her character after she’s already endured so much, and it’s unfortunate we don’t see enough of her in the act of struggling. We’re told, via video recordings by an adult Tom, that Murph has been a troublemaker. Her character softens significantly by the end, almost too easily from what we’ve heard, but Chastain plays well with her character’s peaks and valleys. Her video messages tore me up. With these two powerhouse performances it’s easy to forget Fantine herself, Anne Hathaway is in this movie. Amelia Brand is the romantic character masquerading as a scientist, which is interesting although underdeveloped. Hathaway plays up the vulnerability, the fear that she doesn’t know everything; her crushing admission of failure relies on Hathaway’s expressive face.
Christopher Nolan created The Prestige in between Batman movies. The Prestige is good, but it’s a smaller movie in every way that matters. Interstellar is a movie that thinks it’s The Prestige on a grander scale; the visuals are bigger, but the story is as small. Sometimes a small story works, but Interstellar falls too often on sentimentality as a way of masking the grand questions it sets up and realizes it can’t answer. The visuals are a feast for the eyes and the acting is resplendent. It’s a must-see, but it’ll be hard for audiences to call this “their favorite Nolan.”
Read Editor Clayton Davis’ take on “Interstellar.”.