Movie Review: “Interstellar”

Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, John Lithgow
Christopher Nolan

A coworker of mine is hoping that he can convince his wife to take their two girls to see “Big Hero 6” while he ducks into another theater to see Christopher Nolan’s new film “Interstellar.” Here’s the irony: the moral of “Interstellar” is that he should see “Big Hero 6” with his kids instead.

This is both an impossibly dense movie, and a deceptively simple one. The quantum physics talk and the hypotheses regarding time and space turn out to be a bit of a red herring. The true essence of “Interstellar” is about love, and Anne Hathaway’s character sums it up perfectly: time can contract and expand, but it can’t go backwards. In a nutshell, Nolan spent $165 million and 169 minutes telling us to seize the day with our loved ones. That’s a great message, and he pulls a number of incredible technical achievements in the process, but with “Interstellar,” Nolan has fallen into a trap that has caught many before him: the pitfalls of autonomy.

Set in an undefined but presumably not-too-distant future, Earth is suffering another Dust Bowl period, crops are dying, and there is reason to believe that the children will be the last generation Earth will ever know. Former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has taken up farming to help the cause, but a series of strange events leads Cooper and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) to an off-the-grid NASA facility, where a team is preparing to investigate a series of planets in a far-off galaxy, courtesy of a wormhole, to see if life is sustainable. They need a reliable pilot, though, and they ask Cooper if he will join them. Cooper is understandably conflicted, since there is no guarantee that he will return, but he ultimately decides that the salvation of the human race is the nobler goal, and he joins Amelia Brand (Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) on a boom-or-bust mission to find another Earth.

After he delivered the critical and commercial 1-2 punch of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” Nolan had earned the right to creative freedom that only a few directors in each generation can enjoy. Think of it like a contract year for an athlete: they put up monster numbers for a year, and in return they are paid far more than they are going to be worth over the life of their new big money contract (see: virtually every recent free agent signing by the Los Angeles Angels). Filmmakers get more money when their films perform, yes, but what they really want is control. Nolan now has it, and his last two films (this and “The Dark Knight Rises”) have suffered because of it. Young and hungry Nolan could move mountains. Large and in charge Nolan seems to have lost the forest for the trees.

To Nolan’s credit, he gets a lot of things right. The visuals are stunning, particularly the wormhole sequence, and the scenes where Cooper is watching video updates from his children, long delayed by the rules of time and space, are heartbreaking. He has an A+ cast of actors in his stable (including a surprising appearance from a big star in the third act), and he goes for it in the finale in a way that challenges the audience to forget what they think they know, and try to accept the unknown. There is no way of knowing if that could actually happen, and it really doesn’t matter; it’s Big Cinema, and it is very cool. The only question is if it needed to be Big Long Cinema. (It didn’t.)

It’s easy to see why Nolan would make a movie like “Interstellar”: it had the potential to be a modern-day Kubrick film, and what director wouldn’t try to do that if they had the chance? I’m normally one who likes movies that breathe, a lost art since music video directors started infiltrating the biz. This, however, is an instance where the story would have benefited from brisker pacing. The point of the film is to make the most of the time that you have, and then it wastes time making that point. With his next film, Nolan would be wise to take his own advice.