It’s easy to understand why any filmmaker would revere Stanley Kubrick and want to prove it with an act of homage. Christopher Nolan clearly loves “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it’s difficult to parse “Interstellar” as anything other than a contemporary variant of the 1968 classic—with sequences that obviously rework moments from it—even though the influence of other films (like “The Right Stuff”) is discernible as well.
Unhappily, where Kubrick’s film was cinematic poetry, Nolan’s is prose, and purple prose at that. To be sure, on the purely technological level it’s a marvel of realistic effects, and it revels in a degree of scientific specificity that evinces lots of input from experts. But in the most important narrative ways it may take one to a galaxy other than our own, but remains surprisingly mundane while doing so. You can certainly respond to its craft, but its attempts at emotional depth and cosmological profundity fall short, not least because Nolan—unlike Kubrick, of course—feels compelled to explain as much as he can, often through dialogue that’s made up largely of either stunningly banal conversation (that in “2001” was, banal as well, but intentionally for satiric effect) or of blatantly intrusive scientific exposition intended to spoon-feed information to the audience. It’s as though the director, though equipped with the most advanced visual devices, didn’t have the same faith in their ability to tell his story that Kubrick did in his technical innovations. Even “Gravity,” despite its very real problems, functioned better in that respect.
The script, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (with input from physicist Kip Thorne), begins on a not-far-off earth devastated by parched conditions and dust storms that have reduced food production alarmingly. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a widower and dustbowl farmer, living with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) on the family homestead. He’s also a single dad to two youngsters, fifteen-year old Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and ten-year old Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), the latter of whom is his pride and joy, eagerly embracing her father’s past life as a NASA pilot at a time when society has rejected science and technology in favor of a back-to-the-earth, homespun philosophy of life. (The anti-modernism campaign has gone so far that textbooks have been rewritten to allege that the moon landing never happened, being nothing more than a propaganda ploy in the Cold War—and Murph gets in trouble at school for disputing the new party line.)
What appear to be supernatural events alter this desolate existence when Murph is troubled by what seem to be poltergeists in her room. But the phenomena actually represent messages from some unknown force that ultimately reveal, via patterns of dust, the location of a literally underground NASA base—the space agency having been officially terminated—where Cooper finds Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a scientist who had once been his mentor and is now leading a project to save humanity by relocating earth’s population to another planet. That possibility has been opened by the appearance of a wormhole near Saturn, which presents the opportunity to travel to another galaxy where habitable planets might be found. The origin of the wormhole is unknown, but it’s presumed that some helpful power—an alien race, perhaps—provided the potential escape route.
The plan, however, requires Brand’s solving an intractable mathematical equation involving the force of gravity that has stumped him for years. (Failure to find the answer could require switching to a more limited scheme that would take only a small portion of earth’s people to a new abode.) And it also makes it imperative to send a new mission into the wormhole to follow up on three earlier ones that were directed to investigate three promising planets in the galaxy beyond, but haven’t been heard from for years. With his experience Cooper would make the perfect pilot for it. The prospect of being torn away from Tom and Murph is an awful one, but he agrees to lead a crew that will also include Brand’s physicist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), astronauts Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a security robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), which looks suspiciously like a monolith that unfolds appendages that allow it to move around.
Much of the rest of “Interstellar” portrays the mission, which involves the lengthy trip to Saturn, the passage through the wormhole, a visit to a planet that’s covered in dangerous seas that make human residence impossible, and most importantly a trip to a second where the crew find one of the initial explorers—a scientist named Mann (Matt Damon), who just happens to be an old flame of Amelia’s. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much about what happens from that point on—not just because it would necessitate spoilers, but because what the Nolans have contrived is such a hodgepodge that the twists and turns pretty much defy comprehension. (Disentangling all the confusion will probably become a virtual industry among the director’s adoring fans.)
It’s not unfair, however, to say that in one intriguing twist resting on Einstein’s theory of relativity—only one of several scientific touchstones expounded on at length by characters to inform viewers of why things are happening as they are—what the crew members experience in a single hour of their time represents the passage of seven years back on earth. The result, as video messages from home show, is that Tom (Casey Affleck) is now farming the old homestead to ever-diminishing returns, while Murphy (Jessica Chastain), still angry over her father’s absence, has grown into an accomplished scientist working with Brand on his supposedly insoluble math problem. McConaughey—who otherwise relies on his aw-shucks cowboy personality to play Cooper as the guy who can, when necessary, maneuver a spaceship in and out of the closest scrapes—gets his most challenging scene when his character reacts to the messages from his now-grown children that have piled up over time.
That’s not enough, however, to make this one of his better performances. Nor do the rest of the cast distinguish themselves. Caine does his usual shtick—familiar from so many of Nolan’s previous movies—while Hathaway is distressingly stiff (her hair, frankly, is her turn’s most interesting feature) and Chastain is stuck in perpetually seething mode. Affleck, Bentley and Topher Grace (as a physician colleague of Murphy’s who visits Tom’s farm with her late in the film—a contentious sequence that intercuts with action far out in space) are pretty much wasted. On the other hand, Lithgow brings gravity to the part of Cooper’s father-in-law, and Gyasi a smooth competence to that of Romilly, coming across as a younger version of Jeffrey Wright in subdued mode, while Damon plays against type as an ambiguous figure in a tale with a bit of the same vibe as his recent “Elysium.” On the other hand, Foy is irritating as the younger version of Murphy.
The technical virtuosity of Nolan’s production team—notably cinematographer Hoyte Van Hotema, who uses the possibilities of the 70mm Imax format, which alternates with 35mm stock, to the hilt; production designer Nathan Crowley, who deals equally well with a desiccated earth and spaceship interiors; and visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin (working, of course, with a small army of staff)—pervades all of “Interstellar,” but naturally comes into its own in the closing reels, which tie the film’s resolution to its first act in ways that frankly seem at once overextended and incredible, despite all the talk of fifth dimensions and gravitational singularities that are designed to give the ending a scientific-sounding basis. (The conclusion also traffics to an alarming extent in the sentimentality that marked—and marred—the story’s initial stages between McConaughey and Foy.) Debits, moreover, for Hans Zimmer’s score, which, at least in an Imax room, is at times way too overbearing, especially in the bass regions, though there are some imaginative touches in orchestration.
Nolan’s desire to meld human relationships (especially those between fathers and children) with scientifically-based speculation and outer-space action is a noble one. It’s a pity that “Interstellar” doesn’t manage to combine the elements satisfactorily, despite some undoubtedly impressive moments. One can’t help but admire its ambition—this is a film that shoots for the stars. But in the end it can’t escape the gravitational pull of excess verbiage and old-fashioned melodramatics. It winds up feeling more like “2010” than “2001.”