“Interstellar” is an anomaly—a movie that gets so much right before going so woefully wrong. It starts out amazing and ends up befuddling. For the record, I’m not referring to any of the loftier themes at play; I’m talking about choices—grating indulgences. Director Christopher Nolan (“Inception”) has made a very grand, heavy-handed, space epic. I expect it will be a polarizing experience for most film-goers. Be warned, fair readers, I’m going to be charting a course through spoiler territory. This is a review you don’t want to read until you’ve seen the film.
Christopher Nolan is a director I admire. He works on a level few big-budget directors achieve and delivers extremely interesting, entertaining movies that, up until now, have introduced big ideas without feeling the need to explain too much. His films are earnest and at times borderline corny; however, they always manage to entertain and yield something that feels fresh in a stale era where everything is highly derivative.
Most people know Nolan for “Inception,” a movie that also polarized audiences. Many thought the dream-hopping heist was an engaging thriller with an amazing premise. Others thought it was ridiculously flawed at a fundamental level. “Interstellar” is exactly that kind of movie.
The premise is simple enough: The future is going to suck (I’ve been saying that a lot lately). We greedy humans used up all the planet’s resources, and now everything has reverted to a dust-bowl-era Steinbeckian hell. Among the last remnants of humanity is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family. A former pilot-turned-farmer, Cooper feels out of place in a world more focused on crop yields than exploring the stars.
Cooper’s daughter, Murphy, discovers a strange phenomenon in her room—a gravitational flux that sends them in search of coordinates on a map. When they arrive, they learn it’s the location of a last-ditch effort to try to save humanity, by finding a new planet to inhabit. Surprise! They need a pilot. Cooper is tasked with an impossible decision. OK, “impossible” might be too strong a word, but it’s a difficult choice to make: Leave his family to help lead the mission to save them or stay behind on a dying world.
The first act sets up the film brilliantly. There’s a great reality to this dust-covered world in which these characters exist.It’s bleak; options are limited. You’re either smart enough to contribute to the world-saving plan or you farm crops to keep people fed. The one plus: Guidance counselors have it really easy.
The first act is brilliant. Once the movie leaves Earth for its space journey, things go from love to like. The crew of the spaceship, Endurance, is a small but plucky group. They’re heading toward a mysterious wormhole that will take them to another galaxy to check out several potentially habitable planets. Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) is the pluckiest of the plucky. She’s a spitfire convinced that their mission can save humanity in spite of the odds. The three planets are a lot like Goldilock’s porridge: One is too hot, one is too cold, and one is just right.
The space exploration has a good mix of warm-heartedness and cold logic. Cooper believes they can find a habitable world and get back in time to save Earth—even though they are dealing with some time-bending reality scenarios that mean a few hours on a planet could equate two years for Earth. There might not be any planet left to save. McConaughey does a great job of being the emotional core of the film. His faith is unshakable. Even when faced with unthinkable obstacles, he pushes through, trying to find that sliver of hope.
The second act is good but feels a little rushed. So much time is spent establishing Earth and setting up high stakes. The second act pushes right through. It takes an hour to get off Earth and what feels like 20 minutes to explore two new planets. The third act—oh, the third act. This is where it goes from good to grating, and this is the part where I get a little acidic. You might want to pop a Zantac.
Apparently, Christopher Nolan wanted to remake “2001” or “The Black Hole.” Maybe both. The final act of “Interstellar” is brutally ham-fisted, like the love child of Mike Tyson and a Smithfield’s pork butt. Nolan does such a good job setting up the film’s climax, and it should be painfully obvious to anyone other than brain-trauma sufferers how the film is going to end. It’s telegraphed with the clarity of the Hubble telescope: It’s noticeable light years away. Instead of letting the audience connect the dots, he has Cooper deliver painful exposition to try to make sure everyone in the theater gets the ending.
There’s about 20 minutes of the film that dips its toes into the laughable. It’s cringe-inducing that very few directors would get a pass on. So much of the third act feels unnecessary: scenes that could have been outright severed from the nearly three-hour runtime.
“Interstellar” is a movie that starts out with promise but eventually devolves into something pedantic. Still, moments of beauty and brilliance—buoyed by scenes of Topher Grace shouting updates about a crop fire for what feels like an eternity—entertain. I like the set up, but the follow-through is clunky. It’s a movie that feels like it’s another couple of edits away from being something monumental. As is, it’s kind of an average mess.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain
Directed by Christopher Nolan