‘Interstellar’ and the visually glorious missed opportunity

November 10, 2014

from Indy Week

Director Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated sci-fi epic Interstellar is a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp by several light years. The film evokes grand questions of cosmic significance in its first half, then abandons them to goofball blockbuster conventions in the second, trusting that viewers won’t notice or care—so long as the eye-popping spectacles keep coming.

The hell of it is, it’s a strategy that pretty much works. The movie’s jaw-dropping visuals and sound design go a long way toward obscuring the story problems. You might ponder the plot holes later, in the parking lot. But when Nolan’s flipping you sideways through the gravitational lens of a fifth-dimensional wormhole, your mind is really on other things.

Here’s the gist: On a near-future Earth, ecological degradation has turned the planet into a spinning dustbowl. Droughts and crop blights have returned humanity to subsistence farming. The situation is so grim that governments can’t even afford wars anymore, so you know it’s serious, and NASA has been reduced to a couple of dozen scientists in a secure, undisclosed location.

Pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) may be mankind’s last hope. Through a series of events too spoiler-y to get into, Cooper is sent into space with scientist Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a couple of redshirts. Their destination—a wormhole just past Saturn that has apparently been placed there, by a superior race of beings, so that we might find a new home world.

The wormhole is the first of maybe a half-dozen spectacular set pieces in which Nolan provides sights and sounds you’ve never seen before on the big screen. On their celestial scouting mission, Coop and his crew hike over frozen clouds and narrowly escape planet-spanning tsunamis. Also on board, a genuinely new kind of spaceship robot that defies all expectations as to what future androids are supposed to look like.

Running parallel to all of this is the story of Coop’s family. Thanks to the vagaries of the time-space continuum, Coop doesn’t age, but the 11-year-old daughter he left behind does. She eventually grows into Jessica Chastain, and there’s some barely coherent business toward the end about the power of love to span epochs of space and time.

I didn’t mind any of that stuff, but I didn’t buy into it either. The performers do an admirable job of selling the story’s emotional threads—especially Chastain—but the dialogue just keeps getting clunkier as events in space get weirder. At one point, poor McConaughey is asked to deliver a couple of minute’s worth of clumsy exposition as he’s floating weightlessly through an infinite mirror tesseract (don’t ask).

For fans of the genre, Interstellar is worth seeing in theaters for an undeniably fun thrill-ride. The sound design is bonkers, too, with deep bass roars that will rattle your rib cage. It’s too bad that the story can’t hold the center, but let us be optimistic. In the last of several awkward third-act developments, Nolan follows his blockbuster instincts and sets us up for a potential sequel. Might I suggest: Interstellar 2: Interstellarer. That thing will write itself!

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