Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Interstellar" is Less Than Stellar

I'm having trouble articulating my reaction to Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar."  On the one hand, it's this big, grand, lavish piece of epic, high concept science-fiction filmmaking that makes no apologies for its nerdy technical jargon or its overt sentimentality.  And I love films like that, even when they're terrible.  I'm one of the few people who really enjoyed Wally Pfister's "Transcendence," for example.  "Interstellar" is certainly better than "Transcendence" on just about every level, but at the same time it's a very flawed film, and those flaws are more frustrating and the film overall more disappointing because they could have been fixed more easily.
"Interstellar" opens in a declining world suffering grim food shortages, where former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has become a farmer like most of the population.  A series of strange phenomena discovered by Cooper's young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) lead Cooper to the remains of NASA, who are mounting a last-ditch effort to find a life-sustaining planet that humanity can be relocated to.  Professor Brand (Michael Caine) asks Cooper to join his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) on a journey through a wormhole to explore a planetary system with three of their best candidates.  However, the realities of space travel mean that Cooper would be separated from Murph and the rest of his family, possibly for good.

Christopher Nolan has been accused of neglecting the humanity of his characters.  That's certainly not the case here, where everything hinges on the relationship between Cooper and Murph.  All the sequences of space travel and exploring alien world makes for great spectacle, but the story only has the impact that it does because the stakes are established early and established well.  The characters' various attachments to each other, or the lack thereof, are ultimately what drive them and inform their decisions.  It's a lovely sentiment, expressed very well.  The characters are fairly flat, but the performances by McConaughey, Hathaway, and spoilers, were enough to get me properly invested in their fates. 
My biggest issues with the movie have to do with the plotting, which is ironic for a Nolan film.  Despite employing many complicated concepts, his scripts usually run like clockwork.  "The Prestige" and "Inception" both had to juggle far more plot with minimal lag.  "Interstellar," on the other hand, feels a little shoddy in construction at times.  There several developments that require massive logic leaps, buying into a "love conquers all" rationale, and accepting a huge deus ex machina - or rather a deus ex tesseract.  There are individual sequences that are set up and executed beautifully, such a docking sequence that owes a lot to "Gravity," but also several places that could have used some trimming or rewrites.  I suspect that the Nolan brothers ran out of time and couldn't quite get all their pieces to fit, so they ended up fudging a lot things that they shouldn't have.
There are some very minor fixes would have made a huge difference in clearing up confusion - an extra line or two of exposition here, turning up the volume on the dialogue there, or just abandoning all pretense of realism and going full "2001: A Space Odyssey" when necessary.  There's no doubt that there was a ton money and effort lavished on this movie.  The visuals are gorgeous.  The story is massively ambitious and full of details that could only have been the result of extensive, earnest research.  I especially liked the mission's robot teammember TARS, which has a unique design and personality.  And Hans Zimmer is doing his best Phillip Glass impression to great effect.  There are a lot of little bits and pieces that contain fascinating stuff, but the whole is less that the parts.  
In the end, sadly, "Interstellar" feels like a compromised version of something originally bigger and stranger, and I can't help deducting points for that.  Darren Aronofsky's  "The Fountain" is a similar film I didn't particularly enjoy, but it felt entirely true to the director's vision.  "Interstellar," on the other hand, often feels lost.  It evokes so many great science-fiction films and stories I love, but it can't quite figure out how to get where it needs to go. 

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