Hot air ride
Among the filmmakers of his generation, director Christopher Nolan sits in a unique position of power and influence. He’s earned enough trust and respect to make the dark, thematically ambitious, and potentially difficult films that studios usually avoid like the plague, and on the scale of his choice. Based as much on the success of his rabbit-hole actioner Inception as his money-in-the-bank Batman movies, he got Paramount to back his moony and assaultive three-hour space epic Interstellar, even getting the studio to strike a handful of 70mm prints. Some of them are playing on IMAX screens—if you’ve ever wanted to get intimately familiar with the pores on Matthew McConaughey’s face, have I got a film for you.
Rather than liberating Nolan, however, the ability to make big-budget movies that aim to do more than sell souvenir soda cups has weighed on him like a divine task, and each film has become more dreadfully self-important than the last. Interstellar is a nonstop barrage of teachable moments, and just like The Dark Knight Rises, it is simultaneously bloated and rushed, crammed with more topical detritus than a Lee Daniels film. There is no shortage of visual spectacle here, but Interstellar flirts with big ideas and weighty themes only to avoid probing beneath their surfaces. This is Christopher Nolan’s take not just on sci-fi, but on the state of mankind, on our future, on existence itself, but even at the limits of human consciousness, Nolan can’t resist playing the bourgeois psychoanalyst.
Although composer Hans Zimmer doubles down on the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” hum any time Nolan needs an extra shot of awe, Interstellar has less in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey than with its hippie-dippy knockoff Silent Running (it has even more in common with the 1997 film Contact, which also featured McConaughey). 2001 is a beautiful enigma, but Nolan is too concerned with making big statements to be enigmatic. The film looks great in 70mm (although the frequent aspect ratio shifts in IMAX are a little jarring), and as shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her), the images have a retro 1970s burnish. If only the film had more of that New Hollywood funkiness and less of Nolan’s iron fist.
The first act of Interstellar has been thoroughly laid out in the trailers, and it’s a pretty sleepy opening third, meticulous in its development and yet deeply impersonal. In a peaceful, pre-apocalyptic future dystopia, Earth is choked by dust and devastated by a food shortage that has forced most people to become farmers. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA pilot working a farm where every crop except for corn has succumbed to a devastating plague. A gravitational “anomaly” in his daughter’s bedroom leads him to a nearby secret base, where a team of scientists are launching an expedition into an alternate universe to find a new home planet for humanity to take root.
Due to his NASA training, Cooper is given control of the ship, and immediately sets out on a mission of unknown length while his feisty daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy as a child, Jessica Chastain as an adult) begs him to stay. Michael Caine is the wise and twinkly-eyed gravitational scientist who delivers reading after reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” because of course he does. Anne Hathaway plays his daughter, a scientist who cries a lot. McConaughey is in full mystical Lincoln pitchman mode, his eyes ablaze with stars as he delivers purple zen soundbites that would make Deepak Chopra blush. It’s a good performance, but lines like, “When you become a parent, you become the ghost of your child’s future” would sound a lot better if he were wailing away on a set of bongos.
All of that, and I still cannot completely dismiss Interstellar. The original script by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan may only be good for hitting the nail on the head over and over again, but at least they’re taking swings. There is something exciting about a film that tries to fill your mind and then blow it, even if it’s only filling you full of hot air.