Visually dazzling 'Interstellar' struggles to escape Earthly gravity

Christopher Nolan's intergalactic tale suffers from plot holes

Wednesday November 5, 2014 09:00 am EST

Christopher Nolan, filmmaker of such twisty hits as Memento and Inception, gets a rap for being too cold and cerebral. But with Nolan's intergalactic epic Interstellar, which he directed and co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, he’s arguably not cold and cerebral enough. Interstellar makes an ambitious bid for transcendence, measuring human nature against the vast reaches of outer space, but inadvertently makes the universe feel small.

Newly-minted Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper a former astronaut turned reluctant farmer in a near future ravaged by a blight that’s gradually wiping out all of Earth’s crops. When Cooper and family chase down an airborne drone to cannibalize for farm equipment, Nolan conveys how the planet’s priorities have shifted from military and exploratory goals to food production.

Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) discovers traces of a mysterious gravitational signal, which Cooper follows back to a secure base that turns out to contain the last remnants of NASA. A kindly physicist (Michael Caine) and his starchy scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway) reveal to Cooper their plans for a mission, unsubtly named “Lazarus,” to save the human race: using a newly discovered stable wormhole near Saturn, they can investigate another part of the universe for planets that might sustain life.

They enlist Cooper to pilot the mission and though he agrees, his daughter is enraged and heartbroken at his departure. As the Lazarus mission leaves orbit, and then the solar system, travel time and other relativistic effects mean Cooper's aging process happens slower than on Earth, and his daughter grows into Jessica Chastain, bitter at her father’s absence but also dedicated to the project.

Technically, Interstellar proves a genuine marvel, not just in its realistic portrayal of space flight and creation of thrilling set pieces involving otherworldly locations. Nolan exceeds sci-fi expectations by crafting visual representations of theoretical concepts like wormhole travel or five-dimensional space. And the mission’s robot crewmembers, rather than sink to clichés, have strikingly original designs and intriguing A.I. personalities.

But Interstellar’s attempt to humanize the science fiction elements suffers from some drastic miscalculations. It’s like the script doesn’t trust the audience to grasp the themes and motivations, so the characters repeat them incessantly. McConaughey genuinely invests in his performance, but Cooper’s complaints about being separated from his family gradually feel less like fatherly devotion and more like petulant self-absorption. Ironically, he spends the film’s first act bemoaning that mankind has lost its pioneer spirit, but then longs to get back to Earth practically the minute he leaves the atmosphere.

While no less than the fate of the Earth is at stake, to say nothing of the advances in science, Interstellar’s characters seem weirdly petty and selfish – a far cry from the cool, self-sacrificing professionalism of, for instance, the astronauts of Apollo 13. Hathaway’s role comes off as oddly hostile and condescending, resulting in a surprisingly tone-deaf performance from a usually canny performer.

Interstellar’s galaxy-spanning wormhole is nothing compared to the holes in the script, which take logical shortcuts, hinge on contrived situations and essentially rely on magic science as the film goes along. You can understand Nolan’s desire to depict human connections going beyond the limitations of time and space, but the storyline ultimately feels hollow and phony. Only when the film calls for the revival of the space program does it seem truly heartfelt. Interstellar doesn’t disguise its admiration for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Stanley Kubrick’s enigmatic classic respected its audience to puzzle out universal mysteries for themselves.

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