Interstellar

They can place a wormhole, but they can't send a text
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Christopher Nolan
Starring: 
Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine
The Setup: 
Team checks out other planets for humanity to move onto.
Discussion: 

It's the new Christopher Nolan, and it's an overwhemling onslaught of HYPE! Obviously, I was pretty crazed to see it, and find out just WHAT is going to happen in those second and third hours, which have been shrouded in spoiler-crazed mystery. The few tepid reviews among the mostly-kinda-positive ones only enflamed my desire! And to it I flew... Unfortunately, I left my notebook at the theater, so instead of the canny, incisive, sharply-detailed review that cuts through the cultural clutter to reveal the sharp kernel of truth you've come to be used to on this site, instead you'll get a bunch of hazily-recalled impressions, outright lies and unfettered bullshit.

Sound good?

We open in a future America [forget where] which has suffered massive population loss, endures horrible dust storms, and can grow nothing but corn. I like the way this was handled, it gives a glimpse of where our planet is projected to head, but without any moralizing or making of important points. You just absorb details: a meal where they have nothing to eat but variations of corn, the New York Yankees now playing on a tiny local field, and the damage leaving a window open during a dust storm can do. I could have done with a few more details and background info... like the current price of gas, what's happening in the cities, what happened to all the people, etc., because it just kind of seems like bucolic small-town America with a few annoying dust storms. But that's not really the point, so I can appreciate that it gets its point across and moves on.

Anyway, so McConaughey plays Cooper, who has a daughter Murphy and an anonymous son who doesn't matter. John Lithgow is also on hand as a foil for any dusty front porch musings one way wish to share [these scenes were lauaghable/insufferable]. Murphy thinks she has a ghost in her room, and if you think there's going to be a ghost in a supposedly hard-science movie like this, you haven't been attending class [have you?], so a tiny bit of thinking will offer big hints of what might be to come. Dad thinks she's bonkers, except when he sees that dust in her room is falling in binary code, at which point he thinks aliens are helping them, which is so much more plausible! They high-tail it to the coordinates given, where Dad is going to BREAK into whatever facility is there before conducting so much as a search around for a sign or something (Criminal Dads! A new reality series), but before you know it, they're arrested and find out they've stumbled on the remnants of a long-defunct...

American Girl Store!!! No, silly, but NASA! This is where things take a turn for the silly, but I'll explain what happens before we start ripping it apart. So the government shut down NASA, since it has to use what few funds it has left for keeping people alive, but its old members meet in secret, and continue their research, funded by... um... funded by? Funded by? Bake sales? Meth sales? Door-to-door chocolate bar sales? Google AdWords? I guess I missed the part where they're getting all the billions of dollars needed to conduct their interstellar missions, but you know, you would be AMAZED at how coupons really do add up. Anyway, they're run by Michael Caine, who has a daughter in Anne Hathaway, both atrophysicists or whatever. Turns out that a wormhole has been "placed" right near Saturn [presumably by the aliens who led Cooper to NASA] that leads to a few potentially habitable planets, and they have been sending missions through it to find the right one [would it be too much for those helpful aliens to identify the right planet? What, it's like a galactic Easter Egg hunt?] so they can move humanity there. All they've been waiting for is a pilot, and goll-darn it, guess what Cooper is? Jeeest about the best pilot NASA ever did have, yes-sirreety! So great, they're ready to go: right now! No seriously, right now.

Okay, so I couldn't wait to express my wonder at where they're getting all the money to run secret NASA, but that's just one problem. The other is that they're apparently launching numerous missions without anyone noticing? Maybe they don't have newspapers or websites anymore. The other is the giant launchpad right off the briefing room, like, RIGHT next to the giant rockets and... wouldn't that room get incinerated every time they launch one of these missions? I also didn't realize that they had descended that far down into the Earth, but that's just me. And then, the mission, which has been on hold, is suddenly ready to go, tomorrow? In the real world, in which they are poorly funded but still, you know, FUNDED, it takes NASA years to get a launch ready. And this one's just sitting waiting for the next day? Apparently.

So Cooper has to say goodbye to the kids, finding that his son barely gives a shit and neither does he, and without any sort of goodbye to Grandpa or whoever Lithgow is. Murphy is bitter and refuses to say goodbye, causing Cooper to have a tearful drive away. Now, there's something good here. Earlier, when Cooper had gone searching for NASA, he pulled up the blanket on the seat and found Murphy hiding underneath. Here, he reaches over and pulls up the blanket, but she's not there, and that's when he breaks down. I have a theory that Nolan is trying to go a little more emotional in this film, since his others are so cold, and this scene is a success. We then cut right into the launch.

SPOILERS > > >
They go into space, and after establishing that Wes Bentley is here for some reason [they found him in the bargain bin?] and Anne Hathaway is once again playing pretty much the same character as always, they go to sleep, and wake up two years later right near Saturn. I had heard that the Saturn visuals were pretty spectacular, but I found them pretty pedestrian. I was kind of hoping for a close fly-by of the rings so we could see the particles... but we just got long shots with the tiny spacecraft in front. I have to say now, the space visuals could have brought the wonder a LOT more than they do [and a LOT more than they are widely said to do]. They see the magic wormhole [looks like a crystal ball, basically] and go into it, which I must admit, was pretty spectacular. Basically you go through a tunnel of warped space, seeing galaxies and such bent along the irregular internal surface. I've read a few things that Nolan eschews 3D, but here, and a few times throughout the movie, I thought how amazing this would look in 3D.

So they proceed to planet one, which is very close to a black hole [making me wonder, just how ideal are these planets if they're near a black hole? Kind of just a matter of time for each, right?]. And the thing is, for every hour they spend there, seven years will pass on Earth. So Cooper can pretty much kiss seeing his kids as children again goodbye, which he takes pretty hard. The planet is covered in about two feet of water, and that mountain they saw in the distance turns out to be a massive tidal wave. Anne runs off to get the data from the previous launch, but gets trapped, necessitating a rescue in which Bentley buys it [ah, so THAT'S why Wes Bentley]. They ride up and down the tidal wave with pretty much no problem, then sit down for a long jawbone. I mean, might as well just sit around talking, right? That tidal wave was probably just a one-time thing. Rogue wave. There sure won't be one of those again. And that whole seven-years-per-hour thing, eh, probably just kidding. They're yakking about the plasticity of gravity and whatnot when--what? Another tidal wave? Who could have forseen??? They make it back to the ship no problem.

Now here is another big emotional moment, as Cooper reviews 27 years of messages from his son, watching his grow up before his eyes [it's like his personal Boyhood], and here's a strange decision. McConaughey takes the weeping to ten in the first clip, which is affecting, to be sure, but... where to go from there? And in fact, by the time he gets to the message from Murphy [she has been silent this whole time, still bitter] he's still crying, but he peaked early, which kind of deflates the power the scene could have had. It's curious.

Now for a while, Murphy just keeps saying "Did you know? Did you?" without mentioning what he might have known, which was confusing to me, since I couldn't hear what Caine said on his deathbed a few scenes earlier. Basically, Caine sent a bunch of pre-fertilized eggs with them on the mission, with the idea of starting a new human colony, and leaving everyone on Earth to die. This makes Murphy, now played by Jessica Chastain, even more bitter than she already was, since it seems Dad lied when he said he'd be back. One other thing I didn't understand until I read the Wiki summary afterward: Caine hasn't been able to figure out the calculations to get Earth's remaining humans off the planet, he still needs info from a black hole... and why hey, guess what's right outside Cooper's window? In the meantime, Caine has raised Murphy to be a top astrophysicist. The whole way, you'll be hearing a lot of flap-jawing about how gravity is just as mutable as time or some shit.

So now they have two planets left, but can only go to one, for some reason. They go to one, and there is a good, unexpected moment when they hit a cloud and it is hard, and cracks. Here's a good time as any to mention that Nolan shies from showing spaceships flying around, a la Star Wars, in favor of showing a view as through a camera was mounted outside the ship, or first-person views. I think it is to make the space travel seem more "real" and grounded, but it's a decision that takes away from the potential visual wonder the film could have had. Anyway, they land [this is the ice planet you see in the trailers], and find a previous launch, and still sleeping inside: Lindsay Lohan! No not really, actually it's Matt Damon, but how amazing, etc...

From here on out is stuff you can't tell from the trailers, so if you don't want to know... They explore the planet, then Matt tells Cooper that actually the planet sucks, but he said it was habitable just to draw them down there so he could be rescued. Then he tries to kill Cooper! I liked this whole thing--it reminded me of an old Star Trek episode, and it focuses the story on something comprehensible and immediate for a change. Anne rescues Cooper, but Matt is flying up and going to dock with the station. Now, docking with the station takes incredible dexterity--so incredible I actually can't believe it--because it seems so obvious they could easily, and would realistically, have a much easier way to dock. Not to mention that the tinny little obvious model of the docking thing is the only egregiously bad effect in the whole film. They're telling Damon not to dock, when suddenly--the whole thing is blown to shit, including their spaceship! It's a really good, shocking moment, and all of a sudden they're watching their ride home spinning off, trailing debris!

So they have to spin their ship at the same rotation as the station, which generates relatively little suspense as 1) we know super-pilot Cooper can do it, and 2) Nolan's refusal to show wide shots of the spaceships dims the excitement. From here on out I understood very little of what was going on while watching the movie, but having read the summary later, I can put it together now. They send Anne to the remaining planet to be explored. They send the robot [there's a robot, btw] into the black hole to gather info. And Cooper himself goes into the black hole, ejecting at the last moment, and... he finds himself in some multidimensional space that looks like--and is--the back of a bookcase. Why, the bookcase that's in Murphy's room, which is right on the other side. The whole space is a huge Escher-like maze of bookcases, which also would have been amazing in 3D.

Okay, so Cooper can knock books of the shelf--he is the "ghost" Murphy was encountering as a child--and apparently arranged the dust into lines, and we see him tapping on a thread of space/time [or was it gravity? I forget] to make her watch's second hand quaver, which she finally recognizes as a message from a higher power, and, since he is privvy to the data from the black hole, he relays it to her, and she completes the equation that will allow her to lift Earth's population off the planet. Then... honestly I don't get what happens, but suddenly Cooper is chillin' by Saturn, where he is rescued, and next we see him back on his porch, only this time... his home is a museum [to him and Murphy] on a cylindrical space station where there are still vast farms and kids still play baseball. He visits Murphy, now old and on her deathbed, and finally heads back out to space to rescue Hathaway.
< < < SPOILERS END

So, as it was unfolding, especially in the second half, I was totally happily enjoying it, as it's always fun to explore other planets, the surprise with the new crew member picked up along the way, and a certain feeling in the second half that this movie is just bonkers. It goes a little wacky, and then certain elements get even wackier, and... I liked that about it. The good feeling ended as the movie ended in its pat little way, and my overall feeling walking out was: "Gosh, that was really long." I was not transformed, nor did I have a new appreciation of my place in the universe, the infinity of the cosmos, or the endurance of the human spirit and the power of love. It had some good parts, was certainly entertaining, but the further I got from it, the less it satisfied.

The consistent issue with Nolan's films is that they present themselves as serious, thoughtful pieces, but seem like disappointments when you realize that they're just extremely solemn escapist popular movies. The movie sets itself up as a serious film with thoughtful characters, but then Cooper is an action-dad ready to break into any secret facilities he might find and offroading after falling weather drones. Then there's the mysteriously-funded secret NASA with the mission ready to leave the next day, the meeting room right off the main rocket boosters... it's all just a little too perfect, and really rather ridiculous. I do appreciate that the film treats climate change seriously, recognizes it as a real, inescapable, existential threat to humanity, but then the perfectly pat resolution to all this, in which everyone's a winner, seems to ultimately minimize the seriousness of the issue, and the movie.

Also, the film feel disjointed and episodic. I didn't feel that the themes, such as they are, added up to much. There's a lot about father-daughter relationships [in this film, the father-son dynamic means nothing], and about how love can transcend time and space, but... so? Mentioning something a lot does not necessarily add up to a cohesive statement. The different planets and murderous spacemen and spinning space station are nice action episodes, but there seems to be no collective through-line or rising of tension to hold it all together.

And a recurring frustration with movies like this is... why can't the advanced future race communicate a little better? In this film, they can place a wormhole next to Saturn, but they cannot send a text. They can create multi-dimensional spaces tailored to the memories of one's home, but a simple note? An email? And if--as is theorized late in the film--it is future humans [presumably on their new planet] who placed the wormhole... couldn't they just have taken the extra step if identifying the correct planet? Save us all a bit of trouble, you know. It is all--painfully--contrived just to create difficulty in order to create a plot, and give the characters something to figure out. And we're all supposed to be quivering in wonder when it finally, kind of, works out after great struggle and expense and death, when... it's just a big, fake contrivance. So yeah, kind of a turd, but an extremely expensive one that is fun enough while it lasts.

Should you watch it: 

Aside from the hype, looking just at the movie... you don't really need to.