A Flawed Odyssey
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
I have anxiously awaited Interstellar ever since it was first announced that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan were going to make a film about space. As the film came closer and closer and closer to arrival, the anticipation became almost giddying. The posters looked gorgeous, Nolan made a specific point about building the film with as much practical effects as possible, and the trailers were fantastic. And as the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but feel a massive sense of deflation, a galactic disappointment if you will. The problem isn’t that Interstellar is a bad movie. It’s that the plethora of moments within it that are as great as Nolan can get are saddled with some of the most incoherent leaps of logic and emotion that I have ever experienced. The science doesn’t always make sense, even to someone like me who researched the subject matter extensively before going and seeing the film. That doesn’t occur because the science is largely unintelligible but because some of the narrative liberties that the film takes with the science simply don’t work. In a film enshrouded in a slightly grainy view that gives it the touch of realism, it also relies heavily upon fantastical elements that drag everything else down. Approximately half of the scientists in the film, named and background, are female and that’s a welcome note in how women are portrayed in film. Simultaneously however, despite placing two lead female characters in the field of science, they are written to be such emotional caricatures that you wonder how on earth that level of feminism and misogyny was brought together in the first place. As the third act begins to close, it provides a semblance of completion to the narrative while simultaneously harboring a ton of incoherent material. Come to think of it, that’s the film as a whole.
The film opens in what is approximately a hundred years from now, in a post apocalyptic Earth that has been ravaged by constant blights. Only corn remains a viable option of foodstuffs anymore. A farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives with his small family that includes his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), his son Tom (Timothée Chamelet), and his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). Murph consistently believes that she is having interactions with the supernatural that no one else really believes. But one day Cooper and Murph discover a binary code being sent through gravitational waves that leads them to a secret underground chamber. Notably terrified, Cooper discovers that this seemingly terrifying chamber belongs to NASA, which has been operating under the command of Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) for years. Dr. Brand’s vision was to find a planet beyond Earth that could potentially serve as a habitable colony since soon enough corn would also be obliterated. At that point, there would be no future for anyone on Earth and everyone to die. In preparation, NASA had already sent a dozen astronauts through a wormhole by Saturn to find habitable worlds to colonize. Only three readings had come back: one each from Drs. Miller, Mann, and Edmund. Dr. Brand convinces Cooper to go into space to find those planets, but that means leaving his family behind. In the film’s most heartbreaking moment, Cooper tries to explain to a terrified and angry Murph why he has to go. He goes off into the great wormhole with his companions Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and two of the slickest robots ever created, TARS and CASE (voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart, respectively). From there on the film splits between space and Earth, tied together with the thread of Cooper trying to get back to Earth as quickly as possible
What a thin thread it is. The first act of the film spins slowly but it’s held together by an incredibly strong father daughter relationship between Cooper and Murph. When Cooper leaves to help save humanity, it’s a genuinely cathartic moment that leaves tears in our eyes. Then the Endurance launches into space and the narrative of Interstellar from that point on never clicks together. It’s immensely frustrating, because there are so many threads of absolute brilliance that are undercut by the strangest script decisions that I have ever across. First and foremost, the naming in the film is absolutely horrible and doesn’t help the seriousness that it is going aiming at. Amelia is a thinly veiled reference to Amelia Earhart, which might be insulting to the famed pilot considering how poorly the film treats Amelia half of the time. Dr. Mann and the Endurance are so obvious that they truly don’t require any additional explanation. In all honesty, if the narrative ticked, the naming wouldn’t have been an issue. As expected, the first planet they visit is an aquatic disaster and Doyle meets a sickening and early end. In the midst of their travels, the elder Dr. Brand passes away, but not before revealing to an older Murph (Jessica Chastsain), that the humans were never meant to survive and the Plan B of using fertilized embryos was always going to be the go-to plan. It’s a shocking moment before one realizes that if Dr. Brand was so convinced that Plan B was always a go, why on earth did any research continue to go forward. Why did he, after all, bother to teach Murph any of his research? The second stop becomes a bit of a debate because of fuel issues and Cooper for some reason has the authority to override Dr. Brand and they decide to visit Dr. Mann, who is played by Matt Damon in welcome icy repose. As it is, Dr. Mann turns out to be a complete maniac who has been driven absolutely insane by isolation. One can’t blame him for that and in all honesty his arrival gives the plot the kick it so desperately needed. And then the black hole arrives and the film tries to tie in the opening “ghost” Murph saw with a futuristic Cooper. For a second the film makes sense and then when you think about it really hard, it doesn’t. An extra emotional kick is given in the film’s final moments, but by then you’re so deadened by the narrative that you just don’t feel the emotional catharsis the ending tries to sell.
The characters largely work (even if their decisions don’t) and when they do, it’s on the backs of actors who manage to transcend the material they’re given. Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand is the standard wise old man archetype and even his final betrayal is illogical. Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph is simply astounding and her performance as the young girl who more than anything else believes in her father and the power of science may very well be the best of the cast. Indeed, the best moment may be when she stands up to her school for pushing inaccurate science textbooks and her father is there to support her every set of the way, never once allowing his daughter’s strong will to be stifled by a vapid bureaucracy. Matthew McConaughey gives a great performance as Cooper and out of the entire cast he is given the most layers to dig through. When he watches his children grow in front of his very eyes, accelerating past his own age, McConaughey’s face crumbles and there’s not a dry eye in the house. Anne Hathaway gives an amazing performance as Dr. Brand, switching between the character’s trajectory effortlessly. But Dr. Brand is treated so poorly by the film it’s mind-boggling. To kick off, the planets’ data analysis is her specialty but for some inane reason Cooper is the one who is placed in charge of the entire mission. But the most egregious sin the film commits against the character is when the crew decides on which planet they should visit next as they only have fuel for one. Dr. Brand pushes for Dr. Edwards’s planet to be their destination. Cooper interjects, noting how she’s pushing for that planet because of her feelings for the man who went there in the first place. Instead of pushing hard on the reality that the data from Dr. Edwards’s planet is simply much more conducive to a human colony, despite Dr. Mann’s brilliance, the film instead straddles her with heavy dialogue about love. It’s an exasperating sequence and Hathaway does her absolute best to sell it. But why the female astronaut on board is given such a lengthy scene that requires her to place her romantic emotions before her scientific analysis (which proves her right anyway!) is beyond me. It’s belittling, but Dr. Brand isn’t the only female character who is largely driven by her emotions. Murph’s life is in many ways defined by how much she resents her father for abandoning her and that’s partially understandable, but then why is she spending her entire life fulfilling his work? It isn’t problematic to have your female characters exercise their emotions, but it is problematic that they are defined by them, a stereotype we should have gotten rid of so long ago.
Despite having written so many criticisms of the film, on many levels I did love it and I ardently push everyone to go see it. For one, having Gravity one year and then Interstellar the next is fantastic for a science geek such as myself. It’s emblematic of Hollywood embracing space films once again and on the day of the historic comet landing, I hope that these films spur an even greater interest in actual space exploration. And the spectacle. Say what you will about Christopher Nolan, but credit must be given where it’s due. The man never aims low and even when his aim doesn’t reach the heights he has set, he still manages to create something formidable. The sheer spectacle of Interstellar is so utterly magnificent that even if the narrative slightly underwhelms you, the vast scope of the film is certain to delight you. The sequences within the constructs of space are so exquisitely constructed that the rings of Saturn, the glowing golden shrouds of the black holes, the sights of the Endurance within the grasp of the worm holes, and the multi-dimensional forms in humanity’s future feel as if they are all part of a tangible reality that one merely has to extend their hands towards and they can feel it (well, maybe not the black hole…). The cinematography is simply extraordinary and the sense of propulsive urgency created by some of the more exquisite set-pieces is thrilling, enchanted by the stunning nature of the surroundings. To the film’s credit, even in the most fantastical of settings everything feels germane, real, and it is all the most powerful for it. The science for the most part is sound, the rest tweaked as appropriately as necessary. What Interstellar succeeds at more than anything else is creating a grand, if flawed, masterpiece about the power of human ingenuity and the strength of science. Humanity is capable of achieving a great many things. We are, after all, explorers of all that we do not yet know. Not knowing all of the answers should not inhibit our curiosity. It should propel us into the great fathoms of untethered space with a courage greater than ever before, inspired to chart even greater journeys than the ones that already have crossed our path.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Christopher Nolan
Produced by: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst
Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Matt Damon
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editing: Lee Smith
Production Company: Syncopy, Lynda Obst Productions, Legendary Pictures
Distributor: Paramount Pictures (North America), Warner Bros. Pictures (other territories)
Running Time: 169 minutes
Release Dates: October 26, 2014 (premiere), November 5, 2014 (North America), November 7, 2014 (United Kingdom)
Image Courtesy: The Hollywood Reporter