Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s latest gargantuan-budget head trip, and it shares more in common with his non-Dark Knight features—particularly The Prestige and Inception—but it lacks the human element that makes one believe Bruce Wayne is a person under the Batman outfit. In short, Interstellar is big, bold and beautiful, but it’s more confounding than revelatory, and all the organ music in the world can’t save it from not tugging at the heartstrings.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, mankind is on the verge of becoming extinct because of a crop blight that puts too much nitrogen in the air. Humans are slowly suffocating to death.
Enter Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former engineer and NASA pilot who has been relegated to farmer since the collapse of the space program. Because of a gravitational anomaly in his daughter’s bedroom (uh-huh), he tracks the anomaly to a distant NASA black site and falls in with his old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), his daughter Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and other outlaws of the theoretical plane.
Professor Brand and his cohorts have discovered a wormhole near Saturn that can take them through time and space to other galaxies so that they may find an Earth-like hospitable planet and relocate the remaining humans. So far, so good, except for one small detail: Coop’s daughter, Murph (played as a kid by Mackenzie Foy and as an adult by an underused Jessica Chastain), a science whiz in her own right, doesn’t want him to leave. Such is life.
It should go without saying that there are complications beyond the scope of the human imagination in Interstellar, and those complications leave the flight crew aging, stranded or dead. One planet the group lands on would be great for surfing, if the waves weren’t also 150 feet high. Another is covered in ice.
Co-writer and director Nolan has mastered the head game of space travel, even if it’s beyond this critic to understand how humans can travel to the fifth dimension to send information back to the third dimension when they can’t figure out how to leave the third dimension in the first place.
No, all these movies in deep space depend on human feelings to make them relevant, and Nolan can’t bridge the gap between the awe of space travel, humanity’s big questions and making the characters seem like real people with lives and families they’re trying to protect. (The Reds-like interviews sprinkled throughout don’t help, either.) I understand we’re supposed to care for Coop and his family, but when they don’t get much screen time together, and don’t even seem to like each other much, it’s hard to pull for them.
When Wes Bentley and Topher Grace show up on screen, why am I thinking, “Hey, is that Wes Bentley? Look, it’s Topher Grace!” A compelling story would take care of that, but with Nolan there’s only distance. Similarly, when Coop, Professor Brand and the gang arrive on a planet and find a cryo-sleeping Matt Damon, the first thought in my head shouldn’t be, “It’s not your fault.”
If Nolan had the guts to make Interstellar a cold, clinical march into space, it may have worked. But with a large budget and two studios supporting it, there needs to be an identifiable human element, and Nolan feels more comfortable contemplating the science of relativity and theoretical physics than he is with emotions at the center of a father-daughter relationship. At least it’s not boring.