Overwritten in the Stars: Interstellar

11/05/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Christopher Nolan

In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Christopher Nolan recalled a development meeting he had with studio executives before making The Dark Knight, where he presented his vision of The Joker as an agent of pure anarchy. The executives were nonplussed by the idea of a villain without a clear and definable motivation, and Nolan says, “I had to explain it to them, and that’s when I realized I had to explain it to the audience.”

The problem with Nolan’s need to explain is that he and his brother Jonathan (his frequent co-writer) are incapable of doing it in an elegant way, and it’s an obstacle that Interstellar never overcomes. He can’t show without telling, and here the documentary-style talking heads used to set up the premise of a dying Earth are simply a warning sign of what lies ahead. Despite the constant expositional chatter, neither this world on the brink of destruction or the plan put in place to rescue it ever feels fully realised. The best thing about Interstellar’s largely earthbound opening hour is that it develops the relationship between heroic pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murph (a terrific Mackenzie Foy), which pays dividends later on when she is played by the excellent Jessica Chastain. This father-daughter bond gives Interstellar a crucial emotional center that’s rare in Nolan’s work.

Interstellar is unsurprisingly at its most satisfying when the characters stop talking and allow Nolan to create arresting images with ace cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and some first-rate visual effects—images that are lent a sense of grandeur by Han Zimmer’s typically strident score. Nolan
orchestrates a couple of tense and clever set-pieces in deep space—a docking scene is a highlight—but the film keeps bumping up against the limits of the director’s imagination. Inception was a film about dream worlds that ended with people running around in the snow shooting guns, and here Nolan’s exploration of the limitless galaxy again features two guys having a dull fight on a snowy mountain ledge—is that really the best he could do? Every time Interstellar appears to be reaching for the stars it immediately grinds to a halt with a poor storytelling choice or some unnecessary speechifying, and the film never manages to find a consistent rhythm, with the strained climax being particularly problematic.

Interstellar actively invites comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its final third, a comparison that does Nolan’s film no favours. We are reminded of the quiet awe that Kubrick’s film inspires, the patience and intelligence of its storytelling, and the way it acknowledges that there are things in the universe that we simply cannot know or understand. In contrast, everything in Interstellar must be made to fit together and double back neatly on itself, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a Christopher Nolan film about life, the universe and everything all boils down to a mathematical equation. This is what makes the film, for all its scope and ambition, feel disappointingly hemmed in. Despite Michael Caine’s recurring recitations of Dylan’s Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” what Interstellar ultimately lacks is a director with a true sense
of poetry.

Opens November 7