Interstellar (2014) | Directed by Christopher Nolan


April 18, 2018

The buzz for Interstellar was high, built up by fellow Christopher Nolan fans as one of his best. The narrative of traveling through time and other galaxies combined with the expanse of research, set design, and technical achievement is something of its own to applaud. Viewing it in 2018, I came away with a mixed reaction, expectations not fully satisfied.

The film’s weakness falls to its charm—the idea of fate and grace—which might engage some viewers. The concept that love conquers all, running through a sci-fi film works better in Altered States, the 1980 Ken Russell exploration of the human psyche. It’s used in a different framework as an internal discovery of self. In contrast to the mysteries of consciousness and human purpose, love of another remains a known constant.

Interstellar relies on set-ups that are both familiar and formulaic. Set in the rural midwest, a widower named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is quickly established as a doting, caring dad to his son and precocious young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), with a familiar grandfather figure (John Lithgow) tidying up any discord. McConaughey’s appeal grows when the viewer settles in with his measured delivery even as events intensify. He’s cut from stone to be a leading actor.

Humanity is facing a demise, a plight succinctly summed up when Cooper and Murph—following a mysterious clue decoded in the attic of their house—are lead to a covert NASA outpost; Cooper learns he is slated to command a space mission to find a new colony for humans. Earth as it stands, is fast becoming a barren wasteland with billions lost to disease and famine. Nolan chooses to evade a deeper dive into the backstory and how earthlings are carrying on amid this situation.He needs to get Cooper and his crew into space to develop the passage of time—in this case, an entire century.

But first, before leaving his family, Cooper gives Murph his watch (an analog style to match her own) and it’s too evident that this will mean something later on in the time/space continuum.

Some of the film’s most captivating moments are in the initial deep space arena where we get pristine cinematography (Hoyte van Hoytema) of silver/black tones accented with panels of warm blue, and splotches of red completing the palette. Hans Zimmer’s score here is perfect for the pace and solemn suspense of  a rocket capsule docking with a space-station-like rotating craft called Endurance. In later scenes, the score becomes more minimalist and cyclical, alternating with swells of organ as if mirroring the complexity of the unknown.

Interstellar becomes more intriguing as much of the scientific theory is explained to viewers via the dialog between Cooper and his three astronauts plus a robot called Tars. (Nolan worked with physicist Kip Thorne to keep the science fairly correct; the inconsistent visualization of a dimensional black hole doppler effect was modified to look more pleasing). The plot intensifies when the crew understand that the gravity pull of the planet they will land on equates every hour on the surface to seven years of time passed back on Earth. Three take the landing module into a vast expanse of ocean and waves. Only Cooper and Brand (Anne Hathaway) make it out and back to the Endurance where the fourth astronaut, Dr. Romilly, (David Gyasi) is now 23 years older. Curiously, he doesn’t have much new knowledge to impart about his long solo stint in orbit.

A crucial part of the narrative pits the emotion of being isolated in space for a long duration against the informed procedure of a captain’s training. (Kirk or Bones vs Spock, anyone?) Brand wants to visit a planet reached by Edmonds—her lover—despite a lack of data confirming it is habitable. She believes that love might perhaps be an unexplained scientific phenomenon, and later will counter that Cooper too will face a dilemma of mission versus the love of his children. Cooper opts instead for Mann’s planet because he has maintained his data entries. While this brief quandary of the astronauts sounds interesting, it's plot device that doesn't quite work.

This doesn’t diminish the riveting scenes of emotion that actually work; albeit we are conditioned by the trap of longing—time lost as one might experience from a coma, only to awaken and feel the joy of reconnection. Here, in a video transmission from a now 33 year-old Murph, the film’s most gripping scene has Cooper helplessly in tears watching her first message since he left earth twenty-three years earlier.

Interstellar’s best character interaction happens on Mann’s planet. This section was filmed in Iceland. Steely gray landscapes dotted with ice and snow make for a mesmerizing terrain. Mann (Matt Damon) is awakened by Cooper and crew from his aqua hibernation. They discuss the planet’s potential for colonization, but Cooper, after seeing a new transmission from Earth by Murph to let Brand know her professor/physicist father at NASA (Michael Caine) has died, understands his mission was launched on a pretense of Plan A—to return to earth and jettison humanity to a new planet, rather than the reality of Plan B—to populate a new planet with frozen and thawed fertilized eggs of humans. Cooper intends to go back to Earth but is stalled by Mann who sabotages him. The planet was never habitable; Mann falsified data and simply wanted to be rescued. A fight ensues—which is perhaps intentionally odd—two humans eons away from home and still not able to get along; Cooper manages to escape with Brand after Romilly is blown up by Mann’s robot while trying to access data. Mann takes off in another capsule and attempts to dock with Cooper’s ship in what becomes one of the film’s most impactful moments: as Cooper and Brand try to dissuade Mann from docking with them, Mann in mid-sentence is thrust from his capsule, blown into space while his craft smashes into the Endurance. Horror and shock wash over Cooper and Brand. White flashes and throws of orange light adorn a deep instant of quiet.

But Cooper, despite the robot Tar’s warning that docking with The Endurance is “not possible,” blurts a trite pronouncement: “No, it’s necessary.” Interstellar  now succumbs to familiar action adventure terrain where the insurmountable odds must be ramped up and beaten. It’s do or die time with a special appearance by the hero of a thousand faces; in this episode it’s Cooper willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of Brand’s hope of finding—in the vast expanse of another galaxy—love.

With Cooper and Tars now ejected into space to afford Brand a lighter load to get to Edmond’s planet, the film might have been strengthened with Cooper floating into space and dying here as a martyr. Instead, Cooper miraculously gets sucked into a benevolent tesseract, a four dimensional cube—the Deus ex machina the narrative needs to find resolution.

The Interstellar giant loop of convolution can always be countered with the flexibility of fantasy metaphysics—but a solid sci-fi flick is held to its own set of working logistics. At the movie’s end, it’s revealed that Cooper is the “ghost” who visited his 10-year-old daughter, Murph, through the tesseract, the time/space anomaly, as a presence (from the future) behind the bookshelves and intuited by Murph both in the past and present.

This future Cooper is also the presence (of gravity) who gave 10 year-old Murph and father/himself the clues to bring them to the NASA station in the first place. Why did Nolan’s NASA need a magical event to get Cooper to them? The construct of the tesseract connecting the line to Murph’s childhood experience is an intriguing visual idea of two time/space realities banging against one another, but Cooper’s futile yells to stop his past self from going on the mission fails any sensible plot. If he were to be stopped, he had to have gone on the mission. And without the mission, there’s no direct connection of him getting the revelatory data to his daughter in the form of morse code embedded into his old watch. The credibility of Interstellar  would have fared better without the Ghost-like contrivances of the Patrick Swayze kind.

In a more nuanced narrative, without the miraculous synchrony of events from another galaxy/dimension, Murph might have discovered and understood the presence in the attic in a way that leaves the audience wondering instead of knowing. Nolan chooses to have all points between Cooper, Murph, and scientific discovery connect in a circle, going as far to put the still 30-something Cooper with his 100-plus year-old daughter in a hospice room on a newly-colonized planet, all for the sake of claiming that not only does lover conquer the day but there is a grand design of the universe and its laws to mete it out.