Interstellar has blasted onto movie screens across the globe, and is going into orbit at the box office—$300, 000, 000, and counting. In addition, its critical acclaim seems to suggest that the movie event of the year has just landed. But, is it any good?
Well, before we splash down, let’s look at the background. The director is Christopher Nolan, who, for years now, has been riding high in box office success and critical acclaim, so, if there was someone needed to take on the whole of outer space then this was the man. He also wrote the script. Now, it is not a bad thing that a director writes a script per se, and produces, as well as directs, but not everyone is Orson Wells. The three key component parts in the construction of a film are also balances against any one influence, or person, dominating at the expense of all else, but if you’re arguing with yourself then that can be a problem. Well, that’s the theory; perhaps in reality it all boils down to who’s paying; in this case, the budget was $165,000,000, so surely this was a movie whose trajectory was only ever going to be ballistic?
If you haven’t seen the movie, either jump off now, or look to the end of this piece for the final summary, as there will be plot spoilers from here on in. And, for those interested, Interstellar is mercifully free of anything overtly offensive, other than the odd expletive here and there.
Earth is dying. Dust everywhere, although we only see dusty fields in the Dust Bowl, never a city of any size in sight. Also, the time we are in is unclear: like the best Sci-Fi, it’s somewhere in the future but close enough to look exactly like our present, except dustier. And, with all this dust comes starvation. Cooper (“Coop”), played by Matthew McConaughey, is a widowed farmer with two children, who are having problems at school—so far so normal. Then we hear what his daughter’s problems are: she believes NASA’s account of the moon landing. It seems in the future everyone else believes it was all done on a sound set in Burbank Studios, mainly to cause the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself in a later Space Race. At this point, I sat up thinking this was going to get interesting. I was disappointed, though, as this was the last we heard of all that. (Some day, somewhere, someone will make a good movie out of that plot line—Capricorn One, okay, but surely there is another to come?)
After an hour into the movie, we were nowhere near space. Instead it was a rambling family tale with some hocus-pocus in the daughter’s bedroom—was it a ghost? No, it was some form of communication that leads father and daughter to a top-secret space project that just happens to be run by NASA. Now, this government agency must have shares in the movie such is the amount of screen time given to its logo and talk of all the good it does. Nothing at all about the federal taxes it has spent, or indeed, how this world on the brink can still afford an inter-galactic space mission—but this is “movieland,” so don’t look too closely.
It seems that our corn farmer, Coop, is also the best space pilot in the galaxy, and so, on account of the imminent demise of planet earth, they try to recruit him for a mission to find a new world. Why they didn’t just call him I’ll never know, it would have saved a lot of bother for all concerned, and an hour’s wasted screen time. So, at last, we are off into space, and things get duller by the minute. Now, I do love space imagery, but, there’s a limit, and it has all been done before, and better. Speaking of which, this film has more than a nod, or three, to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In fact, there are images and even themes here that would seem to be using that earlier classic as a template.
The problem is that Interstellar has none of the mystery, or hinted at mysticism, of the 1968 movie. We do have some faux “spiritual speak” of “beings” that watch over us in a 5th Dimension and that sometimes come to us in a 3rd Dimension—confused? I was—but then it turns out that they are really “human beings” after all, and have come from a “perfectly evolved civilization” sometime in the future. When there is talk of “perfectly evolved human civilizations” then you have lost me, in more ways than one.
In space, we have lots of talk of relativity and black holes, and even wormholes. Yes, I have heard of all of them, but like 99 percent of the audience have no idea what is being talked about, and I suspect that the 1 percent that do are squirming at the Hollywood physics. In short, you can tell us what you like, we are not going to disagree, but none of us turned up for a science lecture. I wanted a plot, and that appeared to be disappearing down a black hole, or, was the worm in the wormhole eating holes in it?
Now, plots need characters, and here we come to the second gaping hole in this extravaganza. McConaughey is likeable enough, but didn’t quite sell it to me as the scientific genius who does some farming as well: famer, yes, spaceman, no. Saying that, there is something refreshingly old fashioned about his screen presence, and he would not look out of place on a horse riding into town, as another man named Cooper was wont to do. Here, however, we had neither horse nor town; instead lots of space-helmet wearing and lights on a control panel. And, far too much talking, especially, from the rest of the cast who are largely wasted: so few characters and yet even less characterization—all lost in space. The “baddie” space man, interestingly called Mann, was not really up to the task, and seemed to come and go relatively—non-scientifically speaking—quickly. I mean, even I know enough science not to open the escape hatch in outer space when the computer tells you not to. As an aside, at this point, I did wonder why that far out in space the astronauts were still using what seemed to be rather cheap looking laptops—perhaps on account of cut backs in future NASA budgets?
Bizarrely, the Dylan Thomas poem, Do not go gentle into that good night is recited by at least three different characters. Never fear, this film has no chance of going anywhere quietly. Like most modern movies, they have either minimal sound, or over-blown gigantic scores. I’ll leave you to work out which one runs along with this. That said, the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is the best thing in it. It is at times moving, but also moving faster than the dialogue and characters, both of which struggle to keep up.
Let it not be said that when it comes to cinematic ambition this movie is not firing on all engines, but, just like McConaughey and his crew, it over shoots; and, therefore, misses the landing zone. By all means, make a blockbuster and tell a good yarn, or make a deeply philosophical film, but beware: to do both takes something, and that something isn’t here. Of course, there is the briefest of briefest well-worn Sci-Fi notions of “bad earth” versus “good far away star”; earth dying, new life and a fresh start elsewhere … yawn. It does, however, get somewhere near there at the end, but, by then, its logic had defeated me, and I was struggling with my own time/relativity issue—that the movie was way too long. Nearly three hours in length, for heaven’s sake: we could all have gone to Saturn and back in that time.
To sum up, I tried to keep track of the plot and failed. I really tried to keep up with the science explanations and failed. And I tried to engage with the characters and again failed—dismally so, even hoping for aliens to turn up as at least then the audience would have someone to identify with. By the end, I decided this movie had tried too hard, and for far too long, and, in the end, had only ended up trying my patience.