Mankind is heading for the Big Adios. Food is scarce and growing scarcer. Wheat and okra are trashed and corn is gasping its last. Raging dust storms blight the air like the Dust Bowl nightmare of the 1930s. The doomsday clock isn’t just ticking, it’s screaming its final alarm. Should we go gentle into that good night?
Hell no, says Interstellar, a mighty, astounding-looking, oh-so-solemn, often embarrassingly soppy blowhard space epic from director Christopher Nolan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Nolan. The unimaginatively titled space opera marks the director’s first effort since his Batman and Inception extravaganzas and it’s sort of like a smoothie blended-together from equal parts Forbidden Planet, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek, with the most unintentionally funny elements of a couple of Grade-Z Mystery Science Theater-worthy sci-fi howlers tossed in.
Matthew McConaughey plays “Coop” (a shout-out to all-American classic screen icon Gary Cooper?), a widowed ex-NASA ace flyboy and engineer straight out of The Right Stuff now hunkered down on a Wizard of Oz-like farm. Given to musing aloud stuff like, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars…now, we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt,“ Coop lives with his growly father-in-law (John Lithgow), a good-kid son (Timothee Chalamet), and a smart daughter (Mackenzie Foy) who is totally cool with the fact that she’s living with a ghost who arranges meaningful dust patterns on the floor and pushes around objects. The patterns and ghostly tappings lead “Coop” to a top-secret, super high-techy underground NASA project called Lazarus, masterminded by Dr. Brand, his old father figure and mentor (Michael Caine) who convinces his protégé that he’s the only guy fit for the dangerous mission of finding a new inhabitable planet for humans to mess up. Coop’s destiny is to be hurled into space and break through to a new galaxy through a traversable wormhole near Saturn helpfully placed just recently by beings from the 5th dimension. Why? Because we’ve been such good stewards of the planet?
Anyway, like any good father, Coop struggles with leaving his kids, whom he might never see again for decades, if at all, but he takes the self-sacrificial challenge or we wouldn’t have a movie. Besides, with Caine constantly burbling Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” how can Coop resist? His fellow crewmembers aboard the Starship Enterprise — oops, make that the Endurance — include a scientist (Anne Hathaway, always trying so hard), who is Dr. Brand’s daughter, and an artificial intelligence scene-stealer, part R2D2 part Hal, called TARS (voiced with nicely tossed-off sarcasm by Bill Irwin, who provides the only humor in the entire three-hour movie).
Between bouts of clunky expositional dialogue, debates about man’s place in the universe and, seriously, the power of love — the explorers must figure out why 11 different astronauts on 11 different similar missions are no longer responding. But just when things threaten to become a lot more interesting and the movie teeters on the edge of morphing into a tense and dazzling 2001: A Space Odyssey riff (or is it a redo?), things not only fail to soar, they crash. We want to be off on a tense, nail-biting, do-or-die mission in a magnificent, all new solar system and Nolan and company deliver that, in spades. But he and the screenplay fumble badly by insisting on cutting back to earth to check in on our hero’s poor, doomed kids as they grow older and embittered by loss. We don’t give a rip.
There’s no doubting how committed Nolan is to making Interstellar a thing of beauty, bedazzlement, intellectual stimulation, and resonance. He’s shooting for a masterwork and although his sky-high ambitions and his salute to good old American fortitude, and sense of hope are admirable, he and his co-screenwriter forget to make us care about the humanoids on display. McConaughy is absolutely earnest and committed and although he isn’t the kind of actor who pulls us in, he’s very effective, at least when his dialogue his audible.
That leaves us with the technical whizz bang stuff. The scientific theory on which the film is based, promulgated by the brilliant theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, is thrilling, aspirational, and mind opening. Yes, the time-lapse images of ruined planet Earth, the cold, silent vistas of Saturn and the expanses of a cold, barren planet are crazily beautiful and are all magnificently filmed by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her). But spectacle is just spectacle without unearned emotions and a gripping premise — despite Hans Zimmer’s intrusive score that roars, thunders and never shuts the hell up, often completely washing over the dialogue and constantly trying to cue us how and when to feel, be awed, be swept away.
You go in to Interstellar hoping to be mind-blown, thrilled, and smartened-up. Although it’s beautifully made, brainy and sometimes insanely gorgeous, you may find yourself wondering what the big whoop was all about. ** ½