Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar, is big (much of it is filmed in 70mm IMAX), long (169 minutes), expensive ($165 million) and set in an unspecified near-future that’s covered in dirt. Climate change has taken hold, and man’s ambition for science and exploration is a mostly forgotten dream.
Of course, Nolan is one of our most literal filmmakers, so the first time we see Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, he’s awaking from a nightmare involving his younger days as a Chuck Yeager-like test pilot for the remnants of NASA. But now he’s a farmer. In fact, everyone now seems to be a farmer, fruitlessly trying to coax crops from that endless supply of dirt that keeps raining from the sky.
In the farmhouse Cooper shares with his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and 15-year-old son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), along with the children’s maternal grandfather (John Lithgow), the shelves lining Murph’s room hold his old textbooks, along with a model space shuttle that’s caked with dust. Like I said, literal.
Tom is content to settle into his expected role in the dying cornfields, while Murph is a dreamer who takes after her dad. During a parent-teacher conference that ends with the bright-eyed young girl’s suspension, Cooper defends her for stirring up trouble at school by bringing in one of those textbooks, banned for the supposed propaganda within. Here, the Apollo Space Program—and specifically the Apollo 11 lunar landing—is believed to be a Big Lie perpetrated by the United States to bankrupt the Soviets.
Yes, it’s that kind of future. And it’s also the kind of film that isn’t content to keep its crops of corn relegated to the fields that are lovingly photographed by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, the talented Swede who shot 2008’s Let the Right One In before graduating to Hollywood fare like last year’s Her. Spike Jonze’s masterpiece offered a much more successful look at near-future human (and non-human) relationships than the one Nolan and his longtime writing partner, younger brother Jonathan, ham-fistedly attempt here.
The Nolan boys’ cornpone, on-the-nose dialogue doesn’t help matters. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” Cooper observes. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” McConaughey’s a terrific actor, and this is his first lead movie role since winning his long-deserved Best Actor Oscar for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. But while this story will take him to the furthest reaches of another galaxy and even into—cue the Twilight Zone music—a fifth dimension, the Nolans have stranded him with a script that contains very Earth-bound bromides about how love is the key…to everything.
It’s a script Jonathan Nolan spent years developing for Steven Spielberg before the director moved on to other projects. Picking up the mantle, Christopher began working on it with his brother, and the two incorporated ideas inspired by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. They also managed to work in a bit of Dylan Thomas, quoting his “Do not go gentle into that good night” exactly three times, in case we fail to grasp its significance as Cooper is faced with the decision to rocket into the unknown in an attempt to save the human race, even if it means he might never see his family again.
Murph is understandably upset by his decision, refusing to say goodbye to her dad as he tearfully drives away from the family farm in his truck. A hard cut finds him in the capsule of a rocket he shares with his crew—Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley and his beard), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and the robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin)—as they blast off toward a rendezvous with their craft, the Endurance.
Spielberg might have made this sequence resonate, and given his skill with child actors, he certainly would have mined more from the relationship between Cooper and Murph, which makes up the cold heart of this movie. But as a filmmaker, Nolan is far more suited to staging spectacular sequences—like the one where Cooper must match his craft’s rotation with an out-of-control orbiter—than to dealing with the emotional consequences of the fact that for every hour Cooper spends on a planet the Endurance crew reaches, seven years will elapse for Murph and everyone else back home.
Ah, back home. As an ill-advised subplot develops in the second act, Nolan and his editor, Lee Smith, begin cross-cutting with parallel activity on Earth. It’s a terrible idea, owing more to a sequence that Nolan probably enjoys from Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff than to any real purpose here, as the threat to Cooper and the human race has less to do with the secrets of the universe than with man’s nature—which is literally embodied by a character named “Mann,” in case you didn’t get it.
Nolan’s clearly also a fan of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in spoon-feeding us all of the answers in his cinematic paean to Stanley Kubrick’s classic, he’s fashioned something closer to Peter Hyams’ 2010. Some space is best left unexplored.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, Timothée Chalamet, John Lithgow, Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn and Michael Caine. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. At Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Somerville, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.