“No…but very efficient”
So goes an interaction between two characters midway through Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” a film which manages neither grace nor efficiency in its practical-minded staidness and oblong, nearly three-hour running time. The film follows a family sometime in the near future: patriarch Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives with his two children, superstitious and earnest daddy’s girl Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and well-meaning but academically struggling Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and their maternal grandfather Donald (John Lithgow).
The children’s mother died years before the film begins of the heavy, Dust Bowl-esque waves of wheeze-inducing dust that coat every surface of the family’s small Texas farmhouse and rears its head in enormous storms that shake the foundations of buildings and halt the progress of baseball games.
The world is in dire straits, it becomes clear, afflicted by extreme shifts in weather, overpopulation and depletion of resources, though Nolan is inept enough of a director that we don’t truly grasp the widespread panic or supposed trenchant impact of our planet’s current situation from his flat visual storytelling or scant contextualization, coming off as a dash of speculative fantasy contained to the trivial, hermetically-sealed world of our central characters.
“Interstellar” is a movie that is somehow able to feel rushed in pace—especially in its first and third acts—despite its crushing 169-minute existence; before we know it, Cooper has stumbled upon a secret NASA headquarters/launchpad and, in light of his past occupation as a former engineer and aspiring astronaut, is tapped by mastermind and lead physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to spearhead an all-important mission to the great beyond with Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway, whose character doesn’t even receive a first name), and fellow ‘nauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) as crew-mates. Tasked with entering a black hole that bends time and space and with the promise of discovering a new planet fit for life, tension thereby arises between the desire of Cooper to return to his family and his mission to save humanity.
Nolan’s films strike a discomfiting tonal imbalance. His screenplays—usually, as with his new film, written with his brother Jonathan—are prone to goofy one-liners, cheesy swells in emotion and overly coincidental narrative turns. These aren’t damning qualities on their own; plenty of evocative and thrilling entries in genre cinema abound in the suspension of disbelief, but the major hang-up of Nolan’s cinema is that his tone, outside of the dialogue being spoken and narrative construction, is grimly self-serious and reveals a fetish for the prosaic and the inanimate.
He doesn’t have the looseness or lived-in vividness that would allow the cliché words to feel fresh or the manipulative, highly designed narrative trajectory to come off as anything but restrictive and dull. Likewise, “Interstellar” painfully attempts sweeping familial melodrama on the grand scale of an intergalactic space odyssey. His images are indeed large, especially if you see the movie, as I did, on an IMAX screen, but their impressiveness is a very distancing, coldly apathetic appreciation of mere gargantuan grandeur.
The images aren’t complimented by the necessary seething emotional textures or any uniting meaning, and their goal seems more to wow us with their literal size and the immensity of the stack of money that ensured the filmmaker was able to bring his unimaginative creations to the screen.
This pattern of a concern for steel and metal trumping a sensitivity to the human soul is exemplified by the sequence in which Coop makes his exit from earth. As Hans Zimmer’s spastic score pushes the proceedings forward, the man bids his screaming, devastated daughter goodbye on their porch and drives away in his truck, and, perhaps by sheer force of the actors’ wills or the conviction on the filmmakers’ part, the movie briefly accumulates some melodramatic impact.
However, Nolan is sure to obliterate this progress by hurrying the scene along and immediately cutting to shots of the rocket’s launching mechanisms and the vessel’s flames roaring in our faces, not a trace of feeling to be found, spending far more time on the sleek surfaces of technological objects than McConaughey or Foy’s faces.
Not only preoccupied with a fixation on the inhuman, Nolan is a clunky literalist, in this film using a wristwatch as a symbolic connector between moments in, yes, time. His thudding sensibilities also present a film largely about faith, awash in the biblical imagery of water, ice and fire, without poeticism. Even if he’s become partially aware of his scientific anti-emotionalism, as evidenced by the faux-documentary interviews that bookend the film, his self-awareness, unlike that of Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain,” doesn’t excuse his hypocrisy.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of Nolan’s work is that, in spite of the increasing budgets and scales of his projects, it’s unabashedly personal and points to a fascination with the idea of cinema. 2010’s “Inception” is a fitting example—it’s a story of a man played by a Nolan lookalike (Leonardo DiCaprio) who orchestrates the very mental and metaphysical extraction and placement of ideas using rotating, multi-tiered levels of dreamlike fantasy. It’s a prismatic vision of cinema and its artists certainly inhibited by the director’s said literalism but that nonetheless demonstrates a level of self-representation and the blending of the director’s self into his work, which is also about itself. “Inception[’s]” actual execution is spotty at best, but it at least offers a conflicted and flawed Nolan doppelegänger in DiCaprio’s troubled, grieving lead character.
“Interstellar” has many of the same personal qualities but the execution of its ideas is not only more flawed than in the earlier effort, it’s downright offensive. Nolan has said he intended the new work as a tribute to his daughter, and thus the film’s ostensible centering on the connection between Cooper and Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain, and in her later years by Ellen Burstyn) appears to be a direct representation of the filmmaker and his child. Which makes the treatment of their relationship all the more troublesome—the film’s tagline is “Go further,” an encompassing of the exploration-themed plot and the filmmaker’s ever-expanding desire for excess.
The catchphrase and narrative both pompously position Nolan as near-flawless pioneer, a man of brawn and fearlessness who has the hyper masculine technical skills and knowledge to reinforce his laudability.
The fact that Murph receives appallingly little screen time, shafted, like all of the female characters, in favor of lionizing Cooper’s heroism is proof that Nolan has dived headfirst into his own narcissism. “Interstellar[’s]” premise may ultimately be equally as cinematic in nature as “Inception[’s],” but it, too, is folded neatly into its sanctified lead character’s long list of noble accomplishments.
The film’s politics are a clear indication of its missteps and indirection. Where “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan’s last picture before “Interstellar,” was a cartoonish and inconsistently conceived libertarian fantasy, the latter broadly romanticizes a certain archaic all-Americanness with its weirdly out-of-place beers shared between old men on porches, baseball games, farm culture and rusty gender politics, and including about five too many conversations that tediously bemoan the greatness of what once was while paying lip service to progressiveness (It’s been reported that the director himself is something of a luddite and is still without a cell phone or email address).
Nolan doesn’t have the gall to implicate humanity as being responsible for the environmental crises that are rapidly making earth uninhabitable—in its second, and most compelling, act the movie briefly hints at a truly dark worldview, a study of the folly and deflation of “great” men, but it shortly regresses into its harried finale, ending on a note of false optimism that is indicative of the failure of “Interstellar” to live up to its convictions.