This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Nolan’s "Interstellar," about astronauts traveling to the other end of the galaxy to find a new home to
replace humanity’s despoiled home-world, is frantically busy and earsplittingly
loud. It uses booming music to jack up the excitement level of scenes that
might not otherwise excite. It features characters shoveling exposition at each
other for almost three hours, and a few of those characters have no character
to speak of: they’re mouthpieces for techno-babble and philosophical
debate. And for all of the director’s activism on behalf of shooting on film,
the tactile beauty of the movie’s 35mm and 65mm textures isn’t matched by a sense of composition. The camera rarely tells the story in
Nolan’s movies. More often it illustrates the screenplay, and there are
points in this one where I felt as if I was watching the most expensive NBC
pilot ever made.
And yet "Interstellar" is still an impressive, at times astonishing movie that overwhelmed me to the point where my usual objections to Nolan's work melted away. I’ve packed the first paragraph of this review with those objections (they could apply to any Nolan picture post "Batman Begins"; he is who he is) so that people know that he’s still doing the things that Nolan always does. Whether you find those things endearing or irritating will depend on your affinity for Nolan's style.
In any case, there’s something pure and powerful about this movie. I can’t recall a science fiction film hard-sold to a director’s fans as multiplex-“awesome” in which so many major characters wept openly in close-up, voices breaking, tears streaming down their cheeks. Matthew McConaughey’s widowed astronaut Cooper and his colleague Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) pour on the waterworks in multiple scenes, with justification: like everyone on the crew of the Endurance, the starship sent to a black hole near Jupiter that will slingshot the heroes towards colonize-able worlds, they’re separated from everything that defines them: their loved ones, their personal histories, their culture, the planet itself. Other characters—including Amelia's father, an astrophysicist played by Michael Caine, and a space explorer (played by an un-billed guest actor) who’s holed up on a forbidding arctic world—express a vulnerability to loneliness and doubt that’s quite raw for this director. The film’s central family (headed by Cooper, grounded after the dismantling of NASA) lives on a corn farm, for goodness’ sake, like the gentle Iowans in "Field of Dreams" (a film whose daddy-issues-laden story syncs up nicely with the narrative of "Interstellar"). Granted, they're growing the crop to feed the human race, which is whiling away its twilight hours on a planet so ecologically devastated that at first you mistake it for the American Dust Bowl circa 1930 or so; but there's still something amusingly cheeky about the notion of corn as sustenance, especially in a survival story in which the future of humanity is at stake. (Ellen Burstyn plays one of many witnesses in a documentary first glimpsed in the movie's opening scene—and which, in classic Nolan style, is a setup for at least two twists.)
The state-of-the-art sci-fi landscapes are deployed in service of Hallmark card homilies about how people should live, and what’s really important. ("We love people who have died—what's the social utility in that?" "Accident is the first step in evolution.") After a certain point it sinks in, or should sink in, that Nolan and his co-screenwriter, brother Jonathan Nolan, aren’t trying to one-up the spectacular rationalism of “2001." The movie's science fiction trappings are just a wrapping for a spiritual/emotional dream about basic human desires (for home, for family, for continuity of bloodline and culture), as well as for a horror film of sorts—one that treats the star voyagers’ and their earthbound loved ones’ separation as spectacular metaphors for what happens when the people we value are taken from us by death, illness, or unbridgeable distance. (“Pray you never learn just how good it can be to see another face,” another astronaut says, after years alone in an interstellar wilderness.)