About halfway through Interstellar, frowning after another tedious scene, I began to wonder if perhaps I was missing the point. Maybe I was looking at this the wrong way. Maybe Christopher Nolan actually had succeeded in pushing in intelligent film out through bowls of the Hollywood machine. Perhaps, Interstellar only appeared to be another beautiful but moronic piece of mainstream eye candy, while actually it was a thoughtful 3-hour meditation about the art of exposition and plot holes with a slyly concealed comment about the recent budget cuts to NASA. Maybe… but having finished the film I doubt it. I’m pretty sure what it is, is nonsense.
The plot, more or less, is this: A parasite called Blight, which thrives on nitrogen, is slowly wiping out the world’s food supply. Corn is about all anyone has left, though this doesn’t stop Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) from swigging what must be the last beers on earth while he reminisces about the good ol’ days: “Humanity used to look up and wonder about her place in the stars. Now we just worry about our place in the dirt.”
Cooper is a former NASA pilot and engineer turned farmer with two kids and a cranky father-in-law to take care of. Through a series of supernatural events—they call them “gravitational anomalies” in this film—McConaughey and his daughter, Murph (first Mackenzie Foy then Jessica Chastain when she’s older) happen upon NASA’s secret underground base where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and Brand’s daughter (also a professor played by Anne Hathaway) are working on an escape plan for the human race: “We’re not meant to save the world,” says Caine, “We’re meant to leave it.” Lucky for earth, one of these gravitational anomalies has created a wormhole next to Saturn that leads to a star system orbiting a black hole with three possibly habitable planets.
Within minutes of his arrival Caine decides that McConaughey is just the man to pilot them into space (makes sense right? He did just win an Oscar), and soon after McConaughey is telling his teary-eyed daughter that he has to leave. Murph wants to know when her dad will be back but he can’t tell her. Because of the way wormholes and blackholes work, time will not function the same for McConaughey as it will his daughter so what feels like a few years to him could be half her lifetime; when he returns Murph could be all grown up or already dead.
On paper this sounds interesting, but Nolan stumbles with the delivery. Evidently, the only thing worse than in-your-face obvious exposition is thinly veiled exposition that lasts the entire movie. That Nolan wants to play with hard science is admirable, and it’s refreshing to see a movie that actually tries to get down the nitty gritty of the physics it’s using, but at some point it becomes too much. Scenes drag on, dialogue goes from fascinating to incomprehensible, and at the end of the day, backed up by real math or not, the jargon is just jargon.
Despite all this effort to explain things, Nolan has no qualms throwing out Einstein in one sentence and faith based arguments in another. When trying to pick which of the possibly habitable planets they should visit, it becomes clear that they do not have enough time or fuel to get to all of them. In one of the film’s better scenes Hathaway and McConaughey get into an argument about which planet to choose. McConaughey is gunning for the planet that their data suggests is best while Hathaway falls back on a faith based argument (she “feels” in an inexplicable that her planet is better). It’s an interesting debate reminiscent of the scenes from Contact (1997) where McConaughey played the religious leader Palmer Joss. Unfortunately where Contact succeeded Interstellar fails, and as the film goes on it moves further into the territory of Hathaway’s character, drifting away from the hard science it worked so hard to explain, and settling on a trite new-agey message about the power of love.
Annoying though all of this is, what really kills Interstellar is its plot holes. Much and more has already been written about logical errors in Nolan’s films so while I don't want to get into a play by play but I will talk about one specific scene that's not too spoilerific. In this scene a grown up Murph returns to her childhood home where her brother lives so that she can get some stuff. Her brother’s family has lived in the middle of the dust bowl area for a while and as a result his child and wife have developed a cough. Arriving at the house with her, Murph’s doctor buddy hears their coughs and immediately pulls out a stethoscope to check it out. A minute later Murph’s brother walks in, sees the nice doctor holding a stethoscope to his son’s chest and immediately punches him in the face. Why? Why does he do this? Why would anyone do this? In the future is there some sort irrational fear of stethoscopes akin to today’s fear of vaccines? Nope. It’s because the movie is in the middle of a cool montage and the music is swelling, so Nolan needs people to behave dramatically.
It's this obsession with creating drama or spectacle that is both Nolan's greatest strength and weakness. On that one hand it can lead to gripping sequences in a movie like Inception, that's purely entertainment, but in a movie like Interstellar that has a message it makes things feel cheap. Instead of characters acting in a normal way or events playing towards their logical conclusion, Nolan forces his characters to say the coolest, most dramatic thing in a given moment and twists events to fit the mold of his plot. Instead of sucking viewers in it repulses them, and when the real soul of the film finally presents itself it feels melodramatic instead of cathartic.
Of course, the film is not a total loss—on some levels it’s quite breathtaking. In a way that few directors still do, Nolan understands shooting for the big screen and as such everything about Interstellar is BIG. The ideas are big, the action is big, the world is big, and he captures it all on gorgeous 70mm film. Watching the fabric of space and time warp around Cooper as he travels between galaxies is mesmerizing. Coupled with the awesome organ heavy score of Hans Zimmer, these scenes give way to cinematic bliss.
But the problem is this: Nolan isn’t trying to make just a visceral roller coaster—in Interstellar he actually has something to say. Like the meditative works of Stanley Kubric and Terrence Malnick, Nolan wants to send viewers on a journey to the far reaches of the galaxy and back again in a meditation about life, love, and the nature of humanity. Unfortunately, he hasn’t created an adequate environment for this. Though gorgeous visuals abound, every minute of the film is so crammed with trite expository dialogue or crazy action sequences that there’s hardly any room for the ideas to breath. Too many things in the film—too many simple obvious things—make absolutely no sense and happen for no other reason than looking cool. Many of these plot holes could have been fixed with some simple proof reading, yet they remain. And in a film that asks its audience to think deeply, such oversights are inexcusable. For how can Nolan ask viewers to ponder on what he shows them when clearly he, himself, has not.