By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
Remember Gravity. Remember the simplicity, raw emotion, visual wonder, precision pacing and unpretentious central character in that space odyssey? Hold that thought. You’ll need to. Interstellar is no Gravity; it’s on a different flight pattern.
The script, by director/writer Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) and his brother writer Jonathan Nolan, doesn’t let the film get off the ground, literally, for 50 minutes. It meticulously, laboriously sets up the back-story and the reason why a trip to outer space is a do-or-die mission. Somewhere in the future, Earth is experiencing severe environmental problems. The romance of the space program has vanished and day-to-day life is a struggle for the basics, like growing crops and surviving devastating dust storms. It’s a bleak world, indeed. There’s got to be a better place to live, right? We get it. Our selfish ways and disregard for the environment and climate change will become the bane of our existence. It’s not exactly an original premise, but let’s go with the flow.
Somewhere in farm country, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut and engineer, is a widowed, semi-contented farmer who grows a lot of corn. He lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), young son and moody little daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Murph is a bit weird. She thinks there are ghosts in her room who knock books off shelves. No one believes her, but Cooper eventually gets drawn into her world and thinks something strange is going on. He and Murph wind up in abandoned field, where they discoverâ€¦
The long intro, ad nauseam, wears out its welcome pretty fast. It doesn’t help that McConaughey’s interpretation of Cooper is the same spin he puts on his driver character in those incessant Lincoln MKC car commercials. It’s the same, folksy, laconic, soft-spoken, guy-next-door persona. It takes McConaughey almost the entire film to find a full range of emotions for his protagonist and to lose his car salesman shtick. And when he does, its as if he’s finally wiped the dog poop off his shoes.
Cooper and Murph stumble upon an underground, secret NASA headquarters. NASA has been abandoned and all but outlawed for years. The center is run by a Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who grimly tells Cooper that, according to his calculations, Earth will be uninhabitable in a generation or two. The only hope for humankind to survive is to find a new, hospitable home. He’s got his eyes set on a “wormhole” near Saturn. It’s a tube/tunnel made of spacetime that connects two different regions; theoretically, you could enter one side of the tube and exit the other end somewhere else in another time period. It could lead to a safe galaxy. He wants Cooper to head the mission. Cooper realizes that the expedition is necessary, dangerous and that he may never see his family again. Murphy catches on and doesn’t want dad to leave. Cooper departs, leaving behind an angst-riddled daughter.
Once Cooper, along with Brand’s scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a small crew leave earth, director Christopher Nolan finds his footing. This is the director of The Dark Knight and Inception. Making a journey to a far off galaxy look visually arresting is his strong suit. Action sequences are solid, from the blast off, to space station landings, to explorations on far off planets. He is far less able at making the characters have an emotional connection that matters. Cooper and Amelia don’t jibe. The angry daughter saga goes on far too long (has anyone ever heard of time out?) and well into adulthood when Murph (Jessica Chastain) has become a well-regarded scientist and her brother (Casey Affleck) a cynical farmer.
Back and forth scenes between space and Earth, where life in the outer galaxies remains the same and people on Earth age dramatically are fascinating at first. But they go on way too long. In fact at a staggering 169 minutes this well-intentioned film becomes intermittently engaging and lethargic. You’ll find yourself alternately fascinated and looking at your watch wondering if you can get home in time for dinner.
Two supporting characters were far more interesting to watch than the main cast. Wes Bentley (Cesar Chavez) and David Gyasi (Dark Knight Rises) play crewmembers and their performances are so understated you almost have to see the movie twice to understand how good they are. Hathaway, Caine and Lithgow have been a lot better in other movies. Chastain is fine, though again, she is stuck being angry, a trait that is not attractive. David Oyelowo and Ellen Burstyn have very little time on screen, but work their magic nonetheless. Topher Grace as Chastain’s love interest is utterly miscast.
The sound department must have been paid by the decibels. Did someone think that a deafening noise level could camouflage the slow parts? The set decoration (Gery Fettis, Changeling), production design (Nathan Crowley, The Dark Knight), cinematography (Hoyte Van Hoytema, The Fighter) and special effects are the film’s strongest assets, Oscar-worthy ones. The shots of Earth, with landscapes on the perpendicular, is a trick Nolan used to better effect in Inception. Film Editor Lee Smith (The Dark Knight) had perfect timing for the space shots and was asleep at the wheel for the Earth sequences.
This is an event movie. It’s a huge ($165 million budget) endeavor and admirable in a 2001: Space Odyssey kind of way. But compared to Gravity and the sensibility of director/writer Alfonso Cuarón Orozco, Interstellar, though ambitious and thrilling at points, is too complicated and doesn’t reach its full potential.
Cooper pines, “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.” So why did the film spend so much needless time on Earth and not more time in space where it felt so right?
Visit NNPA Syndication Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com