In the realm of self-deification, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar clearly one-ups Matthew McConaughey’s recent, rightfully mocked Lincoln commercial. In the role of Cooper, a genius pilot asked to man a hail-mary voyage through a black hole to find a new planet for humans, McConaughey takes his place as the ultimate paterfamilias, a falsely humble alpha male who can both lead a last-ditch effort to save the human race from a dying Earth and run a corn farm almost entirely on his own. He’s the best at everything, which makes for a wholly uninteresting protagonist, the perfect man roaming around the vast, stylized domains that Nolan, working with DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, has given great visual life to. But even as we pass beyond Saturn and enter into a new galaxy, where mile-high waves and frozen clouds plague various planets, Interstellar remains largely focused on what one chiseled, prodigious father does to save his prophetically brilliant little girl.
The film begins in the far-off future, with Ellen Burstyn’s Murph, Cooper’s daughter, seen as a talking head in a documentary, discussing what her father did for a living. She describes him chiefly as a farmer, and Nolan ties his vision of a not-so-far-off apocalypse to the practical struggle over retaining plentiful land and renewable agriculture. This element of the story speaks to Nolan’s unfortunately continuing streak of hampering his films with a counterfeit sense of urgent realism and false importance, and the script—co-written by his brother, Jonathan Nolan—is awash in dialogue that utilizes hyper-technical and exact scientific vernacular to give vague logical shape to nonsense. This posturing, an insistence on the narrative’s cultural significance, ruins the very real joys of Nolan’s ambitious film, which skips from apocalyptic drama to disaster flick to psychological thriller to fantastical melodrama by the end of its nearly three-hour runtime.
The film’s plot runs off of extended bouts of exposition and explanation about the logistics of the mission, doled out by Cooper and his crew, consisting of Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley). None of this talk speaks to any intimate or even witty truths about the strong bonds that tie scientific discovery to hope for humanity, a philosophy Nolan clearly believes in. It’s not surprising that Interstellar’s finer moments occur when Nolan allows his characters to actually explore, visiting the three planets where NASA sent their first wave of galaxy-hopping astronauts. The minimalist design of the alien landscapes are wondrous and act as a visual extension of the interior conflicts that denote each visit. This is especially true of the film’s best sequence, involving the crew interacting with Matt Damon’s Mann, an astronaut who’s been living alone on a planet with a glacial sky for decades.
It’s the human element that has always seemed off in Nolan’s films and Interstellar would hardly qualify as a change of pace. The relationship between Cooper and Murph, also played by Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain, is the central emotional connection of the film, certainly more so than the relationship between Brand and her NASA-hero father (Michael Caine). Nolan puts this incredibly talented cast, which also includes John Lithgow and Casey Affleck, to work at the thin melodramatic scenario that builds between Cooper and Murph, a soap-opera riff in Carl Sagan drag. Abandonment issues are at the heart of Nolan’s story, and they’re conveyed in such simplistic terms with an uncaring lack of detail that they can’t help but look insignificant and empty in comparison to the filmmaker’s visions of uncharted space and galactic oblivion.
The film is driven by the familiar role of a father who cannot resolve his importance to the public while also being an attentive, caring parent, a notion that must hit home with McConaughey and Nolan, both fathers who split their time between family and a career of crafting or existing in imaginary worlds for the public. The regret that builds up from time spent away from loved ones fuels the film’s grossly sentimental fourth quarter, wherein Cooper takes a solo voyage to a strange planet that allows him to affect the past. It’s the most risible section of a film that works too hard to provide a variety of tonally different storylines in the narrative, to the point that little of Interstellar feels fully resonant. The film even ends at what seems like the beginning of a love story, which is meant to suggest that Cooper’s travels have also allowed him to move on from the death of his saintly wife.
Underneath its sheen of invention and imagination, Interstellar turns out to be all business, a fancy way of reciting rote thematic concerns and storytelling tactics without humor or potent self-awareness. And yet, the references are abundant, from the Bible and Douglas Adams to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind-era Spielberg. It could be a nod to either Adams or Stanley Kubrick that Cooper’s crew also includes TARS, a sarcastic do-it-all robot voiced by Bill Irwin. A recurring gag in the film involves Cooper dialing down TARS’s humor setting, after the robot gives him a little sass. Much like his hero, Nolan’s goal seems to be to take the humor and wildness out of imagination, to see invention in rigidly practical and scientific terms, and to finally dress up enjoyable hooey as just as socially relevant as a year’s worth of The Economist.