After getting off to a fairly decent start, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a science fiction film about a group of astronauts that travel through a wormhole in the search for a new habitable planet, devolves into something so ponderous, abstract, and emotionally weighty that it inspires more head scratching than feelings of sheer wonderment. Because its devolving is gradual, which is only fitting for a film just eleven minutes shy of three hours in length, there’s initially reason to stay with it, to hold out hope that, by the end, every concept it explores will lead to a satisfying narrative payoff. By the time it reaches the final act, all hopes have been dashed, and when it’s over, we leave the theater wondering exactly what has happened, and why, and how it would in any way be possible.
Set during an unspecified future date, or perhaps during an alternate version of the present, the plot is founded on the idea that Earth has taken a turn for the worse; the military has been reduced to box-shaped robots programmed with authoritarian voices, school curriculum includes altered history books stating that the 1969 moon landing was staged, government funding for scientific and technological programs has been terminated, and most importantly, climate change and extreme overpopulation – 6 billion people, if I remember correctly – has resulted in a severe shortage of food and turned thousands of acres of farmland into arid patches of dirt, plunging the heartland of the United States into another Dust Bowl era. Because of this, students are no longer encouraged to be scientists or engineers, but rather to be farmers. As one school official points out, we need food more than television sets.
Struggling to accept this reality is a widowed engineer and former test pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who lives with his two children (Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet) and father-in-law (John Lithgow) in a farmhouse surrounded by acres of cornfields, corn being the only viable crop left on Earth. A natural-born explorer thus far denied the opportunity to do what he loves, he’s faced with an unimaginably difficult choice after being recruited by a covert government space organization, whose name will not be disclosed by me; basically, he’s asked to pilot a group of astronauts through an intergalactic wormhole located near Saturn and seek out a planet capable of sustaining human life, a task that would require him to leave his family for decades. It should be noted that he was recruited only after a strange gravitational phenomenon in his daughter’s room provided cryptic binary messages, one of which provided coordinates to the location of the space organization.
The rest of the crew consists of: Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of the professor (Michael Caine) spearheading this interstellar mission; Romily (David Gyasi), who must be there to provide a layman’s explanation of what exactly a wormhole is; Doyle (Wes Bentley), whose narrative purpose is about as substantial as a secondary crewmember on the Star Trek episode of your choice; and a robot comprised of four square cylinders, its percentage levels of honesty and, of all things, humor adjustable through vocal commands. They’re launched into space with two plans, one serving as a backup in the event that the other fails. But no matter which plan they end up going with, there’s absolutely no guarantee that any of them will return from their voyage – hence the reason Cooper’s daughter, Murph, doesn’t see the bigger picture of humanity’s survival but merely that she has been abandoned.
The film’s biggest issue is that a great deal of its narrative devices rely on scientific notions that are either excessively technical or overly metaphysical. Far too many scenes contain long passages of expository dialogue that only a theoretical physicist could love, with intangible ideas like time, gravity, and the true nature of black holes often serving as the topic of conversation. Nolan ventures into even more abstract territory when one of the characters, and I wouldn’t dream of revealing which, posits that love, being the only thing that transcends human biological necessity and scientific measurement, is reason enough to continue a mission – which has, by then, been saddled with every setback conceivable for a science fiction film largely set in outer space. And then there’s the final act, which is so conceptually, scientifically, and dramatically confusing that I repeatedly asked myself, “What?”
If there is any praise I can muster for Interstellar, it would be for its visuals, with select shots such a triumph of art direction and special effects that one cannot help but regard them with awe. But even then, I had to question the curious decision to have the images randomly alternate between two different aspect ratios. In both the Earth scenes and the scenes in outer space and elsewhere, select shots are projected at a wide 2.35:1, while others at a fuller 1.85:1, the latter filling the entirety of the screen – which is nothing to sneeze at if the screen is of IMAX proportions, as it was at the screening I attended. Never have a found this approach in any way beneficial to the narrative. If anything, it’s a distraction. If I had any say in the matter, the film would have consistently been shot and projected at the 1.85:1 ratio, simply because it would have allowed for a more immersive visual experience.