In the near future, blight has eliminated almost every crop on the Earth except for corn. When former test pilot/engineer turned corn farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) discovers a secret branch of NASA operating near his home, he learns that even the corn will soon fail and the planet will no longer be able to sustain human life. Fortunately, some unknown entity in space has recently opened a wormhole near Saturn, allowing NASA to send manned probes to another star system in hopes of finding a habitable world. With three of those expeditions having returned encouraging reports, NASA talks Cooper into leading a last ditch effort through the wormhole to see which one might provide a safe haven for Earth’s population. The problem is that the planets are in orbit around a black hole, and the time warping capabilities of that phenomena could mean that Cooper might not see his young children again for decades, assuming the Earth even lasts that long. Of course, once Cooper and his colleagues reach the new star system, they discover that time limits might be the least of their concerns.
I’m in a bit of a conundrum with “Interstellar.” As this blog usually covers movies with a little bit of age to them (moldy and dust covered might be a better description), spoilers aren’t really much of a big deal. But “Interstellar” is brand spanking new, so giving away the ending just doesn’t feel right. The problem is, if I avoid discussing the end of the film, it’s going to be really difficult to explain why I found this movie to be so darn disappointing.
While I figure that out, let’s go ahead and talk about what’s really good about “Interstellar,” because there’s actually a lot. I probably don’t need to mention the fact that Christopher Nolan knows how to make a great looking movie. There are scenes in “Interstellar” that will stick with you long after the credits roll, from the majestic beauty of Saturn as the tiny space craft Endurance slowly sails by, to the wide expanse of the frozen atmosphere which hangs above a planet of ice. “Interstellar” is definitely a movie you’ll want to catch on the big screen if you can, preferably in IMAX (as long as you don’t mind taking out a second mortgage to buy tickets, that is).
I’m also going to lump the soundtrack in with the good stuff, although there are likely to be just as many people who will despise it as those who love it. The main thing to know is that it’s loud, so overbearing at times that the dialog is hard to hear. It’s like trying to listen to a friend at a rock concert. Plus, in one of the film’s many nods to “2001,” there’s a single chord played on the pipe organ again and again that will absolutely rattle your teeth. And yet I enjoyed the soundtrack in all it’s psuedo-Phillip Glass glory.
On the acting side of things, there’s not a single bad performances on display, which isn’t all that surprising in a movie where even the secondary characters are played by the likes of Matt Damon, Michael Caine and John Lithgow. As for the leads, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain are their dependable selves, and McConaughey holds it all together with his patented combination of intelligence and blue collar authenticity. If you were to rate your redneck McConaughey characters on a scale of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” to “A Time To Kill,” his Cooper would definitely fall on the latter end of the scale, believable as a farmer, yet learned enough to comprehend relativity and quantum mechanics.
Well, Cooper understands it all except for those moments when the script requires him not to, thereby allowing another character to explain it to him and, by proxy, to us non-geniuses in the audience. “Interstellar” is a movie overflowing with scientific ideas so, despite lingering moments of silence (no sound in space, remember), there’s a ton of exposition over the film’s three hour running time. If you’ve been longing for a movie to replicate the incessant expounding of speculative theories found in Nolan’s “Inception,” then “Interstellar” is what you’ve been waiting for. Despite the presence of the occasional tidal wave the size of a skyscraper, “Interstellar” is a film that puts ideas above action scenes.
That sounds great, doesn’t it? As much as I’ve enjoyed recent films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” they don’t require a lot of brain work. “Interstellar,” on the other hand, is cerebral, philosophical and ambitious in its attempt to provide a deeper experience than what’s normally found in a movie of this scale.
It just fails in the end.
Let’s see if I can explain why without ruining the whole movie. One of the things “Interstellar” seeks to accomplish, that if it had done so successfully would instantly rank the film amongst the classics, is to bridge the gap between the emotional impact of a Stephen Spielberg movie and the intellectual iciness of a Stanley Kubrick film. Now, this isn’t just second guessing on my part. It’s pretty well known that the script was originally in the hands of Spielberg, who fashioned the story which takes up the film’s first hour. This is the part that deals with establishing Cooper’s relationship with his kids, especially his daughter Murph, and sets up how devastating it’s going to be when the family is separated. Once Spielberg abandoned the project, Jonathan Nolan (the director’s brother) stepped in and added most of the second act’s ruminations on time, science and the future of humanity. The divide in the focus is pretty noticeable until the end of the third act, when Christopher Nolan tries to bring the two story threads together into a satisfying conclusion.
Frustratingly, he doesn’t quite pull it off. Nolan has often been accused by his critics of having a tin ear when it comes to emotions, and “Interstellar” does him no favors in dissuading anyone from holding that notion. The film is not completely emotionless as some of my peers have accused it of being, in fact the first hour on Earth is pretty involving. The problem is that the entire resolution of the film hangs on the love that exists between Cooper and his daughter, both as a child and an adult, and yet the idea that love conquers all falls flat. Now it shouldn’t, of course. It’s an idea that’s worked for countless of other films in the past (try and imagine Spielberg’s E.T. without it). But it doesn’t for Nolan for some reason. And at the risk of spoiling the film, I’m going to take a guess as to why that is.
The problem at the heart (no pun intended) of “Interstellar” is that it doesn’t really understand transcendence. As explained in Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, transcendence is “surpassing excellence, which may be either relative or absolute. It is relative when the excellence surpasses some objects below it, as human nature transcends the irrational creation. It is absolute when the excellence surpasses in being and activity all other beings. Only God is absolutely transcendent; in being because he alone is infinite and perfect Being who cannot change; in activity because he alone has existence of himself as uncreated First Cause on whom all creatures depend for their least operation.”
The math is simple. God = absolute transcendence, God = love, therefore love = absolute transcendence. Nolan’s movie requires that love be absolutely transcendent for the ending to work, which is fine, but his script takes God out of the equation. I can’t explain how without spoiling the whole shebang, but trust me, once you see it, you’ll know it does. In short, Nolan removes what is absolutely transcendent about love, which leaves nothing behind but the feelings we have for one another. And I’m sorry, but the expression, “my feelings of affection conquers all” just doesn’t cut it.
That’s the problem with secular humanistic exercises like “Interstellar.” They can do ideas, they can do philosophy, they can do morals. And “Interstellar” does all of those things extremely well, as good as any movie you’ll see this year. But they can’t do transcendence because they don’t truly understand it. And that’s why “Interstellar” is a fantastic movie right up until the end… when it isn’t.
While I can fault “Interstellar” for not grasping transcendence, I can’t really beat it up too much for failing to bridge the gap between Stephen Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. After all, Spielberg himself tried it himself with “A.I.,” and we all know how that turned out.