Wednesday, November 5, 2014
"Interstellar" sure is an odd, dense, occasionally brilliant and occasionally maddening cinematic experience. The latest from director Christopher Nolan continues the mind-trippyness of "Inception" and marries it with an outer space story about astronauts from Earth exploring other galaxies and dimensions, in between disastrous explosions and human frailty.
It wants to be the thematic and aesthetic inheritor to "2001: A Space Odyssey" but registers several orders of magnitude lower on the scale of worthiness. It plays out as one long (nearly three-hour) space ride with a lot of mind-boggling science and pseudo-science mixed into the humanist blender.
The movie never failed to engage me, but it didn't leave me very satisfied, either. Nolan and his cast and crew get the quantum mechanics of their space tale right, but the human element never makes it off the launch pad.
The story -- Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, wrote the screenplay -- is set in a typically vague near-future where things have gone awry for humanity. An agricultural blight is wiping out the Earth's crops one by one, and dust storms blow in from time to time like biblical revelations.
Cooper (Matt McConaughey) is a pilot/engineer-turned farmer. There's not much use for science guys these days, just those who make food. Cooper resents the way humanity has bookended its ambitions -- we're supposed to be explorers and pioneers, he laments on his dirt-caked porch, not tenders of sod. His son, Tom, embraces the agrarian future but his 10-year-old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), dreams the dreams of her father.
Through a quick, not entirely coherent succession of expository scenes, Cooper is recruited to lead a NASA mission that represents humanity's last hope. It seems a stable wormhole opened up near Saturn 50 years ago. Previous astronauts were sent through to scout out a habitable new home world for the species. Cooper and his crew, chiefly Anne Hathaway as astrophysicist Dr. Brand, are supposed to link up with them.
The space travel scenes, through wormholes and gravitational slingshots and whatnot, are transcendently beautiful and awe-inspiring. Aided by Hoyte Van Hotema's cinematography and the familiar pounding musical score of Hans Zimmer, Nolan has captured the notion of space wrapping in itself in an ingenious way previously unseen on the big screen.
I won't give away too much about what they find on the other side, other than to say the passage of time is a primary consideration. The theory of relativity states that time travels at different speeds depending on where you are, so the team must complete their quest before everyone on Earth starves. Meanwhile, Cooper frets upon the children he left behind, who transmit video messages into the ether they aren't sure if he'll ever see. (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck play them as adults.)
Unfortunately, the Nolans' script suffers from similarity lapses in relativity, though on the narrative rather than the temporal plane. The story races ahead heedlessly at times, testing the audience's ability to keep up based on half-garbled dialogue. Then it will go into a slow spin, as the characters get all moony and contemplative, and we wish they'd fire up the jets or blow a hatch, or something.
(I should also mention I often had difficulty hearing the dialogue -- not understanding it, but just hearing it. I'm not sure if was the speaker system in the theater or the film's sound mix, but Zimmer's music blasts at you in waves of organ chords that overpower the actors' voices like lily pads caught in a tidal wave.)
There's power and majesty in "Interstellar," but also smallness and limitation. The film's sheer grandiosity serves to expose its inability to coherently line up the X-Y-Zs of its plot. Nolan & Co. aim for the stars, quite literally, and if they don't reach them they provide us enough of a glimpse to leave us dazzled and befuddled. It's like being knocked out of your regular orbit, teetering off to points unknown.