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Review: ‘Interstellar’ Is A Mess Of Pretty Pictures

interstellar is a mess of pretty pictures

Let me warn you right now: I did not love this picture. Point of fact, I can’t even say that I liked it. Upon exiting the movie theater, my companion and I immediately compared it to the only other three-hour, IMAX-filmed, space saga that we know with a pretentious storyline, beautiful scenery, and a wince-worthy script: Avatar. The sad thing is that while both of us agreed that Interstellar‘s ambitions were much greater, its unrealistic character choices, and self-gratification style of storytelling rendered it almost unwatchable at moments. Avatar, at least, had a brainless sort of appeal that lent itself to repeat viewings in those late nights where there’s nothing else but telenovas and infomercials on.

“This whole movie was Christopher Nolan’s wankfest,” said my date. “Literally 3 hours of intellectual wanking.”

Skipping over the definition of wanking (you know what it means), I had to agree. The amount of pompous, aggrandized science fiction clichés packed into this film is almost too nauseating to count. It’s like seven different movies all shoved together, none of them explored in a meaningful way, and all of them shouting at the viewer. Subtle, this film is not.

Before I go on, it must to be said: this movie is amazingly beautiful. If you could just cut out all the plot and give us a 45 minute IMAX tour of the fictional wormholes of Interstellar, it would be an astounding viewing experience. I’d give this film every technical Oscar on the books. Give cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema a raise. Each frame is composed, rendered, and animated with meticulous beauty.

The acting was also top-job. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are exceptional; the former almost made me cry when he watches a video of time-lapse messages from his children on Earth. Unfortunately, that’s the rub with Interstellar: there are individual scenes that take your breath away with masterful editing, acting, and cinematography. This movie aims so high that when it falls and collapses on itself, the viewer can’t help but gape at the rubbish and think, “What the hell did I just watch?”

The problems start early, and they never cease. No opportunity for science fiction or political cliché is left un-mined.  I’m pretty sure the last twenty minutes (and the multiple endings that made me think I was watching Lord of the Rings again) are ripped almost page for page from the script of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But hey, let’s be real: invoking sci-fi cliché is not a crime. It’s the bread and butter of genre movies. Yet the problem comes when a director wants so badly to make “The Most Epic Space Film Of Our Generation!!” that he throws in everything, plus his kitchen sink, your kitchen sink, and all the contents of the every garage in your neighborhood. This film can’t breathe for how overburdened it is with its own expectations.

Add to that, individuals are subjected to bizarre decisions that made me sink into my chair, cringing. No matter how miraculous or terrifying the circumstances, people are people, and there’s typical things people do or do not do in certain situations. Unfortunately, many of the character choices in this movie make little sense in the context of their circumstances. If I sit through the movie constantly asking, “Why did Character A just do what he did? Why is Character B behaving this way?” then there’s something very wrong with the script. The ability to suspend my disbelief got me through all three Blade movies, yet it barely allowed me to endure this one.

interstellar anne hathaway david gyasi

In matters of character diversity, the film is grossly lacking. For a story set in America some 50 to 100 years in the future, I don’t think I saw a single Latino-coded person on film. No accents, no familiar names, no tan skin color. Not only is this deficient casting in general, but it reads as emotionally untrue in a country with a changing population. Even the poor farmers on a dying Earth were all white. There were two black speaking characters in the film, but one only existed in a three-minute scene, and the other was not given the development, screen time, or narrative interest that the parallel white characters were given. If there were any Asian-American characters in the movie, I must have blinked when they were walking by.

Why does representation matter in a film like Interstellar? Because science fiction gives us a fantastical mirror to hold up to our own world, particularly in the social, the political, and the philosophical realms. If Christopher Nolan wanted this movie to represent an aspirational look at humanity and the glory of scientific dreams, then he needs to dream in color.

On another meter of representation, there were two women who had major character roles. I don’t recall if they ever spoke to each other on screen, but they both had arcs. Nonsensical arcs, but at least the arcs existed. I feel particularly sorry for Anne Hathaway’s character, who is subjected to just about every gendered stereotype available in sci-fi:

  1. The metaphorical Eve
  2. Public humiliation by a male supervisor
  3. Hasty decision-maker and know-it-all
  4. The beautiful nerd
  5. The woman who waits / gives up everything for a man
  6. Daddy’s girl with no maternal influence to speak of
  7. The ice queen
  8. The “emotional” one who cries

It’s pretty eye-brow-raising that they managed to cram the last two into the same character in the same film, considering how whiplash-fast her character turn is. By that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover she was also the lost Moon Princess. Unfortunately, at least half of those listed tropes above were also dumped on Jessica Chastain’s character. There’s no escaping it. Even McConaughey’s character veers from heroic to barely tolerable. He did a wonderful job performing; unfortunately the script turned him into a walking megaphone for Nolan’s artistic grandstanding. By the time he reached his moment of apotheosis, it was hard to care at all what was happening on screen. Which is perhaps a blessing, because the ending itself is laughable.

In fact, there was a moment when I thought we’d leave his point of view for one of the other characters in the movie. I got excited! I leaned forward in my chair. I thought maybe something original or interesting would happen, at last! Spoiler: it did not.

If Christopher Nolan had cut his film down to half the run time, picked a simpler storyline (any one of the several offered up would’ve been fine), cared about his characters being plausible people, and settled for a reasonable 60% cliché instead of 98% cliché, I would have given Interstellar four, maybe even five stars. But he didn’t, and the result is a wincing mess that momentarily distracts you with pretty pictures just when you’re thinking how nice the weather outside might be. I give it one bitter star, because the ratio of its artistic potential to its abysmal final cut is so infuriating I’d like to pull my hair out. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film aim so high then fall so far.

If you’re looking for an epic space drama, watch the classic 2001. If you’d like to watch a science fiction parable about human achievement in the face of adversity, watch Gravity. If you just want to watch something childishly pretty, re-watch Avatar. Don’t bother watching Interstellar until they come out with a movie-themed animated screensaver, and then just look at that.

one star

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction
Runtime: 169 minutes