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'Interstellar': The Sci-Fi Epic That Won't Stop Explaining Itself

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By Michael Nordine

For such an imaginative filmmaker, Christopher Nolan seems loath to actually leave anything to the imagination of late. His tendency to over-explain the foundational secrets and mysteries of his films reaches its zenith in Interstellar, a sci-fi epic about an intrepid team of astronauts seeking a new planet to replace the dying one we currently call home. They encounter untold wonders along the way—alien worlds as harsh as they are beautiful, suggestions that we may not be alone in the cold vacuum of space—few of which go unremarked by the philosophically-minded explorers. Nolan has never lacked for ambition, and his deeply felt saga reaffirms his status as one of the more inventive directors working in Hollywood today, but a film about our place within the profound enormity of the universe shouldn’t be so reluctant to let us connect a few dots on our own.

Led by a farmer/former pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), these celestial voyagers belong to a near-future “caretaker generation” more concerned with sustaining our own world than finding a new one. The very notions of space travel and knowledge for knowledge’s sake aren’t only antiquated but detrimental to the life-or-death efforts of growing enough food to feed the decimated population living in the new Dust Bowl. Adults can argue about the importance of the Apollo missions until they go red in the face, but their debates won’t change the fact that the younger generation is slowly starving as their crops succumb to blight. The circumstances of this Greater Depression are such that even the willful Cooper resigns himself to his earthbound lot.

So when he and his daughter Murph (named for Murphy’s Law, ie. “anything that can go wrong will”) are led to a secret NASA outpost by what’s essentially fairy dust, he hesitates to call the chain of events supernatural but can summon no other explanation. Cooper is immediately enlisted to pilot this mission by the clandestine scientists (whose ranks include Michael Caine as project leader Professor Brand and Anne Hathaway as his astronaut daughter Amelia) and forced to admit to his daughter that he has no idea when he’s coming back.

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He’s quickly proven right. On one leg of the trip—and this is a mild spoiler for anyone who wants to know as little as possible in advance—the spacefarers spend a few scant hours on an oceanic planet they hoped might be habitable. During this time, Earth revolves around the Sun 23 times. The next set of messages Cooper received aboard the Endurance are from his now-adult children. His teary-eyed devastation provides one of the film’s most affecting moments, made all the more moving by how brief and quiet it is. Hathaway (in her most high-profile role since people collectively decided they no longer liked her for petty reasons typical to celebrity worship/hatred) serves as a brainy advocate for love. Her habit of waxing poetic about its transcendently powerful nature, not to mention her father’s repeated recitations of “Do not go gentle into that good night,” have the unfortunate effect of bogging down the story as much as the frequent bouts of long-winded commentary. It’s rarely enough for Nolan that his cosmic explorers are doing things no human has ever done before; they always have to stop and explain precisely what’s happening for our benefit.

Anyone with an aversion to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monolithic unknowability is likely to be far more pleased with this trajectory, as any and all potential ambiguity has been hammered out via literally robotic exposition. Speaking of Kubrick, Stephen King’s complaint that the filmmaker who adapted The Shining“thinks too much and feels too little”is relevant here, as Nolan’s problem in Interstellar may be that he does too much of both. The film is as sentimental as it is heady, often in the span of a single scene, and neither is expressed with much subtlety.

What makes this disappointing isn’t that Interstellar never reaches the heights it aspires to, but that it frequently does. There are moments of genuine splendor that, if not quite unprecedented, are wholly their own. Still, it seems a missed opportunity that such awe-inspiring visuals are rarely allowed to carry the narrative—they’re subservient to familiar dialogue rather than the other way around. Though there’s great beauty in Nolan’s vision, his overtly analytical approach is too often at odds with what he’s trying to achieve. Perhaps there really is nothing new under the Sun, ours or anyone else’s.

Interstellar opens Friday but special screenings begin in Los Angeles on Tuesday