Interstellar is Visually Impressive, But Ultimately Disappoints

interstellarfilm5For more than 30 years, the gold standard for directors with vision, imagination and the ability to create compelling worlds that transport the viewer was Steven Spielberg. “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park” are just a few of his most memorable creations over the years.

In the last 20 years or so, Spielberg has veered away from more fantastical subject matter to making films like “War Horse” or “Lincoln,” leaving it up to younger filmmakers to follow in his footsteps.

Probably the best young visionary directors today are J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan. Nolan drew attention with smaller films, like “Memento” and “Insomnia,” but it was his reboot of the “Batman” films that established him as a one of the most formidable talents in Hollywood. Not content with simply remaking the films, Nolan reimagined the “Batman” series by taking a more realistic look at what the world would look like if a city was protected by a masked vigilante. The second film, “The Dark Knight,” is probably the greatest action film of the 2000s and its sequel, “The Dark Knight Rises,” is not far behind.

In between those films he directed “Inception” and proved he was able to create a wholly original narrative outside the Gotham City limits. In a Hollywood landscape where box office success is usually predicated on a film being a part of a preestablished brand or a sequel, “Inception” premiered and succeeded with no expectations. This allowed Nolan to become the rare filmmaker who will draw people into his films simply because his name is attached to the project.

Nolan’s latest film “Interstellar” premiered this past weekend and entered the fray with the buzz you would expect for someone with his recent track record. Buzz for any Nolan film is high and with a cast that features Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, “Interstellar” is arguably the most anticipated film of the fall.

With those kinds of expectations, it’s truly unfortunate the film doesn’t quite live up to its own ambition and pedigree. It’s indisputably the year’s most visually stunning film, but the effects and production design are in the service of a narrative that doesn’t entirely coalesce.

The film is set in a not-so distant future where Earth has become increasingly inhabitable and mankind has regressed to functioning as a “caretaker” society. McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA pilot living in a world that believes it no longer needs scientists or engineers, to the point where the common belief is that the Apollo space missions were nothing more than staged propaganda designed to bankrupt the Soviets. Cooper, like most in this new world, is now a farmer and lives with his son and daughter, as well as his father in law (John Lithgow).

After witnessing some strange gravitational disturbances in his home, Cooper, along with his precocious daughter Murph (an impressive Mackenzie Foy), stumble upon a hidden NASA installation operated by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) where they have discovered a wormhole orbiting Saturn that could lead them to another galaxy with planets that could possibly sustain humanity.

Cooper is offered a chance to join this mission and his decision to abandon his family to save the world sets the stage for the rest of the film. One of the film’s biggest questions is the debate over sacrificing one’s own personal happiness for the greater good. By setting the first third of the film pre-departure, Nolan effectively establishes the stakes and what Cooper will be leaving behind.

The remainder of the film splits its time between the mission’s trip to and through the wormhole, as well as keeping tabs on Cooper’s children, who are played as adults by Chastain and Casey Affleck. I won’t go into the numerous plot twists that take place, but suffice to say the mission does not go entirely as planned and a number of revelations throw circumstances into question.

If it sounds as though I’m offering up a lot of exposition, it’s because, well, that’s what a large portion of the film is devoted. What I know about astrophysics could be fit on the head of a pin and there’s a lot of scientific jargon in the film that went straight over my head.

That’s fine for a film like this, just as long as it all remains narratively coherent. It does not, and there are stretches, particular in the film’s last 30 minutes, where I couldn’t make heads or tails for what was going on. Just for contrast, last year’s “Gravity,” another film set in deep space, was about half of this film’s nearly three-hour running time but is ultimately a much tighter and more compelling narrative.

It also doesn’t help that the film features some thin characterizations that lead to plot developments that make no sense. Hathaway’s character is given a plot revelation midway through that is basically just there to advance the story, and while Chastain is predictably strong in her performance, a major sequence back at her old house where her brother now lives with his family feels abrupt and rushed along. Affleck’s character could alltogether be exorcised from the film since he’s not given any development and seems to be there purely as a source of conflict.

Just as in the “Batman” series and “Inception,” “Interstellar” is at its best during its action setpieces. A scene on a water planet with mile-high waves that look like mountains is laden with suspense and a visit to another planet, this one frozen, features an extended sequence with a big-name cameo that does a nice job of setting up the last big action moment of the film.

I mentioned Chastain above, but both McConaughey and Hathaway are also doing outstanding work here. McConaughey continues his incredible hot streak with a commanding performance that also features a lot of emotional depth. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where his character watches video messages from his now-grown children that is just devastating and features some of McConaughey’s best work ever without a line of dialogue.

Hathaway is saddled with some dubious character development, but there’s still a mix of steeliness and vulnerability to her performance that I don’t think many other actresses are able to convey. Also, Foy as young Murph hits all the right notes in her limited screen time. Between her and McConaughey, they need to properly convey the stakes McConaughey will be fighting for throughout the rest of the film and they succeed brilliantly.

It’s disheartening to have come away with this film with such mixed feelings. This was one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing this year and that it features many great pieces but ultimately doesn’t totally come together is a bit of a letdown. It is still a good film. Too much of it works for it be called anything else, but in the context of what it could have been, it’s a disappointment.

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