Enough is enough: It is not just that Interstellar is as incoherent and pretentious as a film can be at close to three hours and $160 million. It also sullies our last hallowed legend, the end of the world. How long have we labored, through diligent greed, opportunism, stupidity, cruelty, and indifference, to insist on the conclusion of business on Earth? What other large, altruistic, and merciful enterprise has such widespread support among religious extremists and rational scientists? Indeed, the coming end of the world is our best shared god. For if we must die, shouldn’t the Earth go too? Don’t we know we deserve an end to it all when Interstellar can pass itself off as an entertainment, instead of an ordeal?
Yes, I am speaking in the tongue of irony and I know that is abhorred now. So let me address what may be known as the story of this film. We are in an American heartland, and the single intriguing part of a ponderous movie. Times are growing very hard: The winds blow upon the prairies, causing heat and dust so that crops fail. There is a Biblical air in the cursed look of the place. In a world growing hungry, farmers are heroes again. Our hero is a dingbat farmer, named Cooper—and that name has resonance still in movie mythology and space history. (Cooper was Dennis Quaid in The Right Stuff, as well as a former icon named Gary.)
He lives with his father and his two children in a wooden house on the prairie in epic simplicity and alleged integrity—in short, it seems a dull life. Before that, Coop was a space pilot who did great things in pioneering flights. It’s not clear how long ago, because Matthew McConaughey can’t be much less than 45. Did he go to the Moon as an infant? But his character is nettled to have his children taught in school that the Apollo program was a propaganda lie promoted to win the Cold War. Coop knows what he knows, and he will soon be vindicated as the best terrific space pilot you ever saw. Because, you see, no less than Michael Caine (playing a scientific genius—I rest my case) reckons that since we can’t save Earth, we should leave it. This is where I began to feel a similar urging about my presence in the theater.
We’ll come to Caine, but McConaughey deserves examination. There were years when Matthew McConaughey was a handsome romantic lead in movies and a pain to watch. Then something happened. He lost weight, he gained calm or assurance, and he began to be a moody, dreamy, dangerous outsider. That welcome tendency reached a peak in “True Detective” and The Dallas Buyers Club. He had become a riveting performer, not far from crazy, and remote from any mainstream. But where could he go as an actor? Well, he is never going to be Gary Cooper; he is not a trusty pilot, a comic book champ, or a reliable family man. So Interstellar is misguided in trying to make him those things. McConaughey is hard to hear; and with this dialogue it's tougher still to understand what he's getting at. In a picture where our good guy has to know how to fly a strange spacecraft, credit a cockamamie plan to save humankind, and be a steadfast Dad who has—somehow—abandoned his children to the dusty prairie and a lousy school system, this does not work.
Well, for reasons I could not grasp, Coop and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy—the best thing in the picture, by light years) one night blunder into a kind of Area 51 on the prairie where Michael Caine is leading a project to save our future. He says he’s from NASA, but it feels Nazi. His operation is implausible and apparently unfunded, and Caine stands there, peering forward like someone trying to read, let alone believe in, the lines on his cue cards. Under stress, he quotes Dylan Thomas—over and over again. But he has a vast space ship and a daughter (Anne Hathaway, as if under oath to be unappealing so we’ll believe she’s enormously intelligent—beware of any movie full of big brains). Caine’s scheme is as stupid as big brains can manage: If we can’t save Earth, leave it. All he needs is a 45-year-old pilot—thank God, Coop blundered by. Before we know it, he is aloft and Murph is left gnashing her teeth and soul at Dad splitting.
At this point, we are into the “ adventure,” special effects and the kind of thing director Christopher Nolan is supposed to do very well. And it’s not just “supposed.” Inception was one of the most beautiful and transporting futuristic epics of this young century—I realize I may have lost many of you in making that claim. But I believe it, and I know Nolan can do better than this lazy nonsense. Interstellar is a fatuous pretension that has dreamed too long on the half-baked intellect in Kubrick’s 2001, while forgetting the tough, funny sense of human detail that inspired Phil Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, a film that exulted in the glory and the goofs of the space program.
Interstellar is an entertainment disaster for reasons that have dogged our films since they began: ridiculous story; implausible segues; laughable dialogue; the absence of character, drama, and command. About 90 minutes in, I was seriously considering walking out. But providence rescued me (and Nolan has his own warped love of coincidence). The vaunted IMAX projection broke down. So I had to go back another day to discover how Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon are in the second half in an attempt at a big emotional finish.
I should say there are some critics who have been impressed with Interstellar. I think it’s laborious twaddle, and a horribly prolonged picture without adequate story or commanding spectacle. The most alarming thing about it is the piety it claims in the idea of abandoning earth for a fresh start. When are we going to realize that we can’t walk away from hideous messes (like dumping an island of plastic in the ocean, or allowing the ice cap to melt)? Big brains and responsible civilizations need to stick with their problems. It’s all very well to tell us that a film is happy escapism. But there are escapes that feel lost in space.