Critic's Notebook: The Case Against 'Interstellar'

THR film critic Stephen Dalton argues that Christopher Nolan's new space epic isn't full of wonder — it's full of itself

In recent weeks, the supermassive black hole of promotional hype surrounding Interstellar seems to have swallowed everything in its path, warping the fabric of space-time itself. A visually awesome spectacle with a sumptuously retro 70mm look, the Batman trilogy director Christopher Nolan’s epic galaxy quest undeniably is a technical triumph and a great adventure yarn.

But don’t make the mistake of taking it as seriously as it takes itself. Because, in typical Nolan style, Interstellar confuses bigness for greatness. Fasten your seat belts for three hours of monumental pomposity, corny emotionalism and anti-science mysticism dressed up as real science.

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Interstellar immerses us in a dystopian near-future America where crops are systematically failing and Dust Bowl desperation returning. While mankind faces slow starvation, Big Government takes our taxes and teaches our kids that the Apollo moon landings were faked. Boo! Hiss! Thanks for nothing, Obama! Fortunately, NASA has gone underground as a noble brotherhood of aloof technocrats who dare to make Big Plans for the future in their remote secret bunker. Only they can save humanity with their heroic individualism and rugged pioneer spirit. … Wait, does any of this sound familiar? Has Nolan been reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged?

Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan clearly want to make a Big Statement with Interstellar, but what? They cast Michael Caine as a wise old patriarch who recites the same Dylan Thomas poem over and over, which is big-studio code for literary depth. They also cast Matthew McConaughey as an old-school Paul Newman-ish hero with human flaws, Batman in a space suit. He even gets to say Deep Things in a ridiculously gruff Christian Bale growl. “We used to look up in the sky and wonder about our place in the stars,” he scowls. “Now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”

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But most of all, Interstellar really, really wants us to feel its pain. When he leaves Earth in search of distant planets to support mankind’s future, McConaughey’s widowed farmer-turned-space-cowboy leaves his adoring daughter behind to spend her entire life acting out the longest sulk in movie history. There is no forgiveness or closure possible in Nolan’s deeply humorless stopped-clock family tragedy — just unresolved Daddy Issues and endless weeping. In space, everyone can hear you sob. Forever.

Interstellar wears its cinematic ancestry with self-conscious pride, most obviously paying reverential homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mother of all Big Statement movies, Stanley Kubrick’s trippy late 1960s progressive-rock triple-album opus has been spuriously feted as a profound masterpiece ever since its release. But dude, everything seems profound when you are stoned. Was God an astronaut? Do androids dream of electric sheep? How many roads must a man walk down? Who cares bro, pass the bong.

There are allusions in Interstellar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a reminder of the movie’s origins as a Steven Spielberg project, plus Philip Kaufman’s patriotic space-race chronicle The Right Stuff and Andrei Tarkovsky’s cerebral inner-space odyssey Solaris. There are even nods to the folksy Midwestern magic-realism of The Wizard of Oz and Depression-era Dust Bowl dramas like The Grapes of Wrath. All are safely revered classics of the cinematic canon. Nolan is standing on the shoulders of giants here, which is fine — but imitation is not the same as innovation.

Perhaps a closer cousin of Interstellar is Michael Bay’s apocalyptic asteroid thriller Armageddon, in which a good-old-boy space veteran leaves his devastated daughter behind on Earth while he blasts off to save mankind from extinction. If those emotionally manipulative close-ups of weeping astronauts in Nolan’s movie feel oddly familiar, just remember Bay’s bizarre love triangle between Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck. Nolan arguably missed a trick by not ending Interstellar with a big Aerosmith power ballad, although Hans Zimmer's syrupy, heart-tugging score comes close.

Watch more The Hollywood Reporter's Full 'Interstellar' Discussion With Christopher Nolan, Stars

Interstellar also has some uncanny parallels with M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, a schlocky religious allegory about a widowed farmer picking up cryptic messages from extraterrestrials. Nolan’s film opens with a similarly superstitious puzzle, hinting that benign pandimensional alien superbeings are sending us helpful clues from the far corners of time and space. For no logical reason, these highly advanced creatures cannot communicate directly, only through ghostly whispers and runic symbols. This magical mystery is finally resolved in one of the most stunning set pieces in Interstellar, with reality-bending visuals reminiscent of Inception. But it's also a ridiculously contrived cop-out twist, illogical, incoherent and profoundly unscientific.

There is nothing wrong with escapist fairy tales, of course, but Interstellar is being hyped for its fidelity to science fact rather than science fiction. Much publicity around the movie has centered on the involvement of Kip Thorne, former Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, a friend of Stephen Hawking and a world expert on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Thorne’s producer credit lends the project extra intellectual credibility, but only if you take the fantastical plot with a Saturn-size pinch of salt.

There is a derisive phrase used in theoretical physics: "not even wrong." It describes speculation that is so far off target it fails to qualify even as bad science. Large sections of Interstellar are not even wrong. Even a mush-brained liberal-arts geek (like me) can debunk the junk science in Nolan's movie in just 20 minutes on Google. Thankfully, there is no need because London-based astrophysics expert Dr. Roberto Trotta has already done the work for me in a Guardian article which unravels the good, the bad and the plain stupid pseudo-science in the film.

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For example, the gravity levels on the planet where one hour on the surface equals seven years elsewhere would crush all human life. The astronauts would also be squished and “spaghettified” by their proximity to a black hole. And the scene in which a conveniently indestructible robot harvests “quantum data” from inside the black hole goes beyond bad science and into the realm of impossible fantasy. “It sounds like something they just made up as a plot device with no physics behind it,” Trotta writes. In other words: not even wrong.

When it finally arrives, the Big Statement that Nolan takes almost three hours to deliver is almost too silly for words. Without getting into spoilers, the take-home revelation seems to be that human love is a stronger force than time or gravity. In terms of accuracy and usefulness, that’s a message on a par with L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth or Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods. After promising a bold speculation on mankind’s future, Interstellar retreats into comforting lies, quasi-religious mysticism and fortune-cookie banalities. It’s a dazzling thrill ride, but definitely not rocket science.

Watch THR's interview with Nolan and the cast of Interstellar below.

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