Interstellar Isn’t Stellar

Christopher Nolan’s combination disaster epic – time travel conundrum – intergalactic adventure science fiction film, Interstellar,  earned $52 million during its first weekend in release. If Nolan was a real mensch, he would give that money back, because the film is a real disaster pretending to document a fictional one, a successful disaster, but a disaster nonetheless.

Interstellar features some very fine acting, notably from the amazing Jessica Chastain, 34, who seems incapable of submitting a bad

chastain2performance, and a striking turn by Matt Damon, 44, playing against type as an evil coward, but the plot meanders back and forth in time and space, leaving major subplots unresolved, and ending with a thoroughly unsatisfying non-summation of an ending.

Strangely absent from the film were any of 45-year old  Matthew McConaughey scintillating, lantern-jawed repressed  intensities.  He tries, but the net effect is more wooden board than controlled emotion, and the blame for all of this belong squarely with the man at the helm of this non-epic, Christopher Nolan, who simply doesn’t deliver the goods.

The film is, first of all, at 169 minutes, too long by a good half-hour, if not more,  largely because of recursive flashbacks that seem to cover the same ground over and over again, which makes it not only too long, but repetitive. Agreed, Nolan posed himself a difficult task by writing a film (co-authored with brother Jonathan Nolan) that follows two entwined plotlines complicated by the compression of time that high-speed space travel presumably causes. (The faster you go, the slower time moves for you, according to Albert Einstein, an unindicted co-conspirator on this film,)

Said plotline revolve around a planet Earth in the throes of an unspecified ecological disaster, presumably the result of some combination of climate change, pollution, and genetic modification experiments gone wrong, and a secret NASA project, conveniently located within driving distance of McConaughey’s hardscrabble farm where the former astronaut is raising corn to support his family. That’s where secretive astrophysicist Michael Caine,  now 81 and still plugging away, is planning to send a secretly built spaceship through a wormhole conveniently parked near Saturn that will enable the starship to visit some of the 12 solar systems to which one-person scout ships have already been sent.

This is where the plot breaks down because, in the world that Nolan has created, the resource-strapped Earth has sufficient resources left to send out 12 scout ships, but neglects to send along the embryos and nurturing equipment required to re-establish the human race on the planets the scout ships find out there.  Instead, in a massive plot glitch, Caine is sending another starship out with the embryos and equipment necessary to nurture them, but with only enough equipment to seed one planet with humanity, and not enough fuel to visit all 12 star systems, but that’s all right, because the 13th ship is only really necessary for co-stars McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, 32, to travel in out to the stars together.

One has to stop here to avoid spoiling the plot twists, of which there are several, all of them crooked, but that makes it very difficult to poke holes in the film’s theories without blowing the gaffe for the director and the audiences who, after all, deserve to be forewarned: check disbelief at the door when you pick up your 3D glasses.  A willing suspension of disbelief is as essential as popcorn for this film.

There are, however, two plot devices that must be challenged.

Early on in the film, Nolan offers us a scene in which McConaughey confronts his daughter’s teacher, who adamantly maintains that the Apollo moon missions never really happened, espousing the idiotic conspiracy theory that the moon missions were filmed on a Hollywood sound stage. McConaughey (yet another astronaut farmer; Billy Bob Thornton was the other one), argues the point, and gets daughter Murph (actually named for Murphy’s Law) bounced out of school.  That scene so angered some filmgoers that several got up and left right then and there. Perhaps they were the smarter members of the audience.

There is something that is just wrong about presenting crackpot conspiracy theories as fact in a film, even when we know they aren’t facts, because, believe it or not, there will be some people who will leave the theater wondering about whether that might have been true.

In the other, even more disturbing plot device, McConaughey and Hathaway leave behind a third crew member, astrophysicist Doyle (played by a bearded Wes Bentley) after a 500 foot wave on the drowned world that was their first stop catches the crew flat-footed outside their ship. Doyle is presumably drowned….while wearing a self-contained, inflated spacesuit with its own oxygen supply designed to keep its occupant alive under any conceivable combination of environmental circumstances. He might have been broken up some but, since the suit appears undamaged after the wave passed, he certainly wasn’t drowned and probably wasn’t even dead.   He might have survived, but they never even bothered to check. You don’t leave a fallen comrade behind, ever, even on another planet.

One of the two best highlights of the film included a series of interview clips purportedly with real people who recount memories of the years when the ecological disaster was just beginning. The accounts of these older people are strongly reminiscent of The Dust Bowl, Ken Burns 2012 documentary series that was based on interviews with men and women who survived the Dust Bowl in the American Mid-West in the 1930s. The clips appear to have been either lifted from  or at least were closely modelled after the eyewitness accounts in the PBS project.  The other one was the well-imagined robots that accompany the space travelers, which combined some innovative thinking about robotic design with some sassy repartee.

On the other hand, the sound editor on this turkey needs to be admonished for a lackluster sound track in which many of the lines are so garbled as to be unintelligible, a condition exacerbated by a theater full of paper bag rattling,  popcorn chomping patrons whose arteries were audibly hardening as they watched this turkey unfold. The special effects people also mailed in their work, much of which looked like it was left over from Inception, another Nolan mind twister.

There’s only one really good reason to see this film: Jessica Chastain, but you can see more of her in her Oscar-nominated performance in Zero Dark Thirty, now available on a cable channel near you.  The final verdict:  if you really want to see Interstellar, wait until it comes out on HBO.  Not worth the ticket price.