The Science Overshadows the Story in ‘Interstellar’

Interstellar is a movie full of Big Ideas that end up overshadowing the human element, particularly during the poorly plotted first act.

When a movie like Interstellar comes along and demands that its viewers pay attention to its Big Ideas, with such an obvious nod back to Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, then it deserves more scrutiny than, say, a light-hearted rom-com. One can appreciate that director Christopher Nolan brought in a brilliant physicist like Kip Thorne to consult on the theories and algorithms underpinning the tale, but the story needs to hold up, too.

On that count, Interstellar is a mixed bag, thanks to its uneven first act. The film is set in the not-so-distant future, opening by introducing us to a widower named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). He’s a former NASA astronaut who now runs a farm, with help from his 10-year-old daughter Murphy (who goes by “Murph”) and teenage son. Crop blight in recent decades has caused the US and other countries around the world to fall into spirals of decay, with military and scientific projects largely abandoned in favor of a focus on trying to survive.

Cooper is about to take his kids to school when his truck suffers a flat tire. Then, a drone glides overhead and they pursue it in the truck, despite that aforementioned flat. It belonged to India and is now flying solo, since its former owners have long since abandoned it. Cooper manages to track it down and salvage its most important parts, but the entire sequence places a gun on the mantlepiece that the movie simply forgets about. What was the point of the sequence, other than to let us know that governments have begun to break down? Surely that idea could have been communicated much more quickly and efficiently.

Meanwhile, Murph is convinced that a ghost is in her bedroom and trying to communicate with her by knocking books and other things to the floor. She leaves her window open during a dust storm and she and her father discover that the dust on the floor has arranged itself into a pattern. Cooper, making a leap that comes out of nowhere, concludes that an extraterrestrial intelligence sent gravitational waves to create the pattern, which he deduces is a binary code that represents coordinates. Sure, okay… I guess I’d think that too.

He follows the coordinates, along with his stowaway daughter, and they stumble across a secret NASA facility run by Dr. John Brand, who was one of Cooper’s college professors. Cooper learns that Brand has been leading a mission to send spaceships through a recently discovered wormhole to planets that could offer new hope for human resettlement, since Earth is going down the tubes.

Brand is happy to discover that Cooper is still around and recruits him to replace a crew member on one of these spaceships. Even though advanced technology still exists, Brand apparently had no way of finding Cooper, who of course needs no training before rejoining the astronaut corps. Whose spot did Cooper take, and how did that person feel about it? We never know.

In addition, Cooper has very little problem with leaving his kids behind, even though they’ve already lost their mother and they’ll need to rely on their elderly grandfather. Of course, since Interstellar relies on accurate science, Cooper will age very little while he’s gone, but his kids will have to endure decades without him. The explanation is that he’s doing this to help save humanity, but it’s not clear what he brings to the table besides his prior experience, nor why his never-seen replacement couldn’t do the job just as well.

Cooper blasts off with Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), two other scientists, and two rectangular robots named TARS and CASE, who speak just like humans, which is eerily disconcerting. That’s the point, of course: we’re so used to robots speaking with non-human-sounding inflections that hearing one that sounds just like a human will be jarring when the day comes. I wonder if people will insist on adding robot voice modules to the software, so they can feel like they’re talking to an appliance.

With that poorly plotted first act out of the way, Interstellar moves into the meat of the story, where the science takes over and the humans’ interactions with each other make more sense. Cooper and his team head for a planet previously visited by another scientist, only to find that person is dead and that the world is covered by a shallow ocean full of massive tidal waves. One of those waves hits the team and kills one of Cooper’s team members. On top of that, the planet’s proximity to a supermassive black hole means that the extreme gravitational forces dilate time and cause seven Earth years to pass for every hour they spend there.

After leaving that planet, 23 years have passed on Earth, which we visit to find that a now-adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) is working with Dr. Brand, who makes a shocking revelation on his death bed. Meanwhile, Cooper’s team only has enough fuel to visit one more planet, so they head for the planet from which Mann (Matt Damon) is still transmitting data. Another revelation happens on that planet, coupled with the discovery of the revelation from Dr. Brand, and the race is on to get back to Earth, where conditions are getting worse.

I’ve seen a few complaints online about Interstellar‘s final act, and the idea that love is a force that can be used to communicate across the cosmos, like gravity, but I didn’t have any qualms with that. I liked the way the film ends, even if it was a bit hokey — I thought the problems were found in the way the first act set up the story. Those issues weren’t enough for me to say that this is a terrible film, just that it could have been much better.

This Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD set features a second Blu-ray disc housing the extras, which is nice. Too many major films come with scant bonus features these days, but Interstellar doesn’t skimp in that regard, starting with the 50-minute The Science of Interstellar, which McConaughey narrates. That one is an in-depth look at all the smartypants stuff that went into the film, with Thorne showing up often to explain the ideas in layman’s terms.

Then we have Inside Interstellar, a series of featurettes that clock in at almost two hours. I don’t understand why they weren’t just joined into one big documentary; the start-and-stop nature of this kind of presentation is not viewer-friendly. However, the material is worthwhile, starting with the film’s origin and moving into every aspect of the making of it, including the effects, the score, on-location shooting, ways that zero-gravity environments were simulated, and much more. The amount of practical effects used in this film is fascinating, including the miniatures that were built.

Four theatrical trailers round out the bonus disc. Another disc contains the film on DVD, and an included code allows you to redeem a digital copy of it on Ultraviolet or on iTunes. Finally, there’s a cell included from the original 70mm IMAX film print.

RATING 7 / 10