Review of Interstellar

Film reviews

This review of Interstellar (2014) comes “only” one and a half years after my previous review. You can tell that I don’t have a set schedule for these.

My background

Considering all the intense feelings around Christopher Nolan that often rear their enraged heads through online amateur reviews, I must profess where I stand from the outset. I am neither a “fanboy” nor a “hater” of the Nolan brand. I prefer his work up to and including The Prestige, but not much of his work afterwards, so any overall attachment balances out. I don’t feel as if I have something to prove when watching or discussing his films.

That said, I am a science fiction fan (“fan” with a lowercase “f” if you know what I mean; don’t expect me at the next Comic-Con) so I thought this might make for interesting viewing. Lately I did some layman reading on cosmology for an unrelated project, so either I knew enough to grasp the scientific concepts in the film or I was delusional enough to believe so.


Not impressed.

We start off with a dry, dusty, dismal, dying future where the protagonist (played by a perpetually bored Matthew McConaughey)  struggles to keep up harvests on his family farm. We are shown (i.e. beaten on the head by) suggestions that a “ghost” is pushing books off his daughter’s bookshelf. At that point I hoped that the climax would not involve the typical sci-fi transcendence of space and time, with the protagonist becoming this “ghost” and using his new-found cosmic powers to push some books around. But more on this later.

From that point the film reveals two of its biggest flaws – bad pacing and bad characters. The family spends a long time going through exposition, bonding, baseball, education issues and hacking an Indian drone but never build much of a substantial relationship in the viewer’s mind. It just serves to repeatedly hammer in the superficial point that the protagonist is an all-American family man who loves his daughter, but not much else.

After a very long time we finally get to something related to space and the premise when the protagonist stumbles upon a top secret NASA base. The scientists all unquestioningly conclude that his finding of the base must constitute advice from magical gravity beings (what a scientific deduction) and hire him as a space pilot for a world-saving mission almost on-the-spot. Yet even after launch, the film still drags on to a degree I haven’t seen since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What follows is more plodding filler scenes in orbit, near Saturn, in a lab and so on. Due to the effects of relativity, each hour passing on a watery planet they encounter is the same as seven years passing on Earth; due to the effects of slow pacing, each hour watching this movie certainly felt like seven years too. And this is coming from someone who could tolerate the pacing of Solaris!

At some point on the water planet a crew member dies, but I don’t remember his name, appearance or role since they were all interchangeable humans. At no point did I care about these bland, personality-deprived non-characters. This extended to the maudlin moments where the protagonist would mope over his daughter or vice versa, which just felt like shoehorned emotion without any real heart or connection. Instead of experiencing the stakes of aging, absence or the fate of the human species, I just wished for the plot to get somewhere.

The gravity of the mission never really weighs in on the audience (excuse the puns) as the characters always find ways to subsume it with their personal concerns. The protagonist never shuts up about his family and never fails to base his mission decisions on their fate only. Okay, we get it, you care about your family. Can we move on now? The primary plan of Anne Hathaway’s character turns out to be chasing THE POWER OF LOVE™. A stranded scientist played by Matt Damon jeopardises the mission and attempts to murder the protagonist to find a way off the planet. This may be intentional but it’s hard to hold any hope for humanity when these expeditions seem to be staffed by the least professional personnel available.

Near the end, the protagonist decides that he must hurl himself and a robot into the nearest black hole and send the recorded data back to Earth. He is convinced that this will work even though they establish that nothing can escape a black hole and their craft has had no success in communicating back. If the plan succeeds, the protagonist’s daughter can save humanity by using the data to reconcile General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Apparently Loop Quantum Gravity doesn’t already do that (did the science advisor believe LQG to be less plausible than five-dimensional bulk gravity ghosts?). Besides, if one end of a wormhole is a black hole, shouldn’t they have this data already?

So he executes this plan and we get the non-twist that he becomes the “ghost” from the beginning of the film, which should surprise nobody. Well, who else would it be? The daughter herself? (which was my backup prediction). Using THE POWER OF LOVE™ which transcends space and time (groan), he sends the data back to his daughter and she saves humanity. There’s an epilogue with a cheap reunion but it just fills up time.

Lest anyone think that I hate this film through and through, it does have its good moments. Even if the opening scenes dragged on for too long, they worked well to establish a dreary world where human civilisation is stagnating painfully rather than the usual sci-fi apocalypse which happens in an instant. The CGI sequences of the wormhole travel and tesseract were gorgeous and unique with interesting visual concepts like light distortion and higher dimensions. Unlike many others I found the soundtrack to be rousing and powerful rather than needlessly bombastic. It’s a shame that none of it accompanied scenes with emotion of equal intensity.

What would I do?

Hypothetically, if I could change anything about Interstellar, what would it be?

As I’m sure anyone can infer by now, my biggest problem with the movie is the pacing. There is not enough content to last for 169 minutes; cutting down to a typical runtime of 90-120 minutes would suffice. The beginning spent too long lingering on Earth introducing the setting and characters without setting up the premise. I would have majorly restructured the film so it immediately starts out in space (like Sunshine) and builds up the characters and backstory through regular, well-timed flashbacks (like Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours or LOST). These would cover all of the crew members, not just the protagonist, who would have their own distinct personalities, motivations, roles and backgrounds (more than just “I miss my father” and “I am a family man”). This would give context to their behaviour and interactions in the “present”. We should care more about these characters, who they are and whether they succeed.

At the start of the third act, the cutaways would stop going to the past and start showing the time period when the children have grown up. Until this point the messages from Earth don’t get through, so we don’t get pointless teary moments until the relationships have been properly built up for the audience.

The missions should be more coherent and less improvised. There is a proper briefing. Nobody is hired on-the-spot. The previous exploration through the wormhole used orbital and aerial robots like in Alien Planet. Who is trying to find what, where, and report it back to whom, before what deadline? Stick to one thing. Cut out the time-wasting scenario with Matt Damon’s scientist.

The general concept behind the tesseract climax is fine, though it is executed as a predictable deus ex machina. Don’t bring in ghosts, gravity messages and trans-dimensional wormhole benefactors at the beginning. That sort of mystery is on-the-nose and the audience expects it to be explained eventually, negating any potential surprise. A good plot twist should be completely unexpected. I would make any climactic time travel explain events that the audience never realised needed an explanation, but make sense in hindsight.

The time travelling actions should be more interesting than pushing books and sending data. Maybe the protagonist interacts directly with the future, or interacts with the past of a hitherto unrelated character, or something of the sort. Maybe the actions of the protagonist directly lead to human civilisation transcending space-time, so the tesseract construction concept doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It also needs to feel justified thematically. The rest of the film had a strong emphasis on physics concepts and mentioned relativity a lot, which jars with the sudden revelation of infinite cosmic bookshelves inside a survivable black hole. Starting with the same fantasy tone would make the film consistent and make the climax more palatable.

The epilogue is unnecessary. The protagonist already reunited with his daughter  through all the time travel ghost stuff, which was cathartic enough. His actions have more meaning if they culminate in an ultimate sacrifice, so he should die in the black hole’s singularity.

Some other minor changes I would have made:

  • Show alien landscapes that actually look alien, not just the ocean and Iceland.
  • Cut out the Disney-esque, New Age, hippie nonsense about THE POWER OF LOVE™.
  • Stop repeating that poem so many damn times.
  • Make the robot less annoying.

Final verdict

Pretty sights and a booming soundtrack can’t make up for dull pacing, flat characters, a predictable plot and contrived cheese.