Review: How “Interstellar” resembles “How the West Was Won”

Interstellar movie poster

Interstellar owes a lot to the epic western genre.

Interstellar is a glorious tangle, an ambitious film that accomplishes much, but fails to grab the audience by the throat. Director Christopher Nolan delivers a sci-fi epic true to the Hollywood form, spanning galaxies and taking the viewer to places impossible to visit in real life. It expands on a classic American (indeed, human) theme–striking out for new lands–but falters when Nolan can’t escape the black hole of Hollywood cliches.

As father of two daughters, I’m a sucker for the film’s central relationship, that of test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, played by mumble-mouthed Matthew McConaughey, with his genius daughter Murphy, played by three different actors of various ages, most effectively by young McKenzie Foy. They live on a flat, dry, blight-ravaged landscape where ecological disaster has overtaken humanity’s ability to adapt. Climate change is the unspoken villain, though the emergency is scientifically non-sensical (“Earth is running out of oxygen!”). The most alarming aspect of this world is hopelessness, a sense that the land is finally wreaking its revenge on its human exploiters and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it.

Cooper is recruited to lead a desperate, last-chance-for-humanity mission through a wormhole to three potential worlds where humans could emigrate, and the ship carries a kind of frozen wagon train in case the astronauts are marooned and can’t lead living Earthlings to the promised land. The movie then falls to the first big cliche, that of Cooper as the “chosen one.” Thankfully, he’s not a Christlike figure, offering redemption to a sinful mankind, and Nolan with his brother Jonathan Nolan as scriptwriter add an unexpected twist, but the “chosenness” is almost force-fed to the audience.

The second big cliche, “follow your heart,” is embodied by physicist Amelia Brand, played by a disengaged Anne Hathaway. Brand is one of the four crew members on the wormhole mission, along with two other characters that Star Trekkies will ID immediately after liftoff as “red shirts,” characters who aren’t long for this world, or an alien world, for that matter. A major plot point concerns Cooper’s decision to ignore Brand’s pleas, which has disastrous consequences. As usual, it’s the woman pleading for an intuitive decision, while the man makes the rational one. Was the man actually wrong? Hard to tell, but look what happens when the dumbass doesn’t follow his heart. Later, when Cooper does make an emotional decision to follow Brand, it’s hard to understand why, because they achieve almost no emotional connection on screen.

Interstellar is visually excellent, often stunning with its GoPro-influenced photography, particularly during an encounter with a black hole. It’s impossible not to compare some sequences to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which set the cinematographic standard for space-time journeys. Careful observers will note that the Interstellar wormhole orbits Saturn, while the monolith in 2001 orbits Jupiter. Both are gateways to another time and place, but I guess director Nolan didn’t want to trespass on Stanley Kubrick’s real estate.

Interstellar wraps up with a nice Hollywood bow; it’s not a spoiler to reveal that–no surprise–father and daughter, once separated, are reunited, but on the new land pioneered in epic western fashion by the 21st century version of Lewis and Clark. It was all worth the cost, including a character who goes mad on a vast and lonely prairie, er, planet, and homo sapiens now has a fighting chance at survival. One hopes that’s the end of it.

What’s your take on Interstellar?

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