Did I miss something?
Because while I don’t regret having spent three hours watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” I can’t quite shake the feeling that there’s less here than meets the eye.
That maybe the Emperor has no clothes.
The film has an epic scope, great visuals, good performances and a payload of scientific/metaphysical ideas percolating throughout.
And unlike many of Nolan’s efforts (among them the most recent incarnation of Batman, “The Prestige” and “Inception”), it has a backbone of genuine emotion.
But why, when the lights came up, was my reaction more “meh” than “wow”?
The film begins in a not-too-distant future. Earth is rapidly dying. Corn is about the only crop not devastated by blight and massive dust storms.
Former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConauhey) works a farm in what might be eastern Colorado. A widower, Coop lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and his two kids. He’s got a special relationship with Murph (Mackenzie Foy), a fiercely intelligent girl who reports ghostly goings-on in her room, with books being pulled from the selves by invisible hands.
This activity and other clues lead Coop and Murph to a secret base in the mountains where what’s left of NASA (as far as the public knows the program has been shut down) is working on a project to save humanity.
Coop’s old mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine…always the voice of reason in Nolan movies) explains that a decade earlier a human crew was sent into space, through a wormhole near Saturn, and into another galaxy to look for Earth-like planets to which humanity might migrate.
That earlier mission is presumed lost. Now a second is being mounted. Coop’s arrival is serendipitous — he was NASA’s best pilot — and he is recruited to head the new effort.
But that means saying goodbye to Murph, who is angry and devastated by what she sees as a betrayal by her beloved father.
This takes up “Interstellar’s” first hour. The rest of the film alternates between the mission in space and the lives of Coop’s family back on Earth.
With Coop are Prof. Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). Also on hand is a robot, TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), who can be about as human as he is programmed to be.
They explore an ocean planet ravaged by 50-story tsunamis. They visit a frigid snow planet, and discover one of the earlier astronauts, whom they awaken from cryogenic sleep.
But there are fatalities along the way. Not to mention the dangers of a human mind pushed too far.
And finally there’s a trip into a black hole, where time and space twist in upon themselves and Coop discovers the truth — insofar as it is comprehendible to puny human minds — about those ghostly happenings back in Murph’s bedroom.
It’s a huge, complicated saga peppered with intriguing ideas. For instance, the theory of relativity comes into play when Cooper and Brand set down on one planet for just an hour and return to the mothership to find that 23 years have passed for the crew member left on board.
Similarly, when Coop at long last receives a transmission from his estranged daughter, Murph is now a grown woman (and played by Jessica Chastain). But her resentment over being abandoned is as fierce as ever — providing the film’s devastating emotional high point.
“Interstellar” suffers from a fuzzy narrative. The film’s final 20 minutes strikes me as borderline preposterous — what is intended as a forehead-smacking revelation comes off more as a desperate attempt to make sense of everything and provide a happy ending — and the situation isn’t improved by the film’s spine-numbing running time. Longer does not necessarily translate as more important.
Nolan’s opus inevitably will be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Both films balance science with metaphysical speculation; both are about a space mission that could unlock mysteries about the nature of the universe.
Nolan (who wrote the screenplay with his usual collaborator, brother Jonathan Nolan) even courts comparison with the Kubrick film.
In “2001” it was the mental breakdown of HAL the computer that jeopardized the mission. Here it’s a human who goes haywire.
TARS, the onboard robot, is a large metallic slab that bears no small resemblance to the mysterious black monolith that kicks Kubrick’s film into motion.
Even some of the visuals — like a docking sequence with a gracefully revolving circular space station — remind of “2001.”
And like the earlier film, “Interstellar” is the sort of experience that splits viewers between rabid supporters and naysayers. It took years for the deliberately obfuscatory “2001” to be declared a masterpiece. Will the same be true of Nolan’s movie?
The reason “2001” works and “Interstellar” doesn’t, I believe, is that Kubrick never overplayed his hand. He suggested much but explained little, leaving a film that was as much visual poetry as speculative science fiction.
Nolan, on the other hand, is always explaining things. The dialogue practically collapses under the weight of all that scientific jargon.
When it comes to intergalactic woo-woo, less is more.