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What’s wrong with Interstellar? Let us count the ways.
This article contains major spoilers for Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight, and Interstellar, but don’t worry: Interstellar is a big carton of curdled milk anyway.
In space, no one can hear you facepalm. During its first weekend of release, Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated Interstellar underperformed at the box office, debuting behind Disney’s Big Hero 6. Although Interstellar is playing well with the fanboy crowd (who gave it high marks on cinema-dudebro-friendly IMDb, where three of Nolan’s movies count in the top 20 user-rated movies), it’s proven divisive with critics.
Inception and The Prestige had their detractors, but Interstellar is Nolan’s first movie to court critical ire. The New Republic’s David Thomson called it a “three-hour entertainment disaster,” while IndieWire’s James Rocchi said the film’s message was as “cheap…as any of the offerings at your local Hallmark card retailer.” Entertainment Weekly has since devoted two different inquiries into what’s going on in the film, not because the movie is too cerebral for a general audience but because the damn thing makes no fucking sense.
Interstellar isn’t Nolan’s first movie to struggle with basic story logic (as Roger Ebert pointed out, if Memento‘s Leonard can’t form new memories after his accident, how does he know he can’t form new memories?) or believable characters (cough, Ellen Page in Inception), but it’s by far his most egregious. What exactly is wrong with Interstellar? Let us count the ways.
1) Hans Zimmer is a monster who needs to be stopped.
To quote a Dylan Thomas poem that Interstellar beats into the ground, Hans Zimmer isn’t the type to go gently into that good night. Like John Williams before him, a Zimmer score is another character in the movie, begging you to pay attention to the sheer profundity of the scene at the expense of actually hearing what’s going on. In his New Yorker review, David Denby agreed: “Delivered in rushed colloquial style, much of [the dialogue], central to the plot, is hard to understand, and some of it is hard to hear. The composer Hans Zimmer produces monstrous swells of organ music that occasionally smother the words like lava. The actors seem overmatched by the production.”
This was an issue in Inception, whose iconic gong-like interruptions had a way of drawing viewers out of the movie with their sheer volume. Like the most oppressive Transformers production, Interstellar is loud, and Zimmer doesn’t know when to turn it down, a problem that also plagued his deafening Pirates of the Caribbean scores. During a rocket launch into space, Zimmer’s organs pound even louder, leading audience members to clutch their ears in agony. Interstellar, thus, cements Nolan’s status as the thinking man’s Michael Bay.
If you must see Interstellar in theatres, my advice? Bring earplugs and keep them on for the rest of the movie. It’ll help.
2) The dialogue is utterly laughable.
As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out in his review for the Onion A.V. Club, Christopher Nolan (who co-wrote the script with his brother, Jonathan) isn’t the most nimble wordsmith when it comes to dialogue. “The best back-and-forths in his movies… are essentially cut-up monologues, interspersed with questions and delivered in tantalizing chunks,” Vishnevetsky wrote. “[E]very actor is given what’s essentially a thankless role, tasked with behavior and expository dialogue that ranges from impersonal to downright dumb, like the scene in which Romilly explains to Coop what a wormhole is… just as they’re about to finally fly into one.”
Why would Coop need an explainer about black holes if he’s a genius NASA pilot? That’s because in Interstellar, nearly every actor has the Ellen Page role, clunkily explaining things to the audience ad nauseam. Need an info dump about the laws of relativity and how they affect time? Here’s that five times. Did you love The Fifth Element and want Anne Hathaway to borrow that movie’s thesis in an accidentally hilarious monologue about how love “transcends the limits of time and space,” perfect. Here’s that as a future drinking game.
If you’re tabulating your drinking rules at home, I’ll give a head start: Finish your drink when Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper explains, with full Freudian overtones, that he’ll be the same age as his daughter when he gets back from space.
3) Christopher Nolan hasn’t the slightest clue how to write adult women.
A frequently cited issue with Interstellar is Anne Hathaway’s character, Dr. Brand, who is willing to throw away professionalism, common sense, and years of training just to be reunited with her boyfriend on an alien planet. It reportedly took Anne Hathaway seven months to get into character, and it’s easy to see why: Her character makes little sense. In a review for the Wrap, Alfonso Duralde argued that Nolan’s women tend to be “ruled by their, you know, lady feelings, before ultimately capitulating to the men around them, even though the men aren’t that stable themselves.”
Jessica Chastain, a two-time Oscar nominee, has it even worse: We’re expected to believe that, even though Murph’s father left Earth in order to save the world, that she’s still holding a grudge against him decades later, so much so that her entire life is nothing but daddy issues. If that’s the case, why is she then diligently working on the exact space program that he died for? Why has she spent her entire life following in the footsteps of a man she seems to hate? Nolan seems to excel at killing off women (Mal in Inception, Leonard’s wife in Memento, Rachel in The Dark Knight), because dead girls are easy. It’s the living ones who are all the trouble.
4) Nearly every character is wasted.
Jessica Chastain might have little to do except “[recycle] her Zero Dark Thirty performance,” as New York’s David Edelstein put it, but she gets off better than poor Wes Bentley. Bentley, an ostensible member of Cooper’s crew, hovers in the background until he’s inevitably offed like a red shirt on Star Trek, and Matt Damon’s role in the movie (as Dr. Mann, the chattiest Talking Killer in cinema history) is pointless and laughable. If he hopes to be saved, what exactly is his motivation in killing Cooper? Why doesn’t he just say, “Hey buddy, I’d like to get off this planet already. Can we go home now?” Is his behavior just a byproduct of space madness or bad writing? In Nolan’s world, probably both.
Cooper has two children, but you’d barely know it from the way his “unimportant son, Tom” is brushed to the side. Tom will later grow up to be Oscar-nominee Casey Affleck, who gets to be a gruff yokel with a beard who scowls a lot, and Nolan enlists That ’70s Show’s Topher Grace to do even less. Aside from giving ostensible girlfriend (which is never explained) Jessica Chastain a bloodless kiss, he smiles and wears dress shirts well. John Lithgow broods on a farm like something of a Steinbeck novel, and The Butler’s David Oyelowo briefly drops in be a mean principal who hates science.
The film’s most ridiculous cameo, however, has to be Ellen Burstyn, who shows up briefly as Old Lady Murph. After waiting centuries to be reunited with her father again, OLM (now on her death bed) has a brief conversation with her dad (to, like, catch up and stuff) before telling him to go off and make space nookie with Brand, who is conveniently stranded on a planet somewhere with a few hundred human embryos. For those keeping track, that means that the entire movie has really been about helping Matthew McConaughey move on from his Stock Dead Wife, all to get it on with a woman who barely even likes him. Saving the world must be just a nifty perk amidst all the Fantine hate-fucking.
5) How exactly does future NASA work again?
So Cooper magically decodes the coordinates to NASA when he realizes a bunch of dust in his room is actually binary code, and within two-ish minutes of being there, his old mentor has decided the he’s the right man for their space exploration project, even though it’s implied his previous simulations didn’t go so well. Dr. Brand the First (Anne Hathaway’s character’s father, played by Michael Caine) explains that Cooper was always the right person for the job anyway, except for that whole crashing thing. Except what was their plan before he showed up? Were they waiting for a binary code miracle to decide the future of the human race?
This future NASA also exists in a universe where we have no armies (a great idea with all this food rioting going on) and the public has turned against space travel. As Mean Anti-Science Principal’s associate explains, textbooks were re-written to state that the Apollo missions were faked (as a way to bankrupt the Russians or whatever), meaning that NASA has been defunded. Where then are they getting the billions of taxpayer dollars necessary to bankroll a trip that would be this ungodly expensive? And if you’re worried about saving the entire human race, why are all of your pilots and space station members from the West? Has India been wiped out by the scary monster wind from The Happening?
6) Christopher Nolan still has no idea how to name characters.
In Inception, viewers had to stomach a protagonist called Dom Cobb (who sounds more like a salad than a male lead), as well as some intensely on-the-nose naming in “Ariadne” and “Mal.” In Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of the Cretian King Minos, who oversaw the labyrinth; thus, it makes a certain amount of sense than Nolan would want to invoke that iconography to describe a character known as “The Architect,” whose job it is to open doors for the hero. It’s also wildly unsubtle, but not as much as called your antagonist the word for “bad” in Spanish. Was the translation for “Dastardly Yet Attractive Female” too cumbersome?
During one of Interstellar’s many nonsensical passages, Cooper mentions that he and his wife named their daughter “Murph” after the famous law. This was not because Murphy’s Law means “anything that can happen will happen at the worst possible time,” he explains, but because it really says “anything that can happen will happen.” That’s nice when you’re talking about multiverses, but what exactly does it have to do with anything? And weren’t they worried that kid was going to get her derriere kicked on the playground? Murphy Cooper sounds more like a firm in Mad Men than a girl enrolling in M. Night Shyamalan Middle School.
Murph joins a bunch of characters known as Doyle and Coop, but perhaps none is sillier than Dr. Mann. While hurtling through space on a rocket of love, Amelia (yup, like Earhart) promises that the doctor holds the key to their future. She actually says: “Mann will save us.” If Nolan has a script supervisor, (s)he should promptly be fired.
7) It might be the first movie in history whose plot hole is an actual hole.
As Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd points out, Interstellar is riddled with inconsistencies, like why NASA doesn’t send robots into space to explore the three possible planets. Nolan’s script dismisses the idea based on the silly argument that robots “can’t improvise” but they also won’t lure NASA into a 30-minute long death trap on Hoth. If aliens (plot twist, actually they’re evolved super-humans!) can help save humanity, why wouldn’t they put the black hole closer to Earth instead of all the way out by Saturn? If you can affect the fate of humanity, why don’t use your fifth dimension magic tricks to just save the planet instead of communicating in code like a celestial Peeping Tom? And why the hell doesn’t Michael Caine age the entire movie?
You can debate whether planets circling a black hole would be ripped to shreds all day, but the most maddening chicken-and-egg scenario is exactly how humanity got to the future in the first place. If the omnipotent humans need Matthew McConaughey to communicate the secret of love to his daughter through library book code in order to save humanity, how did that future race (ostensibly founded by McConaughey) come to exist to begin with? How are they communicating from a future that wouldn’t exist without the very actions with which they are currently intervening?
Nolan concocts a literal deus ex machina to get him out of the story’s black hole, but it doesn’t make the movie make any more sense. If only there were Benevolent All-Seeing Future Humans who could have traveled through time to help fix this movie instead.
Photo via Interstellar/Trailer
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.