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Interstellar review

The most human characters in Interstellar's cardboard cast aren't human at all

“Anything that can happen, will happen.”

Murphy’s Law casts a long shadow over Interstellar, the ninth feature film from director Christopher Nolan. It’s the namesake of one of the film’s key characters, for one thing. The law itself is repeated time and again throughout Interstellar, serving as a hopeful reminder that no matter how dark things get, the dawn is coming.

But there’s another, arguably more popular reading of Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” That version of the adage doesn’t totally work with Interstellar, but there are failures here — big ones.

Set a few decades from now, Interstellar paints a bleak picture of our future. It’s a world where the concept of “billions” of people is a distant memory. The future has little need for engineers, problem-solvers, and thinkers; it needs farmers. It’s “the caretaker generation,” a world so low on sustenance that only a small portion of the population receives higher education, while everyone else works the land, dedicating their lives to generating more food.

Interstellar is a majestic movie, providing some of the most awe-inspiring imagery offered up in recent memory.

Food isn’t the only thing that’s fading. Oxygen is running out, too. There’s no two ways about it: Earth’s dying, and we’re dying with it — unless we leave.

To that end, the limited leftovers of NASA are hard at work on a plan: They’ve sent scientists into space through a wormhole, placed near Saturn by an inexplicable, unknown “They.” Signals from the first teams indicate that there are three potentially habitable planets through the wormhole. Now, a second wave of scientists must travel through the wormhole to determine whether or not we have a chance — and if we do, what to do about it.

In comes Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer born 40 years too late (or 40 years too soon) to do anything with his brilliant intellect, his abilities as a pilot, and his yearning to explore the stars. But when seemingly supernatural events lead him right to NASA’s door, the brilliant Professor Brand (Michael Caine) courts Coop as the interstellar mission’s pilot, alongside three other scientists (including his daughter Amelia, played by Anne Hathaway) and a pair of personality-infused robots named TARS and CASE.

Coop accepts the job, but only after he learns that his son Tom and daughter Murph’s generation will be humanity’s last on Earth. He holds hope that the mission will result in Tom, Murph and others on Earth finding a new home. But circumstances quickly call those hopes into question — quickly for Coop, at least, if not quite as fast for everyone else.

Interstellar movie review

The stakes have never been higher in a Christopher Nolan film. In the past, he’s dealt with themes of vengeance and redemption, told through broken individuals and heroes of legend who tear themselves apart in the service of grand ideas and the greater good. Interstellar takes those familiar themes and tales to all-new heights. It’s bigger than Batman saving Gotham. Here, Coop quite literally has to save the world.

In terms of scale, Interstellar clears the high bar and then some. It’s a majestic movie, best seen in IMAX, with snow-strewn landscapes, ocean planets, black holes, and wormholes providing some of the most awe-inspiring imagery offered up in recent memory. Interstellar is a beautiful film to behold.

But the movie never comes near the bar, in terms of characters and story. The introduction of NASA is so hurried and out-of-nowhere that it’s almost laughable. We know little about Coop’s crew beyond surface details; Wes Bentley’s Doyle has a ferocious beard, David Gyasi’s Romilly feels the heat of space-travel isolation, and Hathaway’s Brand… honestly, we never learn enough about Brand.

McConaughey is terrific as always, but not because he’s playing a brilliantly written character; it’s because, well, he’s McConaughey. Of course he’s terrific. Same story for Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy as the older and younger versions of Murph, Coop’s daughter; they’re great, and the closest thing Interstellar has to a fully realized human character.

Indeed, the best characters in the movie aren’t even human; they’re TARS and CASE, a pair of walking-and-wisecracking robots that look like the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith, albeit with moving parts and personality. There’s something endearing about their odd-looking, clunky aesthetic. Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart’s voice work supplies both bots with a touching amount of heart and soul.

This is Nolan at his absolute chilliest. It’s a ride worth taking — but you better bring a coat.

Great as they are, TARS and CASE represent Interstellar‘s, and Nolan’s, great failure. The robots come equipped with customizable personality settings; their humor and honesty levels can be programmed on a scale of one to 100%. It’s as if Nolan deliberately applied that formula to his characters. Fifty percent humor here, twenty percent humor there. In one character’s case, 98% cowardice, if not the full 100%. It’s how Nolan approaches character, and it’s never more apparent than here in Interstellar.

The result is a cast of characters that are vaguely human at best. That’s a big problem, given that the entire movie is about saving mankind. How do we invest in such a big idea when the individuals we meet along the way are so very blah? That question is front and center in the film — can we sacrifice the ones we love if it means saving the larger species? — but it’s a hollow question given who is on the line.

It’s not as if there isn’t time to flesh these characters out, either. Interstellar clocks in at 169 minutes, dangerously close to a three-hour runtime. You feel it, too. The movie is a marathon, filled with hyper-detailed jargon and expository dialogue that moves at a slow crawl. Given the runtime, Nolan has plenty of opportunity to create real people. He chooses not to.

Ambitious in scale and scope, armed with huge ideas and images to back them up, Interstellar is undeniably beautiful and awe-inspiring. But its message of saving humanity only resembles something vaguely human. It’s ice-cold, Nolan at his absolute chilliest. It’s a ride worth taking — but you better bring a coat.

(Media © 2014 Warner Bros.)