More Dickens than Kubrick: Interstellar

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I went into Interstellar with a bad attitude. I wanted to hate this movie. It’s three hours long. It stars swaggering/ posturing Matthew McConaughey, an actor I find as irritating as sand in my shoe. It has Anne Hathaway who is not that far behind McConaughey in the line of annoyingly self-satisfied celebs. It is directed by Christopher Nolan, who seems to have gotten more ponderous and more pretentious with every successive flick. Hell, it has a score by Hans Zimmer, who has gotten so lazy that most of his latter-day scores seem like they were composed on auto-pilot by a drum machine.

I’m an ass. And I was wrong.

I loved this movie.

It is, in fact, too long by half and, yes, is a bit ponderous and pretentious. All of the aforementioned annoying attributes of cast and crew are apparent. And the score does sound like a drum machine having a nervous breakdown … a really LOUD! nervous breakdown. Yet, it all works so beautifully.

The film has been billed as Nolan’s version of 2001, but I found the movie more Charles Dickens than Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative involves slow-moving, quietly-haunting, ethereally-staged space travel with the future of all mankind at stake, but at its heart, this is a film about the devastating impact of time’s passage and of well-intentioned decisions that unfortunately drive wedges between family/friends. There are moments, especially toward the film’s gonzo, fever-dream denouement that I thought I was watching A Christmas Carol … if staged by Twyla Tharp. That’s a compliment, by the way.

The older I get, the more I realize what an underrated gem Dickens’ holiday novella is. “Underrated” may seem like a strange word choice for something so widely known, but A Christmas Carol is often viewed as a lesser literary work or as a holiday novelty or as both. What Dickens captures so elegantly/efficiently, though, is that, with each year, we add layers and layers of memories – good and bad – and all the regrets and heartaches that accompany … like an ever-expanding box of ornaments gathering dust in the attic.

This is the psychological murk in which Interstellar traffics. Space exploration is but a metaphor for our unyielding pursuit of some brief, crystalline moments of unadulterated joy amidst all the sadness life brings.

The film is set in a disturbingly near-time future, a Ray Bradbury-esque Earth, where all of our selfish consumption has reduced our planet to a cruel, barren dustbowl in which the only remaining growable crop is corn. The world no longer needs engineers or scientists or professors – rather just people willing to grow corn with the aid of mindless robotic farm implements.

America appears to have been reduced to one continuous farm town (blink and you’ll miss the New York Yankees, now quite literally a farm team, playing ball in a sad little cornfield), and, periodically, the citizens have to set fire to the latest round of blight-infested crops. The only upshot I could see is that these circumstances finally force everyone to go vegetarian/vegan. 🙂

Nolan’s great gift is how he uses fantasy as metaphor for present-day turmoil. (See Dark Knight Rises for his take on the 1% ruling class). Interstellar is no exception. His muted gray yet epically widescreen cinematography creates some of the most indelible images in recent memory of our ongoing environmental crisis.

In the midst of this ecological upheaval, and in one of the film’s seemingly more nonsensical moments, McConaughey’s “Cooper” and his beloved daughter “Murphy” stumble across a hidden cadre of space scientists who decide that Cooper (yes, he just happens to be a former astronaut himself!) is our only hope to pilot the last remaining rocket ship off the planet, in order to find a new (less angrily dusty) world for us to inhabit.

If this movie weren’t so purposeful, so moving, and so well-acted, I would have lost it right there and been forcibly carried out of the theatre, racked by a convulsive giggle fit.

McConaughey and Hathaway are surrounded by top-shelf talent like Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine, all exhibiting gravitas and heartache in poignantly compelling spades. There’s a surprise cameo that I won’t spoil, but said unnamed actor (whom I typically find a bit boring) does a marvelous job in a pivotal role as an appropriately dubious explorer.

Heck, we even get some subtly funny voice work from delightful Bill Irwin as robot companion TARS, a sleek automaton who bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant, walking/talking deck of cards. Humor? In a Nolan film? Crazy talk! That alone should tell you this is a (sort of) different direction for him. Sort of.

There is a lot of gobbledy-gook pseudo-science talk: singularity! relativity! event horizon! There are a lot of epically dreamy long-shots of planets and cosmic gases and spinning spacecraft. There are a lot of lines that are trying so hard for deep poetic thought that they sounds stilted and just darn goofy. And, yes, there is a lot of furrowed-brow, sweaty-faced ACTING!

Eventually, though, our intrepid spacefaring crew do end up on other worlds, most of which are as deadly as the one they left behind. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises (or the movie’s more head-scratchingly kooky moments), but, in essence, humanity prevails … quite literally. The film, in total, is an argument for our innate goodness, even when we aren’t sure of it ourselves. Whether today or tomorrow, we will help each other and we will care.

This is a more hopeful message then we typically see in a Christopher Nolan production, and the optimism suits him.


Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

17 thoughts on “More Dickens than Kubrick: Interstellar

  1. The analogy to Dickens is brilliant. I hadn’t thought of that. I enjoyed this film. It’s a fascinating exploration of time. The scene of that stacked bedroom, you know the one I mean? That was really cool.

  2. you are brilliant! this is absolutely beautiful…you should be employed by the film industry…you even have me wanting to go see MATTHEW? that is quite a feat…I cannot tolerate that guy. cast notwithstanding, the idea of filming a meaningful story would be the story itself…sounds like that happens in this case…been awhile since that’s happened in contemporary cinema! how promising…a great review by a real writer about what appears to be a real script for a change!

    • thanks! you are wonderful – you taught me everything. I agree with you about Matthew 110% – and, don’t get me wrong, this is still a slog (and has a few too many moments like “Inception” where you wonder if they’ve totally jumped the rails) but I thought it had a lot of interesting points to make. I also left this out, but there were a few too many moments where the dialogue was a bit hard to decipher/hear, which bugs me to pieces.

      On Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 2:31 PM, Reel Roy Reviews wrote:


  3. what an amazing review. not sure i am wanting to devote a whole afternoon to this film, but after reading your stellar review, i may be willing to give ‘interstellar’ a chance.

  4. “Gobbeldy-gook pseudo-science talk?”
    Relativity and its cousin, gravitational time dilation, are real things that happen in the real world. A Singularity is the core of a black hole, which is formed when a ginormous star goes supernova and the core collapses in on itself so much that it basically can’t stop collapsing. The Event Horizon is the point of no return on a black hole, where nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational pull.

    Bro, they followed real physics as much as possible in that movie. They consulted a prominent astrophysicist who’s spent his life studying black holes and had him doctor both the script and the special effects. He actually helped develop equations for the CGI used in the black hole and wormhole scenes and they ended up being so accurate that they actually made a few new discoveries on how gravitational lensing works (gravitational lensing is the distortion that appears around massive bodies in space, because its mass is so huge that its gravity bends light around it. It’s a real thing.)

    …This is why we need more STEM majors in this goddamn country. Or people who pay attention to goddamn science class in high school.

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