I know where Interstellar went wrong. I knew the instant it happened. I may have uttered a small groan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s three or four generations into the future. Earth is drying up. Giant dust storms ravage the planet. Blight has eradicated all the world’s crops, save corn.
Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former test pilot/engineer who, like just about everyone else, must farm to survive. He hates it, but does it to support his two young children.
A series of gravitational anomalies lead him to the remnants of NASA. NASA has a plan to save humanity. They’ve discovered a wormhole near Saturn leading to potentially hospitable worlds. They’ve got a ship and crew ready. They just need a pilot.
Cooper agrees, even though the journey’s length means he’ll miss years of his children’s lives. If he makes it back at all.
The flight goes smoothly and the crew pass through the wormhole in a sequence that begs favorable comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the other side they assess their situation. They count three potential worlds, but the closest and most promising orbits the outskirts of a black hole. This creates a warping effect with time. An hour spent on the planet equates to seven years back on Earth.
They agree to be quick. Cooper pilots a shuttle craft to the planet’s surface. Of course, there are complications. They return just over three hours later, and learn twenty-three years have passed on Earth. Cooper checks his video mail. He sees his son graduate high school, meet a girl, and get married. He sees the birth and death of his grandson. Finally, he sees his son, now a man older than himself, say goodbye, resigned that Cooper is never coming back. Cooper has missed it all. It flattens him and us. Never has a movie conveyed the isolation of space travel like this.
Then Cooper gets a message from his daughter. They had a rough goodbye. She felt Cooper was abandoning her. Now, she’s a full grown woman, the same age as him. But she hasn’t forgiven his leaving.
And this brings us to the point I mentioned earlier. The point where Interstellar loses its way. The film cuts to Cooper’s daughter as she finishes her message. Now we’re back on Earth. No longer alone. Now, we have parallel stories, Cooper in space and Cooper’s family on earth. What started as a meditation on mankind transcending Earth devolves into a predictable melodrama. The special effects are fantastic, and the set pieces are tense and well-executed, but the film lacks anything new to say.
It’s tempting to think Interstellar’s reach exceeded its grasp. That it tried and failed. I don’t think it tried at all. Rather than explore new themes it settled for familiar dramatic scenarios. Granted, it executes those tropes with masterful precision, but it’s still a letdown. Interstellar doesn’t transcend the science fiction genre, it abandons it.