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The Ride Is Visceral, But The Heart Is Superficial In 'Interstellar'

Legendary Pictures

For all its sound and fury, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a movie about a guy who misses his daughter. It takes place in a future that looks like the dust bowl of the 1930s. The dust blows – Nolan does not conjure up minor storms – and people are frantic and miserable. Still haven't seen the space opera? Tread carefully, spoilers ahead.

In what's not a coincidence, a guy named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) winds up with his young daughter Murph at a secret NASA installation. Before he returned to farming in this drought and fire-plagued land, Cooper had been a famous pilot. Lickety-split, he agrees to go on a very, very long mission through a wormhole, a shortcut in the fabric of space, to try to find a new, undamaged world for us desperate human beings.

When I was a kid, my mind always boggled at conversations about the vastness of space and time. It still does, and that's the territory where Interstellar runs riot. Cooper and his comrades on the mission to save humanity land on one planet where every hour spent on the surface, means seven years go by on Earth – and Cooper wants to get back to that beloved daughter before she grows old and dies.

Time is one big problem – although there are many big problems, including a loony explorer stranded from an earlier mission (Matt Damon).

One might say that Interstellar has some story problems that are not yet worked out. The film can look pasted together. When Cooper or his comely co-pilot Brand (Anne Hathaway) talk about the problems with time and gravity, it's glib and smells of baloney.

Few viewers though will see this movie because they have a serious interest in space travel or physics. The film's about sensation, the jolts from sudden events or loud noises. That's the aesthetic territory Interstellar inhabits - it's just not enough.

The movie conjures up a couple of startling environments. One planet has immense waves, so that Cooper's ship looks like it's surfing. Another planet is rocky and icy. These sights are nice to look at, and director Christopher Nolan cooks up some adventures, all of them with music that crashes down on you like those waves on the watery planet. Interstellar dishes out nearly three full hours of hyperbole.

The time the metaphors have some kick is near the end of the picture. Without giving away the story, Cooper is desperate to get back to the daughter he promised he would return. He's blocked by time and distance, and between him and his daughter are layers of superimposed images that neither of them can see through nor penetrate – yet each knows the other is on the far side. What's clear and potent is their raw urgency.

Director Christopher Nolan is reaching for epic, and he has a fluid visual imagination. But he brings a blunt sense of image and event to Interstellar. Nolan doesn't have the grace and delicacy of Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We don't live in a delicate or graceful time; our time is angry, but Nolan also doesn't have Kubrick's subtlety or irony or depth. He's stuck on the surface of things.

At least four times in Interstellar a character recites part of the famous Dylan Thomas poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night," and by the last recitation, it's grown silly and annoying. Yet the film still presents it naively for its most superficial meaning.

The subject of space – and people in space – deserves epic treatment. Space is big and scary, and for most of us human beings, the survival of humanity is important. But epic isn't superficial or dumb, and it's not just raw. Homer's Odyssey constantly celebrates the artifacts of human civilization, as well as the feelings. Odysseus doesn't just get to waltz into the home he left 20 years ago; he can't just want to be home – he has to prove that he's really who he says he is.

Interstellar lets Cooper and us off too easy.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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