The Fault in Our Stars: The Empty Wonder of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ and the Overwrought ‘The Theory of Everything’Paramount Pictures
With any work of science fiction, you’re waiting for the big reveal — The Revelation, the thing that says: This is why you’ve been sitting here, this is why you spent all of that money. THIS!
By the time Christopher Nolan gets to that moment, he’s already contorted the plot enough times to deliver on a promise of entertainment. We’ve seen Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway put on space suits and fling themselves across the universe; we’ve experienced a new, maybe more accurate representation of wormholes. There are robot sidekicks with settings for humor and discretion that look like a brainteaser had a baby with the Monolith from 2001; there’s the appearance of an unbilled movie star who injects some real poignancy and suspense.
Interstellar asks — in all seriousness — Are we there yet? And what does “there” even mean? Once this movie got to where it was going (that takes about two and a half hours), I had an involuntary spasm of laughter. What else could I do? Partly, I laughed at the cleverness of the revelation. The sequence delivers. And partly, I laughed because Nolan believes cleverness is the same thing as audacity. He thinks that the click of realization is profound, that it’s the key — when, really, it’s just the gears of a giant machine locking into place. All of this effort, all of these questions, all of this movie, and for what? There is no there there.
Nolan might like to think that, with Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and now Interstellar, he’s exploring important existential questions (and, frequently writing with his brother Jonathan, he actually is), but there’s always the sense that the person making these movies has no sense of thematic proportionality. The “about” is out of whack with the “what.” These movies are about Loss. They’re about Love. They’re also spiritually generic. They require a lot of production just to make “change” rhyme with “rearrange.” With Interstellar, you know you’re in for it when, in the opening scenes, it’s clear the movie is about Family — the mythic farm family, the stuff of paintings and WPA photographs. Not America, per se, but Americana.
The Nolans plant some actual characters onto that landscape, but it’s too arid for anything interesting to grow. McConaughey plays Joseph “Coop” Cooper, a widowed engineer whose ace piloting skills are as vestigial as this movie’s Field of Dreams version of baseball now appears to be. The government of the agrarian state needs him to farm corn, which he does with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two kids, 10-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and teenage Tom (Timothée Chalamet). The planet is down to its last drops. Crackpots are teaching junk history in the schools. Children are being told they can only become farmers. And the air is increasingly rich with gas that will soon cause everyone to suffocate. Interspersed amid the early action are documentary clips featuring older folks (including one played by Ellen Burstyn) who recall years of blight and one particularly cataclysmic dust storm. They’re like interviews from a Ken Burns film playing in a gallery at some historical museum.
The story begins well after whatever environmental catastrophe wiped out much of mankind, but just in time for the last okra harvest. Now the only thing left to grow is corn, suggesting that Nolan has either a great sense of self-deprecating irony or none. Murph believes ghosts haunt their farmhouse. How else to explain the books that leap from the shelf in her bedroom to the floor? Coop tells Murph to turn to science to explain the ghosts. Perhaps the ghosts were what inspired him to hop into his pickup truck, drive to the middle of nowhere, and stumble upon the secret headquarters of NASA, which, because agriculture has trumped aeronautics, functions as an immense underground laboratory.
That happens to be where scientists, including a professor named Brand (Michael Caine), have been working for years to find earthlings a new home on a distant planet. A handful of manned probes have been sent up for exploration. One system is showing potential, and Coop is asked to pilot a confirmation mission (on a ship called Endurance) that includes Brand’s daughter Amelia (Hathaway), an astrophysicist (David Gyasi), a geographer (Wes Bentley), and that pair of robots, the talkier of which is voiced drolly by Bill Irwin. The rub of the mission is the matter of relativity. What hours are to the Endurance crew are years back on Earth. The longer they take to get answers, the older their loved ones will get.
Sadly, until Foy ages into Jessica Chastain, you don’t care to spend much time at NASA, and even then you’re just waiting for Nolan to get to the good stuff. As Endurance powers through wormholes and enters inhospitable environments, the director gets to dazzle just as he did with all of the larcenous burrowing in Inception. That movie went down. Interstellar goes out. What Nolan lacks in intellectual and emotional depth, he makes up for in pliable vastness. (He does more refolding than a stock girl at the Gap.) But at his best, he makes you believe that the worlds he’s inventing have no end, and that time and space truly are as manipulable as he claims.
Nolan’s cosmic wonder is tethered to so much hoariness. No one does anything in one time frame that doesn’t eventually bear upon another moment. Everyone speaks in portents, with nostalgia and lament. Lithgow’s character remembers when mankind was trying to create and invent. “We were doers,” he says, “not caretakers.” When Murph complains to Coop that the kids at school teasingly assume she was named after Murphy’s Law, he has to explain what that is. The best interactions in the movie occur much later, when there’s more at stake, and Chastain and Hathaway get something to play. Wounded anger might be to Chastain what melisma is to Mariah Carey: home. In the thick of the mission, Coop and Amelia are surprised by a practical dilemma — the Endurance has the capacity for only one more wormhole jaunt, and has to choose between two destinations. Amelia has a personal reason for preferring one. The other is a more random crapshoot. They argue over whether her emotional reasoning makes less sense than his pragmatism. The scene gives Hathaway an opportunity for her eyes to go glassy and for her goosey manner to sour. Everything imposing about her comes from the narrowing of those eyes. They’re like phases of the moon. McConaughey’s return to space is his first since nearly denying Jodie Foster the opportunity in Contact. He coasts on his cowboy guile here. He’s almost too charismatic for this kind of heartland dystopia, but he modulates effectively.
If only Nolan knew how to build a movie up with emotion that didn’t come exclusively from good acting. The farther out Interstellar goes, the more bound to tired feelings it becomes. Fear of never again seeing a parent or a child should get to you more than it does here. But it feels as if father-daughter bonds were the best they could do. It’s conceptual and taken for granted rather than explored. The Americana is meant as a kind of shorthand. Coop and Murph’s bond across time isn’t meant to move; it’s supposed to represent all such bonds. Nolan is a pop director, but a limited one. For him, a powerful image doesn’t exactly involve people and emotion; rather, it’s about figures in motion. With something like Inception or the last two installments of his Dark Knight trilogy, that power can get to you, even if some of it’s ultimately senseless. But here, the movie is too notional to be affecting. The most touching thing that occurs involves a character putting his arms around another. It’s unexpected — for him, the other characters, and us. It’s the one time the film opens into the sort of harrowing existential place that Alfonso Cuarón sustained for all of Gravity.
Interstellar doesn’t fully recover from it, and that passage goes off the rails because Nolan feels like he has to give himself an action sequence. But why? For a visionary, he’s surprisingly cautious, and some of that caution makes him seem naive. Take all the talk of love in Interstellar — as a feeling, as inspiration, as a physical property. The Swiss Army knife treatment dulls the movie’s scientific cutting edge. Love is what makes us human. It’s also what makes a Subaru a Subaru.
Great outer-space science fiction confronts you with the vastness of a void. It doesn’t have any answers, because there are none. Something like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey operated in discrete movements. I watch it at least once a year, hoping to get closer to a true understanding. But meaning, in any strict sense, is tantalizingly elusive. Kubrick was dreaming, and that’s the dream other directors often seem helpless trying to reproduce. So many movies want to evoke Kubrick’s, but it’s dispiriting that so few feel free to go as far as he did. It’s not just the light show. It’s his insistence on creepiness and human smallness and angst. You can go anywhere in the movies. So Kubrick did. The original iterations of Star Wars and Star Trek took up the boundless cause of the space odyssey.
Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from 1977, brought outer space to Earth, but only to present a father’s sugar-free abandonment of his family in order to hang out with aliens as an act of follow-your-bliss heroism. It remains the most movingly obnoxious, completely sincere ending I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie. What a crazy way to send home an audience. But Spielberg earned that ending. That film was about religious calling and the confirmation of faith. There’s that great moment up at the mountain lab, where the scientists play for the spaceships the five-tone electronic micro-symphony, and there’s a cut to Melinda Dillon, up in the rocks, singing along in frustrated rapture. “I know that,” she says, through tears, all the work and faith and presumed insanity paying off. You get emotional with her.
Spielberg is a wide-shot director. His power as an emotionalist arrives at the moment when it all clicks for everybody, when the personal becomes popular, when belief upends doubt in public, when many become one. Nolan doesn’t have Spielberg’s skill with framing. But when Nolan is on, he can make the popular private, the immense intimate. He’s also more convincing when circumstances are grim. The Dark Knight’s nihilism was the most comprehensively persuasive atmosphere he’s conjured. He bore into some of those characters, even while building a wider urban world. The atmosphere was viral. When district attorney Harvey Dent becomes the villain Two-Face, it’s past the film’s halfway point. Dent’s girlfriend has just been blown up. He makes an arguably rational embrace of the movie’s bleakness.
That film’s characters felt like a breakthrough for Nolan, who’s a better puzzle-maker than a pure storyteller. What makes you laugh about him when some of his non-Batman films reach their climax is his apparent belief that the puzzle is doing more work than it is. For me, the mere ingenuity of the puzzle is enough. But it’s not for him. He’s got to build for his movies the soul that other films are born with. In Interstellar, Nolan pours on and misconstrues Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” refurbishes warped dreamscapes from Inception, and ends the film three times. The images photographed in 70mm Imax, by Hoyte Van Hoytema, are as gorgeous as you’d expect. (The many non-Imax shots look sludgy at that scale.) But the incongruity becomes funny. He doesn’t realize these people just aren’t as cool or compelling as outer space. While you’re sitting there with McConaughey hovering in a mild panic (this man does not freak out) and Nolan’s grand machine of a movie has just clicked into place, it occurs to you that, for all the relativity and eternity, Interstellar itself is small. It gives you everything you want in a vision of the future, everything except awe.
Liam Daniel/Focus Features
“There should be no boundary to the human endeavor,” we’re told at some point in The Theory of Everything. But how would this movie know? There are enough boundaries in it to induce claustrophobia. The mind of the cosmologist Stephen Hawking would seem to be its own kind of deep space, but who needs that, when you’ve got access to his heart? This movie is even more comfortable with the familiar than Nolan’s. It’s based on the memoir Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) wrote about her marriage to Hawking (Eddie Redmayne). In the film, they meet at a University of Cambridge party in 1963. While “Heat Wave” is playing, he sees her across the room.
They don’t dance. But, talking on the stairs, they do make a connection that leaves him infatuated. Later, when he sees her at a pub, she’s seated next to a boy. That’s more a minor obstacle than a red flag. He’s the one who pulls away, as Lou Gehrig’s disease begins to hijack his body. First, he’s unable to operate clothespins. Then he’s walking with two canes, like a sort of upright crustacean. Eventually, he’s left in a palsied rictus that requires a wheelchair. After his diagnosis, Jane has to chase him around campus to profess her love. He’s been told that he’s got only two years to live and says he needs to get to work. But the disease seems to make her want him all the more.
Cue the elevator music set to a wedding/baby-at-home montage. (The movie gets a kick out of Hawking’s working genitals.) The marriage itself is a triumph of patience and admiration, but it isn’t easy. The film quietly shifts its focus to Jane, whose academic career stalls while his soars. The children keep coming. Stephen frolics with them while Jane sits at the kitchen table, with an open book, forlorn. “Join the church choir,” says her mother (Emily Watson). “That’s possibly the most English thing anyone has ever said,” Jane replies. But of course, in the next scene she drops by a church and makes inquiries to a cute young organist, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), who becomes both her lover and a member of the family, volunteering, with Stephen’s blessing, to help with Hawking’s care.
Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten are content to make a melodrama. While Jane and Jonathan consummate their affair on a camping trip, Stephen is in Bordeaux at a Wagner opera. Obviously, while they make love, Stephen falls ill, and the camera’s cutting confers a kind of guilt upon the affair, producing possibly the most English juxtaposition anyone has ever attempted. As the lovers drive away from the campsite, there’s a cut to the taillights of the car in front of them, filling the screen with red. No, you stop!
From there on out, it’s nothing but tedious decorum — Graham Greene without the fervor or shame. These are good people, behaving altruistically. The peals of laughter from Stephen’s new assistant, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), arouse Jane’s envy, but only because you sense that she feels she’s failed to continue delighting her husband. (Mason would become Hawking’s second wife in 1995.) Conversations about religion, relativity, and quantum mechanics rarely leave the dinner table. (“String theory” refers mostly to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s swollen score.) The accolades just magically pile up for Stephen (along with some unusually good middle-age makeup for both Hawkings).
Marsh furnishes some nice touches. Jane gives Stephen her phone number and he stares at the digits as if they’re an equation to solve. Some of the flourishes are distractingly precious. There’s a shot in a staircase that’s made to resemble geometry’s golden spiral; Stephen’s interest in the reversal of time inspires the movie to play itself backward at the end. And Jones is nearly always in green or framed near it. She doesn’t have much to act. Virtue and guilt aren’t the most vivid qualities, and she doesn’t get to perform any variations on them. Half the time, she’s playing a negligible consecration. It’s like watching a talking postage stamp.
What Redmayne does is impressive. He’s not worried about being understood. When he speaks, his head is thrown back and his mouth up, like a drowning person immersed to his lips in water. That’s how he sounds, too. He resembles the young Hawking and is made to resemble the old. (The real Hawking is 72.) But Redmayne isn’t doing My Left Brain; the movie doesn’t ask for Hawking’s prickliness or idiosyncrasy, just his purity. To that end, Redmayne also looks like Julie Andrews and Hilary Swank, and that’s what he gives off: saintliness. The postage stamp married a pane of stained glass.
This all creates a drama that feels good, that’s moving. But it seems ancillary to Hawking’s genius, which has gotten fuller, riskier tributes from Errol Morris, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory, all featuring the man himself. Morris’s 80-minute 1991 documentary — which shares a title with Hawking’s most famous book, A Brief History of Time — dares to find a visual equivalent for Hawking’s ideas, to connect that thinking to Hawking’s life. There are no limits for Morris. The Theory of Everything has wedged that life into such a formula — the wearisome origin story — that, ultimately, it doesn’t taste like anything. There might be some value in a depiction of this iconic man’s life as human — that he can have sex and ask for a divorce. But this is a man who, when inaccurately told he has two years to live, asks, “What about my brain?” Here? It’s pickled.