Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Christopher Nolan has produced a spectacular visual feast, the first such film to rival the look and feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but due to several missteps I'm still waiting for someone to surpass Kubrick's masterpiece. My expectations for a strong Hard SF tale were dashed fairly early, and it is unfortunate that I will have to venture into spoiler territory to explain my disappointment. I recently read that the script had been floating around for quite a few years, and at one time Spielberg had been attached to direct. That makes sense, because several elements of the plot are closer to his style than Nolan's, and I'm wondering if there would have been more changes to the script if it hadn't been written by Christopher's brother. At the current time the fan rating on IMDb is a ridiculously high 9.2, and I think the meta-critic score of 73% is still too generous. There are good things about it, don't get me wrong, but overall it's a stretch to give it even a 7. I'm as disappointed about that as anyone.
Please be warned, most of what follows will contain spoilers.
The first misstep is with the apocalyptic scenario on Earth. I consider myself to be moderate on most political and social issues. Yes, man has had a negative effect on the environment through the burning of fossil fuels, and we do need to put more emphasis on greener methods, but there have been cyclical changes in global weather patterns long before we began burning coal and oil, and surely long before those fossil fuels were formed in the first place. Even if you want to err on the side of total doom and gloom, don't insult me by placing that scenario in the very near future, and if you want me to buy into it for the story's sake at least be consistent. We're not given information of what year it is, but it can't be that far into the future since all the vehicles we see are no different than we drive today. McConaughey plays Cooper, a former NASA astronaut forced to become a farmer because that's what is needed most in this desolate future. He seems to be quite successful in growing corn, which is odd in light of the dust bowl conditions, and yet just a short distance from his farm we see clear blue skies and a relatively large water reservoir. Just before a huge dust storm, people are enjoying a baseball game on what appears to be a natural grass field that is lush and green. Have they been diverting water to that field instead of to the dusty corn fields? That is Strike One.
Due to some mysterious gravitational anomaly, which Cooper's daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) thinks is a message from a "ghost," she has deciphered a code which points to specific geographic coordinates. She hides in his truck as he sets out to find what might be at that location, and they come to a high, fortified fence. Before they can investigate they are blinded by spotlights and apprehended by unseen persons. Turns out they've stumbled upon a secret underground NASA facility, which is in the midst of constructing a vessel designed to go into a wormhole that has inexplicably appeared near Saturn. So, on the surface we have a society nearing extinction, but somehow we have billions of dollars to spend on a space mission of dubious merit? This is similar to one of the very few things I could criticize about Firefly. Humanity has the knowledge and resources to terraform hundreds of planets and moons in another solar system, but not the capacity to fix whatever is wrong with Earth-That-Was? Strike Two.
Professor Brand (Michael Caine, appearing in his sixth Nolan film) says that Cooper is (or was) NASA's best pilot. If that is the case, why was he kept out of the loop? They've already sent twelve separate ships through the wormhole, which supposedly leads to "another galaxy," to find a new home for humanity, but they've kept that secret from their best pilot? The new mission is to track the three signals still coming back through the wormhole and determine if any of them promises a new planet for settlement. Cooper decides he has to be a part of the mission, and he promises his family he will return. Here we get the best part of the film; the journey into and through the wormhole, and trips to two different planets. We are also introduced to the robots T.A.R.S. and C.A.S.E. They are of remarkable design, totally non-humanoid like, and I got the impression Nolan might have wanted to invoke memories of 2001's monolith. But we also get a scenario that is hard to believe. The first planet they choose to check is very near a black hole they have named Gargantua. Why they thought there was any chance it would be habitable is questionable, but there is still a beacon transmitting from its surface. It is likely that Nolan had the vision of the vast ocean-world with gigantic waves and wanted to see that on the screen himself. Too many films make the mistake of visual set pieces that don't further the basic story line. It also makes no sense that the beacon would have still been transmitting from this location. Strike Three.
In baseball it's three strikes and you're out, but of course that's not the end of the inning, so Nolan keeps swinging, and missing several more times. Time moved more slowly for Cooper and Amelia Brand (Hathaway) on the planet near the black hole, so when they return to the mother ship they find that their fellow crewman (Gyasi) has waited twenty-three years. The scene shifts back to Earth with the now adult Murphy (Chastain), who is working with Professor Brand, and yet Michael Caine looks pretty much as when we last saw him. There is another long and tedious sequence on the second planet they visit, which introduces Matt Damon as one of the original explorers who has been in suspended animation for many years, waiting for rescue. Again, this sequence on a frozen world is visually stunning, but essentially pointless. I doubt I'll want to rewatch this any time soon, but right now I wish I could remember why Cooper thinks it's a good idea to attempt going into the black hole. Perhaps he was thinking about what happened in a certain Disney film from 1979, that it might be a pathway back home, or to heaven. And guess what? It is! That's at least three more strikes for another out.
Most all of the plot can be explained in scientific terms, except for one major thing. It originally seemed to imply that aliens or some metaphysical entity had placed the wormhole near Saturn in order for humanity to escape its fate on Earth, but it turns out that time travel has been utilized by future humans to not only put the wormhole in place, but also to construct a dimensionally stable place inside the black hole so that Cooper can communicate with his ten year old daughter back on Earth. Yep, he was her "ghost" all along. There is no basis to speculate that anything can survive the gravitational forces within the event horizon of a black hole. It makes a nice symmetrical story loop, but turns it into fantasy rather than science fiction. If future humans can do all that why couldn't they just come to Earth and rescue us in giant ships? And the "love conquers all" sub-plot is pure Spielberg all the way, so maybe it would have been better if he had made it instead of Nolan. I'm glad I didn't drive the forty miles necessary to see this on an IMAX screen, which I had originally thought of doing. I may want to see it again years down the road, but I won't be buying it. A major disappointment for me, even more so than The Dark Knight Rises.
EDIT: It seems there were quite a few changes to the original script, which you can read about on Blastr. I'm not sure if the majority of the changes were made by Christopher or Jonathan, but I still feel the end result is more like what we could have expected from Spielberg.
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