To back up “disappointingly unambitious” I'm going to break this statement into two parts.
A movie that is clearly doomed can't be disappointing. You watch it, you enjoy whatever you can, and you leave, either content or discontent, but not disappointed. Interstellar is disappointing, and that's precisely because it could be good.
It could be good because it has quite a bit going for it:
- First of all, as I've already said, the visuals. From the corn fields of earth, to the black vastness of outer space, to the gigantic waves of Miller's planet and the frozen surface of Mann's planet, the visuals are superb. A pleasure to the eyes.
- The acting. This is nothing to write home about, but the actors have done a solid job, particularly McConaughey. Pleasant people are pleasant to watch, and McConaughey, Hathaway, Caine and Lithgow are certainly pleasant people.
- The basic premise. A dying Earth, twelve astronauts sent through a wormhole to explore possible new worlds, a crew sent to retrieve the lucky ones and save humanity – all this united by the recurring theme of relative time. A father remaining the same age while his children grow old.
- The world-building on Earth. The dust, the farming, the spaceflight denialists.
- All the scenes on Mann's planet, including the reveal regarding the false signals Dr. Mann had been sending to Earth for thirty years.
That's it. It isn't much, but it's enough to make the film's vast shortcomings something to be disappointed about, rather than an unsurprising property of an unsurprisingly bad film.
Considering the above, Interstellar could be good, had it been made by an intellectually ambitious filmmaker. Someone who strives to make excellent cinema, and excellent sci-fi – who chooses believable human drama over melodramatic tropes, and original and believable science-fictional elements over tired cliches and pseudo-scientific babble.
While the characters themselves aren't exactly unconvincing as human beings, their actions, emotional reactions and relationships are either uninspired tropes, or, if you respect the film enough to take it seriously, insane.
Two major examples of poor storytelling that results in insane actions on the characters' part would be the video messages sent to Cooper by his children over the span of twenty-two years, and the crew's decision to go down to Miller's planet:
- Murph and Tom's Dad went off to space. They don't know where he is, or what he's doing. They only know that he has taken a risk and leaped into the possibly dangerous unknown. Tom decides to stop sending messages after twenty-two years, and Murph never bothers to do so in the first place.
For all they know, their father is stranded and alone, living only for the rare one-sided contact with his children. I'd certainly consider this possibility if my father went to space for twenty-two years. Perhaps I'd feel abandoned, and I sure as hell would doubt that he's even alive, but I would put that aside for the small chance that by not sending messages I would be robbing my own father of his only contact with humanity. I'd make the effort to record a few measly messages every once in a while.
In a sane person's world, personal grudges and doubts are not a consideration in a situation of this magnitude. Applying the same old family-drama cliches – the angry daughter, the son “letting dad go” – to this situation is simply lazy. It's lazy thinking, lazy writing, lazy filmmaking.
- Cooper and the gang decide to go down to Miller's planet, where they know one hour equals seven years of “real time.” They know that Miller has only been on the planet for a few years of their time – thus, they know that Miller has only spent a couple of hours on the planet. Any data she might have is only a couple hours old. Any positive evaluations she could make are meaningless – two hours' worth of observation is not enough, any way you spin it, to take a gigantic chance and waste fuel and time on this planet.
Miller's planet would have been ruled out as an option back on Earth, the moment NASA knew about the time difference. In fact, NASA would likely not even bother sending an astronaut there, since they knew about the proximity to the black hole in advance, thanks to the probes they had sent to the wormhole.
Yet this painfully obvious stuff is presented in the film as a surprising twist. Not only is it obvious that Miller's planet is possibly dangerous and that her positive data is meaningless, it's also unbelievable – simply ridiculous – that none of the characters realize this in time. There is simply no way that everyone at Interstellar's secret NASA is so stupid.
Choosing to ignore common sense and disrespect the viewer's intelligence enough to expect that they will unknowingly do the same, for the sake of a poorly constructed plot twist, is, once again, lazy.
- The Time-Traveler Who is the Reason for His Own Time-Traveling, and
- The Power of Love ™
I admit, I didn't expect the latter, despite the ham-fisted foreshadowing. I couldn't imagine that something so stupid would actually make its way into the movie. I did expect the former, from the first introduction of time-bending. After Twelve Monkeys (1995) and that Futurama episode where Fry is his own grandpa, a real twist would be a time-traveling movie where the time-traveler is not his own reason for time traveling.
Michael Caine has completed one part of his equation, but doesn't have sufficient data to figure out how to transport humanity to a new habitable world. To find that missing data, one must “look into a black hole.” Why? Probably because equations and black holes exist. I'm not a scientist or anything, but I think it's also fair to say that Quantum Mechanics (AKA Hollywood's answer to everything) play a fairly important part in this charade. And let's not forget Gravity.
In fact they say “Gravity” so many times in this film, one wonders whether that was the title they were going for before Gravity (2013) came along.
Cooper looks inside a black hole and suddenly has the ability to relay what he's learned in a form that would provide the missing data for an equation he's not particularly familiar with, through Morse code, through a watch.
Murph looks at the watch after the sequence has already begun, drives to work, and manages to translate it in its entirety.
In other words, you shall find the wizard who will solve humanity's problems. He lives in a black hole.
Imagine how unconvincing Asimov's robots would be if instead of stating that yes, humanity has advanced to a point where robotics are a thriving science, and yes, robots have a positronic brain, he would have had the characters explain the “science” to each other by using only the terms Quantum Mechanics and Physics.
The good folks behind Interstellar should have stuck to what they could explain or portray accurately (it should be noted that Interstellar's black hole, modeled after physicist Kip Thorne's equations, is said to be a very accurate simulation of a black hole), and leave the rest unsaid.
A good science fiction writer understands his or her limitations and works around them, crafting a believable world, where scientific knowledge that humanity yet lacks can be reasonably assumed to exist, instead of relying on popular scientific terms that mean nothing without context.
Considering the film's astronomical budget and the endless hours of work that went into it, that is a shame.
All in all, both Interstellar's premise and its execution are solid. The glue that's meant to hold premise and execution together, however – the plot – is the product of a disappointing lack of ambition. Interstellar is a compromise with beautiful visuals.
But it's a pretty fun ride.