With his breathlessly anticipated, behemoth-sized space opera Interstellar, has Christopher Nolan finally bitten off more than he can chew, or simply more than I can chew? I'd like to believe the latter, considering I like three of Nolan's eight previous features and adore four others (with apologies to Batman Begins, which I merely tolerate), and considering half the movie's dialogue is elaborate techo-jargon that I was predisposed not to understand. But like an itchy lover who says "It's not you; it's me" when he really means the opposite, I'm still laying most of my dissatisfaction at Nolan's feet, and for a pretty basic reason: For all of its narrative and technical razzle-dazzle, Interstellar is the man's first film that's expressly about humans, and humans aren't remotely close to being Nolan's strong suit.
He clearly gets the idea of humans; if he didn't, his works wouldn't continually be populated with extraordinary actors who can usually be counted on to suggest interior life in roles written with no interior life. Interstellar, though, unwittingly demonstrates Nolan's unfortunate deficiency when everyone on-screen isn't a comic-book character or a jigsaw-puzzle piece or a flicker in Cillian Murphy's subconscious. Nolan's and brother Jonathan's screenplay is packed to brimming with high-minded oratory, and more frequent stump speeches, about the ephemeral nature of existence and the undying bonds of love, and Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night" poem is name-checked - and twice read in its entirety - at particularly earnest moments. (You'll know when they're landing because Hans Zimmer's blaring, church-organ score gets louder and church-ier than usual.) Yet even with all those scripted signposts and Interstellar's cast emoting their hearts out, the humanity that the Nolans keep referencing remains theoretical. Collectively, the actors, the script, and the score do so much forced, oppressive sobbing that they don't leave you room for an honest emotion of your own, and I wound up feeling nothing at the movie except admiration for its craftsmanship, and relief that I managed to stay alert for the nearly three hours of its running length.
That I did stay alert is testament to Interstellar's fantastic hook; giving credit where it's certainly due, Christopher Nolan is an expert at making you really want to enjoy his films. In an effort to keep things simple, allow me to just iterate what you likely already know about the story: At some unspecified point in the future, the Earth's a mess (if a production-design beaut). Corn is practically the only crop still able to grow, destructive dirt storms routinely force the population indoors, and scientists estimate that we're only a couple generations away from planetary extinction. Blessedly, though, a wormhole leading to other, potentially more hospitable galaxies has been discovered near Saturn. So a space-exploration team led by Matthew McConaughey's engineer-turned-farmer Cooper is sent to enter it and, billions of fingers crossed, find a way to either save Earth or scoot our citizenry elsewhere.
I actually could've used my full word count to flesh out those few sentences, and that's without getting into Cooper's grief at abandoning his daughter (he also abandons a son, but he and the Nolans aren't much concerned about that), or the reams of space-time-continuum exposition, or the beat-the-clock plotting that finds seven years passing for every hour Cooper and Anne Hathaway's shipmate spend on a distant planet. (At times, the movie suggests a 180-degree spin on McConaughey's most famous line from Dazed & Confused: "They get older, I stay the same age.") And much of Interstellar's space stuff is sublime: The richly imagined worlds of water and ice, with their mountain-range-sized waves and frozen clouds; the late-film flips in perspective and gravity that easily rival similar feats in Inception; the brilliantly visualized ambulatory magnets that serve as wisecracking robots. (One of them is amusingly voiced by Bill Irwin, who played Hathaway's dad in Rachel Getting Married, so at least she hasn't been abandoned by her papa.)
But, oh, there's so much else to contend with. The dialogue, which, when it's not inscrutable ("The laws of nature prohibit a naked singularity!"), is merely overwrought. ("It's not possible!" "No. It's necessary." Cue the church organ.) The corner-cutting storytelling, which finds Cooper entrusted with a spacecraft he has no training on only one hour after he first lays eyes on it, and the deaths of at least two major, purportedly empathetic figures causing not even a ripple of concern. Cooper's queasy affection for his 11-year-old daughter, whom he makes sit on his lap at a NASA meeting. (McConaughey, a helpless screen flirt and seducer, was maybe not the best casting choice as a dad who tries to cheer up his pre-teen by whispering that they'll be the same age - "Imagine that!" - when he returns from space.) The chronically messy editing, in the last half hour, between scenes of an Earth scuffle between Casey Affleck and Topher Grace and a space scuffle between McConaughey and, per Nolan's secrecy regarding the casting, An Actor Who Should Not Be Named.
And the endless streams of crocodile tears: McConaughey weeps; Hathaway weeps; Jessica Chastain weeps; Michael Caine weeps; An Actor Who Should Not Be Named weeps. None of it, however, is affecting, because Nolan's directorial chilliness is completely mismatched with the material's and performers' strained, and inherently fraudulent, hyper-emotionalism. At its best, given Nolan's obvious ambition and considerable skill, Interstellar is a pretty engaging pretty-bad movie. At its worst, it's like 2001: A Space Odyssey redesigned as a Nicholas Sparks weepie without kissing.
BIG HERO 6
There are a lot of reasons to go to Disney's animated comedy Big Hero 6, particularly if you go early enough to catch the delightful short film Feast that precedes it, and the trailer for next summer's Despicable Me spin-off The Minions that, in three unbelievably inspired minutes, had me weeping with laughter long before Big Hero 6 ever began. But the absolute best reason is the robotic one that the previews have probably led you to expect: the enormous, adorable, poker-faced marshmallow Baymax, whose every squeaky movement and blandly solicitous query could be in contention for the title of 2014's Funniest Movie Moment. (All of them would lose, however, to the sight of this overinflated balloon with the titanium-reinforced interior when his battery starts dying, which causes Baymax to stumble about and slur his words like Dudley Moore's Arthur squabbling with a hedge.)
After its fast-paced, unexpectedly trenchant early scenes that establish our teen hero Hiro (Ryan Potter) as a casual genius who leads a costumed unit of tech-savvy über-nerds, directors Don Hall's and Chris Williams' outing - one inspired (surprise!) by a Marvel comic - morphs into a somewhat generic superhero adventure, entertaining enough but of little true interest. (The smallest of children may be unprepared for the reveal of Hiro's masked nemesis, but his identity won't likely be a shock to any adult who's ever seen a movie, at least if that movie is L.A. Confidential.) But despite its occasional blandness and the humans' features reading as too emotionally vacant for fully effective heart-tugging, the film is splendidly animated and filled with witty one-liners, a bunch of which are knocked out of the park by the likes of T.J. Miller, Maya Rudolph, Damon Wayans Jr., and Genesis Rodriguez. And every last second involving Baymax is a joy. Designed as the ultimate health-care provider whose fingertips spray Bactine and whose hands become defibrillators upon hearing the expression "I'm gonna have a heart attack!", this plush and reluctant crime-fighter is both hysterical and legitimately touching - WALL·E with a larger vocabulary and, if possible, more social awkwardness. (Baymax's attempts to make an explosion sound after fist-bumping Hiro must be heard to be believed.) Though even he tends to get lost in Big Hero 6's more manic action scenes, all involved deserve kudos for Baymax emerging as such an unforgettable animated delight, with special props going to Scott Adsit for vocalizing the character and being more laugh-out-loud hilarious here than he ever was during seven seasons of 30 Rock. All true comic talents eventually find their voices. Who could've guessed that Adsit's would be found in the form of a kinder, gentler Michelin Man?