A film review by Craig J. Koban November 15, 2014 

INTERSTELLAR jjj
 

2014, PG-13, 165 mins.

 

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper  /  Wes Bentley as Doyle  /  Anne Hathaway as Brand  /  Jessica Chastain as Murph  /  Michael Caine as Dr. Brand  /  John Lithgow as Donald  /  Casey Affleck as Tom  /  Mackenzie Foy as Young Murph  /  Ellen Burstyn as Old Murph  /  Bill Irwin as TARS (voice)

Directed by Christopher Nolan  /  Written by Christopher and Jonathon Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR is the most fearlessly ambitious and thought-provoking films about space exploration since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (which served, by Nolan’s admission, as a huge source of inspiration in the making of his film).  Nolan's film dares – as far too few sci-fi films do these days – to interweave an emotionally harrowing tale of human struggle with that of remarkable speculative science that pushes our deep-seeded understanding of how time, space and relativity works.  There is an undeniable level of conceptual genius at play here, and Nolan is no stranger to tackling audacious subject matter, yet there’s an argument to also be made here that relaying these very lofty and mind-bending concepts to viewers makes for a frequently clunky ride at times.  Granted, I’m not sure if there exists a better filmmaker then Nolan that’s willing to explore and deal with such fundamentally challenging and complex ideas.  

INTERSTELLAR is set in an unspecified time in the future, and part of the script’s subtle genius (which Nolan co-wrote with his brother Jonathon) is how it patiently observes and establishes the particulars of its world (we get no time specific title or expository title cards, but instead learn about the film’s world of tomorrow primarily through imagery and dialogue exchanges).  The world presented is not one of technological advancement or empowerment, but rather looks like it was blasted back to the Dust Bowl era of the worst sections of The Great Depression.  Earth has been ravaged by famine and droughts, mostly caused by blight that’s killing crops and, in turn, severely stunting humanity’s chance of long-term survival.  With massive dust storms looming on a daily basis, nitrogen levels in the atmosphere rising, and overall hope for change declining exponentially by the day, it appears that Earth is indeed a doomed planet. 

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA engineer and pilot that has become a corn farmer (one of the few crops that still can be cultivated) out of necessity.  He farms with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), and his remarkably intelligent daughter Murph (named after Murphy’s Law, played by Mackenzie Foy).  Murph, like her father, is scientifically adept, but she seems genuinely obsessed beyond scientific reason by some strange paranormal activity that is occurring in her bedroom.  The phenomena – which Cooper and his daughter later discover is actually taking the form of a binary code – leads Cooper to an secret underground installation headed up by what’s left of NASA.  Led by Professor Brand (long-term Nolan alumni Michael Caine), the new NASA has an idea to save the future of the human race, which will require the piloting needs (perhaps a bit too conveniently) of Cooper. 

 

 

At the risk of giving too much away, here’s their multi-tiered plan: NASA is building a massive space vessel to send as many citizens as possible into space, but is having issues with gravity in terms of launching such an incalculably large vessel.  This leads them to their main goal: Send Cooper and a team of astronauts/scientists – comprised of Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and an artificially intelligent robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) – to travel to Saturn in a high tech space vessel…to then journey through a wormhole near the planet that appears to have been deliberately placed there by an unknown entity.  On the other side of the wormhole exists a galaxy with many inhabitable planets that NASA has already explored with past human-piloted expedition missions.  NASA hopes that Cooper and company will be able to successfully navigate through and find a suitable planet to become a new Earth, but the mission involves time fluctuating drastically for the astronauts (hours for the space voyagers become years, if not decades for people on Earth), which means that Cooper has to, in essence, leave his family for what could be a lifetime. 

The entire heartbreaking emotional arc of INTERSTELLAR is the relationship between the father and daughter, and Nolan’s film works at its finest when it focuses on the astonishing ramifications of Cooper’s time jumping space voyage to another galaxy.  It’s revealed that the astronauts perceive time differently depending on which planet they land on past the wormhole (a few minutes on planet A can equal months on the ship because of the affect of the nearby wormhole).  There reaches a point for Cooper when – after a failed planetary mission –  his two years in space equals two-plus decades back on Earth, leaving his son and daughter (now played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain respectively) growing up without a father and having severe doubts about his return home.  Unavoidably, INTERSTELLAR becomes moving and involving more because of how Cooper’s act of desperation to save the human race has had damning ripple effects on his relationship with his family back home.  The saddest moments of any film from 2014 occurs when Cooper – teary-eyed, exhausted, and filled with self-doubt – silently watches his family’s decreasing faith in him expire with each new transmitted message to his space ship. 

Predictably, Nolan’s film is a technological wonder.  Lovingly shot on a combination of 33mm and 70mm IMAX stock and utilizing bravura cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (making the dust riddled Earth a bleak portrait of environmental despair) and VFX supervised by Paul J. Franklin (shrewdly combining practical and computer generated imagery with a flawless precision), Nolan has the inordinately difficult task of conveying not only the decay of his futuristic Earth, but also showing the visual complexity of traveling through wormholes (where’s your frame of reference for that?) and making it somehow feel scientifically credible (theoretical physicist Kip Thorn was an intimate part of the production to ensure as much accuracy as possible).  When Cooper’s team does touchdown on multiple planets Nolan envisions some awe-inspiring set pieces: An ironically uninhabitable planet, for instance, creates waves the size of mountains that threatens the astronauts in one of the film’s most incredible of sequences.  Another planet, a Hoth-like ice world covered in snow and frigidly cold weather, has an ethereally alien, yet tactile veracity to it.  Very few moments in INTERSTELLAR feel like the product of obtrusive CG fakery, and it’s more awesomely immersive as a result.  

Where Nolan misses the target, I think, in his magnum sci-fi opus is in the execution – more specifically, the explanation – of some of the film’s out-there notions of black holes, wormholes, singularity, multiple dimensions, etc..  There are ample stretches in INTERSTELLAR that involve characters talking…a lot…in language steeped in science, physics, quantum mechanics, and all other sorts of convoluted techno-babble that, quite frankly, may leave many in the audience not having a PhD scratching their heads and trying to keep up.  The dialogue exchanges between characters become so densely littered with such talk – which are sometimes interrupted by, in one instance, an awkward segue into the nature of human love – that it arguably robs the film of any level of entrancing metaphysical mystery that it could have attained.  Kubrick’s 2001 was wise to avoid never over-explaining anything in his film, leaving it hauntingly impenetrable and open to a floodgate of multiple interpretations.  Far too much of the time, Nolan feels the need to lecture us via his characters about what they’re doing, what’s occurring on screen, and so forth.  There’s a point to be made that no expository dialogue could have made the film frustratingly vague, but it nevertheless doesn’t make for good drama. 

Also, for a film of nearly three hours (which, thankfully, never feels its length), INTERSTELLAR seems to really rush itself through its final sections to reach a conclusion.  The film does take some positively riveting chances in its final act, during which time the Nolan Brothers really get trippy with our perceived concepts of time, space, and planes of existence and truly takes us – and Cooper – on a journey that’s never really been attempted on screen before, let alone even modestly hinted at.  There are key moments like this – and many more before it – when the film legitimately has crafted a wholly unique and remarkable vision.  The canvas by which Nolan presents his ever-increasingly ambitious ideas does illicit awe and wonder, but there remains some chunkiness in its overall execution.  The film ends on what would have been an unendingly powerful scene of raw human drama between characters, but it happens so quickly and nonchalantly that you feel that Nolan doesn't fully trust in the emotional magnitude of such a moment. 

There is just so damn much to endlessly admire in INTERSTELLAR.  I’ve barely commented on the deeply committed performances, especially by McConaughey and Chastain, whom are both thoroughly convincing throughout as world-weary souls deeply traumatized by simply how far – in terms of time and distance – their characters have grown apart during Cooper’s mission (you’re likely not going to find more authentically rendered performances in any other sci-fi film than what’s on display here).  The Nolans explore the infinite complexities of both human relationships juxtaposed on the larger story of mankind exploring beyond where any other human being has attempted.  The film is as visually spectacular and impressively mounted as anything that Nolan has touched in his career.  It’s also a work that has the tenacity to bravely deal with scientific principles and theoretical possibilities that most filmmakers would have ran away from.  INTERSTELLAR reaches out for greatness through and through, but perhaps the unbridled immensity of its ideas and scope of its story were a bit too much for even a masterful director like Nolan to harness with flawless fluidity…but at least he dares to go where no man (or filmmaker) has gone before. 

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