Reviewed by Danny Sarnowski
What do we want from a movie? How have our expectations of a film evolved in the last several years? Judging by box office results, many of us want big, loud, action-oriented, special effects-laden adaptations of material that we've already consumed for decades. We have been hungry for cinematic comfort food. Familiar, and easy to eat, perhaps with a little zing thrown in to spice it up just slightly. Judging by the films that have received most of the awards love recently, many of us are looking for more quiet, introspective, serious almost melancholy pictures. We have been looking to try new things, but mostly those that remind us of something else we ate long ago and remember enjoying. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is, at times, both of these types of movies. At others it is something else: the kind of bold, authentic, audacious, and original movie that we all deserve and should be trying more often.
The fact that Nolan was allowed to make and market a picture like Interstellar is a rarity. His track record of producing commercially and critically accepted pictures has given him the power to push a movie like this one through the system. Interstellar is arguably one of the most anticipated films of the year and comes with equally high expectations. I, being a passionate fan of Nolan's earlier work, came with my own set of expectations. The film met some, missed others, and turned some of those expectations on their heads.
The movie takes place in our near future on Earth. Our natural resources are waning and the planet itself seems to be working to reject our species like a body rejecting a transplanted organ (somewhere environmentalists are loving this movie already). Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper a former NASA test pilot-turned-farmer-widower living with his two kids and father-in-law. He's unhappy, restless, and while he is a competent farmer, he is not living his best life. He knows he was fit for something else. Something else comes along, via one of the film's less acceptable plot twists, which offers Cooper the chance to fulfill his life's ambition and to be part of the team working to save all of humanity in the process. The kicker is he needs to leave his family immediately and may not be back for several years.
This is the crux of the film. Nolan takes all of humanity's struggles, fears, bitter resentments, and emotional attachments and boils them down to Cooper and his kids. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's unparalleled 1968 sci-fi opus (and a movie that Christopher Nolan has mentioned as one of his favorites and as one of his main touchstones for Interstellar), the astronauts are mostly ciphers. They are the every man, they are all of us. We know very little about them and we don't need to know more. Their mission, and the challenges they encounter, are enough to carry the story. Here Nolan looks to pair the grandeur, spectacle, and clinical detachment of Kubrick's film with the heart of a Spielbergian father/daughter picture. This dynamic works at points in the movie - sometimes it doesn't.
The crew, made up of Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Oyelowo, and a robot named TARS (who looks ominously like the monolith from 2001), shoot themselves off into space and head for Saturn. There they plan to jump through a wormhole which was mysteriously "placed" there by "someone" and which serves as a gateway allowing interstellar travel to another galaxy where a more hospitable home planet may be found for mankind to inhabit. Several pioneers have previously made the journey and have sent back data upon which the crew can determine which planet to visit.
As expected in any sci-fi movie like this, things go wrong quickly. The crew must quickly adapt and make decisions on the fly. These decisions have consequences for the crew and for those they left behind on earth. In one particularly harrowing sequence, the crew picks a planet near a black hole. This proximity renders the experience of time on this planet different from that which we experience on Earth. One hour on the surface is the equivalent to seven years for us. A quick out and back jaunt to see the data from the pioneer and/or to rescue them could take decades of Earth time.
Back home, Cooper's kids have grown and the world's problems have grown more serious. Jessica Chastain plays his daughter Murphy who has never forgiven her father for leaving them behind. His son, played by Casey Affleck, has given up on him entirely (and, perhaps, on the world itself). These two struggle to bond with each other and with others as their father's mission drags on leaving them to question whether he and his crew are even still out there, still alive.
Consequences like the time shift, and the fantastic worlds the crew visit, are tossed off one after the other without giving them time to land. We are shown two separate possible planets, each insanely wild in their own right and yet the crew barely reacts to the worlds around them. Their tunnel-vision of mission has them missing the heart of it. And, perhaps that is one area where the film fails. It tries so hard to ground this mission in love - for Cooper and his kids, for Hathaway's Brand and her lover - that at times it is missing a heart. Nolan's previous films have never been overly sentimental but he has shown he can telegraph emotion with a great deal of subtly. Here he pounds it over the audience and, fore me, it landed too heavy handed.
The third act offers some action thrills for the space crew and a race-against-time scenario for Murphy back on Earth. The final plot elements will test the audience's willingness to go along with Nolan and to set aside cynicism. For some these events will be goosebump-level inspiring. For others they will ring hollow and flimsy. For all of us, the fact that Nolan has the guts and willingness to work this hard to put something this large and new and difficult and unwieldy in front of us is a reward. When was the last time you lined up for a movie without already knowing most of the story? Treat yourself to a new (old fashioned) movie experience. See Interstellar and decide for yourself how you feel about it.
- The visuals. Both the special effects and the practical sets and costumes are extremely well done. Nothing looks or feels cheesy.
- McConaughey carries the film. Some of his "alright, alright, alright"-ness comes out but he keeps it mostly in check.
- A surprise cameo turns into a deadly encounter for the crew.
- The music is sometimes lovely and sometimes insane. Some segments sound like Dracula banging on his pipe organ - while on ecstasy.
- Nolan's long time cinematographer Wally Pfister sits this one out and it shows. Hoyte Van Hoytema (who has the best name in showbiz) does good work but Pfister's touch would have added a lot to the film.
- Some of the late in the game exposition between McConaughey and TARS.
- Much of the Earth-bound sequences with Jessica Chastain as the now-grown daughter Murphy.
- The ending will please those left cold by Gone Girl's final act but feels a bit forced and overly saccharine.
- This movie will dazzle, confound, frustrate, excite, and move you. An original, audacious film-making exercise which gives some of the comfort and some of the high quality movie food we've been looking for and a lot more. B+