May 2024

Interstellar (2014)

interstellarDIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan

CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Mackenzie Foy, Ellen Burstyn, David Oyelowo, Bill Irwin (voice)



Christopher Nolan has never shied away from a challenge or been content with generic, and Interstellar is his most ambitious project yet, surpassing his resurrection of the Batman film franchise and the mind-bending contortions of Inception to combine powerful human drama with a rigorous attempt at making a “hard” science fiction film that takes a serious examination of the rules and physics involved in a way Hollywood seldom attempts.  If Nolan’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, the passion and grandeur he has thrown into this project makes comparatively minor flaws forgivable.  Interstellar is not a perfect motion picture–far from it, in fact–but it is by turns hopeful and heartbreaking, simultaneously paying tribute to the spirit of exploration and the cold, silent, deadly realities of space.

We open at an unspecified future date in America’s farm belt.  The world is running out of food, with blight killing crops and spawning massive dust storms.  Nitrogen is rising in the atmosphere, leaving Earth’s future generations facing either starvation or suffocation, whichever comes first.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former hotshot NASA test pilot, now lives as a farmer with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothée Chalamet).  One day, accompanied by Murph, Cooper is led by an almost supernatural series of events to a secret underground headquarters for the remnants of the defunct NASA program, where a team of scientists led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) has been working on two plans to save mankind.  Plan A involves traveling through a wormhole which has mysteriously appeared near Saturn providing a gateway to another galaxy.  Professor Brand believes the wormhole was placed there by benevolent higher beings to help mankind, and has constructed a massive space station to carry a large human population into space and form an orbital colony.  The problem with this is overcoming gravity to get the immense structure off the ground, but Brand believes he can crack the formula.  The grimmer Plan B is sending teams of scientists through the wormhole to find and colonize an inhabitable alien world with frozen embryos carried onboard (which means abandoning those back on Earth to their fate).  Driven by Brand’s dire predictions of what his children will face as adults on a dying Earth, Cooper agrees to pilot a shuttle through the wormhole, a decision that doesn’t sit well with his beloved daughter Murph.  Accompanied by Amelia Brand and two other scientists, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romily (David Gyasi), and a sardonic talking robot, TARS (voiced by comedian Bill Irwin), who recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL 9000, Cooper sets off on the mission with the knowledge that, even if the mission is successful and he makes it back (not at all guaranteed), time relativity distortions surrounding the wormhole may make hours and days for him years and decades for his children waiting for him back on Earth.

interstellarInterstellar takes a while to get off the ground (literally).  We stay Earthbound for the first 45 minutes, with nary a special effect in sight, establishing the blight and dust storms ravaging America’s dying farm land and the relationships of the Cooper family, principally between Coop and Murph.  While the pace may begin a bit sluggish for some, later aspects would not have as powerful an impact if the Coop-Murph relationship was not given as much development.  Even when we enter space, Nolan, as usual, keeps the special effects restrained, limiting use of CGI (mainly for the wormhole and a later black hole) and relying heavily on practical effects.  The space voyage feels grounded and undramatized.  Rarely has a big-budget high-profile Hollywood sci-fi film made this serious an attempt at “hard” science.  There is no easy zip-zap warp speed or hyperdrive that allows the citizens of the worlds of Star Wars and Star Trek to flit around the galaxy as they please.  Here, reaching Saturn means spending a two-year nap in cryosleep, and being the first pioneer to an alien world means facing the possibility of soul-crushing loneliness.  Shots set outside the shuttles, when Hans Zimmer’s operatic score isn’t kicking in, are often eerily silent, accurately conveying the soundlessness of space.  Nolan worked closely with highly-regarded theoretical physicist Kip Thorne during production, making rigorous efforts to accurately portray a worm hole and a black hole as realistically as possible.  At times, Nolan’s emphasis on “hard” science might make aspects of Interstellar dense for casual moviegoers (those yearning for harder sci-fi may be delighted, however).  Portions of the film are dry, at times bordering on resembling a NASA documentary (in fact, we open with the narrative framing device of talking heads recounting events on television screens, as if we are about to watch a docudrama), and while Nolan doesn’t go to the cold, obtuse extremes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s an obvious influence.  One unimpressed critic uncharitably commented that one has to be an astronaut to understand Interstellar.  That’s an unfair exaggeration, but the movie may be more rewarding to those with an appreciation for this sort of thing than those seeking the more simple and straightforward space opera derring-do of Star Wars or Star Trek.  Likewise, the climax, for me, holds a bit of the same problem as Nolan’s The Prestige, in the way the movie spends 2/3 of its runtime being meticulously scientific and strictly rooted by physics and realities, and then throws in a sci-fi twist that some viewers might have trouble swallowing.  The climax is also when the 2001 influence is most clear in its abstract, metaphysical symbolism.  I suppose whether you feel the movie goes off the rails at this point or are carried along depends on how much of what comes before works for you.  Even Inception never got this trippy.

While it’s science is dense at times, Interstellar is not all a dry, talky experience.  Quite the contrary, in fact, beneath the hard sci-fi and space exploration lies a deeply heartfelt human story of a father’s love for his daughter.  Nolan’s films have often been described as cold, cerebral, intellectual exercises, and while Interstellar has significant aspects of this, it also has scenes of intense emotion.  Rather than a romantic subplot (the dynamic between McConaughey and Hathaway stays platonic), the central relationship here–indeed, the ultimate driving force behind the entire plot–is the connection between Coop and Murph, and that gives moments in Interstellar an emotional wallop that no previous Nolan film, even the tragic undertones of Inception, can claim.  In one sequence in particular, as Coop receives backlogged messages from 23 years in Earth time and watches his children grow through their videos from children into adults (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck), some audience members may shed as many tears as Matthew McConaughey is shedding onscreen.  Nolan wrote this script after becoming a father in recent years, and it’s fair speculation that fatherhood may have been a significant influence on his screenwriting.  At its core, beneath the sci-fi talk which some viewers may find a little mind-boggling, Interstellar is hands down the most emotional and tear-jerking film Nolan has yet created.

Matthew McConaughey, who once abandoned the promise he showed in some earlier roles like 1996’s A Time to Kill and spent many years slumming in disposable romantic comedies, continues here to bask in the renewed respectability he’s found with his Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club and his role on the HBO miniseries True Detective.  Within one year, the once-maligned McConaughey has won an Oscar and a Golden Globe and been nominated for an Emmy, and Interstellar shows no slowing of his roll.  Coop has moments of familiar breezy McConaughey charm delivered with his oft-parodied thick Texas drawl, but also scenes of intense emotion.  Following his Oscar win with Dallas Buyers Club, it’s not inconceivable that McConaughey might get Academy attention again.  While his role as Coop doesn’t involve a radical physical transformation, on a pure acting level it’s as good or better.  McConaughey’s initially laidback but ultimately forceful performance as Coop is the glue that holds everything together.  The characters of Amelia Brand and adult Murphy, while well-acted by Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain (who gets an Earth-based subplot in the second half), aren’t developed enough to get out from under his shadow.  This is McConaughey’s movie first and foremost.  Familiar faces abound in smaller supporting roles, including Nolan regular Michael Caine, along with Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, a surprise drop-in halfway through by Matt Damon, and cameos by Ellen Burstyn and William Devane.  Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet are physically well-matched with their older counterparts; when they grow up into Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, the transition is nearly seamless and easily accepted.

In his aiming for grandeur, Nolan bites off a little more than he can chew.  Some dialogue is pretentious and heavy-handed (a common flaw of Nolan’s films), including Michael Caine repeatedly reciting Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go  Gentle Into That Good Night”, and Anne Hathaway getting saddled with a clunky, impromptu monologue about love that drives home the movie’s central theme in ham-handed fashion.  The climactic twist gets a little “out there”, especially in comparison to Nolan’s previous strict loyalty to physics and reality, and might alienate some viewers as a jarring transition (personally I don’t think it ruined the movie, but I do think the movie wanders off-track for a few minutes before righting itself).  Like the repeated poem and love monologue, the trippy climax makes it a little hard to argue that Nolan occasionally gets a little carried away.  Like the dreamscapes of Inception, Nolan again shows an arguably limited, rigid imagination; the two alien worlds, one a desolate ocean world, the other a desolate ice world, are mundane and uninteresting besides the waves so towering they are mistaken as a mountain range from a distance, and frozen clouds giving the appearance of hanging upside-down ice mountains (on the other hand, the shuttle traveling through the wormhole and later coasting the black hole’s event horizon are spectacular sights).  But I’ll gladly take a stimulating experience like this that aspires mightily for grandeur and vision over a generic forgettable action flick or rom com any day of the week.  Interstellar has flaws (though mostly by virtue of being overly ambitious, which in my view makes them more forgivable), but it’s yet another entry on Christopher Nolan’s filmography that places him among the most exciting and interesting directors working today, a name to stand alongside along an elite few like Spielberg or Cameron, from whom news of a new upcoming project is enough to generate major buzz.  Interstellar isn’t the most amazing experience I’ve ever seen, or a perfect motion picture by a long shot, but it’s no drop-off for Nolan, who has yet to make a bad film.  In fact, for my money, he’s yet to even make a mediocre one.

* * * 1/2