Dir: Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s latest opus is an imaginative science fiction yarn married to a familial narrative about fatherhood, human ambition, and the propagation of the species. Remarkable visual effects and breathtaking action brush up against groan-worthy dialogue to create a whiplash experience, where one moment a parent teacher conference devolves into a literal examination of The American Dream, followed by a thrilling representation of that bootstrapping spirit as a spaceship rockets into space to save all of mankind. Despite occasionally great turns of phrase (“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”), Nolan works best when he shows instead of tells.
Interstellar takes place in the near-future where an unknown war has ravaged the world, felling governments and culling the population. The survivors eke out a dustbowl existence, harvesting dwindling crops with little hope for the next generation. Matthew McConaughey continues his remarkable career renaissance (the McConnaissance) as Cooper, a widowed farmer raising his two children with the help of his father-in-law. His daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) shares his adventurous spirit but like Cooper, is left with no outlet for it in their hardscrabble existence. Murph’s discovery of an otherworldly presence in her room, one she claims at first is a ghost, leads both her and Cooper to uncover a clandestine operation with designs on saving our world by finding another.
It’s at this point that Interstellar truly gathers steam. The world building to that point is sparse, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks to what’s happened to Earth while imbuing many of the relationships with more weight than they’ve earned. Nolan has made here what may be his most human movie yet, striving for a Speilbergian sense of sci-fi awe mixed with family strife (like Close Encounters of The Third Kind or E.T.) but his calculated approach doesn’t mesh well with the more personal stakes. When Cooper is tapped to lead a space expedition to a wormhole outside Saturn that leads to possibly habitable worlds, the scope admirably expands and we’re rocketing into large scale storytelling in a thrilling sequence that intercuts Cooper’s tearful goodbye to his jilted daughter with a countdown to the launch.
Interstellar continues Nolan’s commitment to practical effects and avoids too much CGI. Like his decision to shoot on film (35mm and 70mm), it’s an admirable throwback to traditional filmmaking in an increasingly digital world. There’s a recurring shot of one of the Ranger spacecrafts – a fixed camera on the wing as the landscape goes flying by – that feels real and bracing. It was achieved mostly with the use of miniatures and models, an in-camera effect that hopefully J.J. Abrams is paying attention to as he mounts the next Star Wars. The digital effects that do exist are nearly flawless, and harken back to Douglas Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (which serves as a touch point and inspiration for Interstellar in numerous ways). When Cooper and his crew enter the wormhole (more of a sphere really) the visual and auditory effects are spine-tinglingly transportative and totally trippy. Disregarding some long-winded speeches on love and responsibility, there’s enough brain-bending effects in Interstellar to lend it a possible second life as a midnight movie best seen under the influence of some herbal magic.
Episodic in nature, Interstellar seems like many movies at once, some of which don’t work as well as others. I loved the planetary exploration and hard science fiction. Nolan (who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan) does a good job of explaining wormhole travel, using time dilation as a relevant plot point, and even showing a visual representation of time as an additional physical plane. Less successful is the parallel Earth-bound story. Jessica Chastain is excellent as always, but her character’s motivations are odd (why is she still angry at Cooper when he left for the noblest of reasons – to save the frickin world) and she shares scenes with barely written cardboard cutouts played by Casey Affleck and Topher Grace. Anne Hathaway is great as Brand, the daughter of Michael Caine’s professor (the architect for the plan to save the Earth) and a fellow astronaut in Cooper’s crew. But why is David Gyasi’s Romilly, another of the four astronauts on board, literally scared of space travel? Couldn’t they have found someone more qualified?
When the movie’s good it’s very good; an escape from a watery planet and a later sequence where McConaughey’s Cooper truly shows his bonafides as a pilot are outstanding and benefit greatly from Hans Zimmer’s organ-heavy score and the expanded canvas of IMAX. But then Nolan throws in some over-expository dialogue, not content to let viewers draw their own conclusions. This is most evident in the protracted climax, where some ambiguity and less hand-holding would have greatly enhanced the experience. At 169 minutes Interstellar is Nolan’s lengthiest film to date, but feels simultaneously overlong and rushed. I wanted more of the epic space travel and was happy to spend time with McConaughey’s cowboy adventurer, but could do with less of the tertiary characters coming to realizations that we in the audience have figured out long ago. Epic in scale, with its reach sometimes exceeding its grasp, Interstellar is notable and worthwhile for those moments when old-fashioned movie making combine with modern storytelling to truly induce awe and wonder. There’s some other bullshit scenes of people talking about feelings to get through to those transcendent moments, but that’s a perfect time to use the washroom.