Nolan’s Ambition Reaches the Stars with Interstellar
Review by Daniel Rester
Interstellar is the kind of beautiful mess only a great filmmaker could make. The sci-fi drama, co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is an ambitious success in many ways that features some of the finest epic-scale filmmaking I’ve ever seen. It’s also an overlong movie that sets up intelligent ideas only to have them transformed into overly-maudlin and nonsensical conveniences for the plot.
Nolan’s film — co-written by his brother Jonathan and inspired by works by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne — begins on Earth in the near-future. Dust storms are wrecking the land, and corn is becoming the last agricultural option for food for human beings. We soon learn that humans may become extinct a few generations down the road.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widow and farmer who is also trained as a pilot and engineer, lives with his kids and father-in-law on a farm. When his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), discovers something strange, Cooper is led to the few remaining members of NASA. He is soon recruited by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to join three others on a mission to save the human race. To do this task, Cooper and the others must go through a wormhole discovered near Saturn in order to explore new areas in space.
Joining Cooper on the mission is Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Amelia (Anne Hathaway) — the latter being Brand’s daughter. And what’s a futuristic sci-fi film without a couple of robots? Interstellar gives us TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) to go along for the ride. And I will stop there in terms of characters and plot, as I don’t want to spoil the many turns Interstellar has to offer.
Interstellar is a daring film that takes on everything from the Theory of Relativity to the pain of abandonment to the power of love. While I’m no professor, it seems — at least from what I’ve gleaned over the years — like Interstellar follows the ideas of space, time, wormholes, black holes, and other things in the theory pretty accurately. That is until it doesn’t.
The Nolan brothers’ screenplay apparently started out as two different stories, and it shows. The film mainly involves family and human emotion throughout, but the first two-thirds of the film also present logical ideas that are easy to go along with and keep the story grounded. Then the film shifts gears and goes more for the imagination and sentimentality buttons over logical science. Kudos to the Nolans for pushing these strange and dramatic angles near the finish, but the original touches for the film’s denouement just aren’t that easy to buy into in relation to the rest of the story.
The characters mostly speak in techno-jargon or about mythic-like things, with arguments ranging from topics of ghosts to new dimensions to specific numbers relating to theories and so on. While much of this writing is smart in being heavy on science and themes, there isn’t enough small talk between characters in order for us to really get to know them as individuals. The central relationship between Cooper and Murphy (played by Jessica Chastain as an adult) is powerful and drives the plot, but all of the side players lack certain richness to them and mostly just work as mouthpieces for ideas instead.
Despite the characters never coming to life with depth (with the exception of Cooper and Murphy), the cast is fine — not great — across the board. Chastain does what she can to make the adult Murphy pop, but it’s young Foy who really digs out the emotion of the character. The other supporting actors have their moments, with Caine getting a few terrific scenes in, but Bentley and other actors like Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, David Oyelowo, and John Lithgow all have their talents somewhat wasted in smaller parts. There is one A-list actor who makes a cameo for an important part and impresses with the little screen time he has; some will argue that the star casting choice is distracting though.
McConaughey really stands out as Cooper, giving one of his best performances. The actor is called on to perform too melodramatically at times (with at least five crying scenes), but he brings his A-game no matter what. Other scenes allow him to present master class lessons in nuance, giving us an entire range of thoughts and emotions with subtle changes in facial expressions. It’s really amazing work by the actor.
The technical elements of the film are jaw-dropping, as to be expected by now from a Nolan picture. The editing by Lee Smith feels a little off sometimes when transitioning between the space and Earth stories, and the music by Hans Zimmer is simply overbearing at times (though other times beautiful), but most of the other filmmaking aspects are incredible. Nolan’s approach to the filmmaking is like watching a world-class painter, his work both mesmerizing and a bit indulgent when all is said and done.
Nolan is aided immensely by production designer Nathan Crowley and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (replacing Nolan’s usual DP Wally Pfister). Nolan, Crowley, and their team used practical effects for the majority of Interstellar, bringing to life sets, props, and photography tricks in crafting Nolan’s universe. Hoytema captures everything in wide shots, but with a graceful touch and a poet’s eye.
With its technological amazements, Interstellar is the type of film that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible; I was lucky enough to see it in 70mm IMAX. The scenes involving the wormhole and black hole are some of the best in sci-fi film history. And another shot where a spaceship is a small dot compared to the giant canvas of Saturn’s rings just doesn’t deserve the small TV treatment. Though the film will have its cynics attacking it, there is no denying the epic filmmaking at hand here.
Interstellar is a flawed but awesome feature. It is not among Nolan’s best work, but it is a film I will want to revisit and analyze closer in the future. The director reaches for the stars here, and though he doesn’t get a full grasp his efforts are still admirable.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language).
Runtime: 2 hours and 49 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: November 7th, 2014.