Sunday, April 12, 2015
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace David Oyelowo
Running Time: 169 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Well, at least we can't continue claiming there aren't any fresh, original ideas left in movies. Christopher Nolan's gigantic sci-fi think piece, Interstelllar, is full of them. Whether I could explain them or decipher what they all mean is another issue entirely but no one could leave the film disappointed that it didn't have enough to say. Every time a space-set sci-fi entry is released, inevitable comparisons to the trailblazing 2001: A Space Odyssey are made, whether warranted or not. Here, they are, and not just visually either. With an overreaching ambition that spans across time, space and humanity, Nolan hasn't just swung for the fences, he's run right through them. If someone asked me to explain what exactly occurs in the film's final hour, I'd give it a decent shot, but would likely fail. But it is surprising that many of these scientific facts do hold up to logical scrutiny even when the actual plot's gone too far off the deep end.
At times, you'll be wondering if this has anything to do with science at all or co-screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are just making this up as they go along. It turns out they're not, as Caltech physicist Kip Thorne actually consulted on the film and it's at its best when playing in those waters, which is luckily 80 percent of its running time. Faltering only when awash in Spielbergian sentimentality that's partially earned, the whole thing is kind of unprecedented terms of the number of influences it draws from. If Kubrick, Spielberg and Shyamalan raised a cinematic child, it would be called Interstellar, so it's easy to understand how it's garnered such polarizing reactions. It may take years to calculate or comprehend its creative worth, but any picture aiming this high had little chance at achieving perfection. Instead, it's Nolan's most gloriously imperfect endeavor, and one sure to be discussed and analyzed for a while to come.
In the near-future on a resource-depleted Earth, former military pilot and NASA astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to run the family farm the midst of a crop blight that's slowly destroying civilization. His 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is not only struggling in school in the wake of her mom's death, but claims her room is being haunted by poltergeists. But these "ghosts" are really unidentifiable intelligence leaving coordinates to a secret NASA facility being overseen by Professor John Brand (Michael Caine).
Brand's discovered a wormhole by Saturn leading to three potentially habitable planets in the galaxy that could offer a chance for humanity's survival. Cooper joins Brand's daughter, biotechnologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and a pair of robots named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) aboard the Endurance shuttle in search of a new home. But the clock keeps ticking faster, as Cooper's torn between reuniting with his family on Earth and insuring the future of the human race.
The opening hour of the film is confounding, with the viewer dropped into this post-apocalyptic wasteland without much of sense of time or location. Nolan trusts us to figure it out Everything that happens initially becomes clearer by the end, but what a strange trip it is getting there. With depleted resources and the crop crisis, the biggest fear early on is that we're heading into Shyamalan territory. The mention of poltergeists and the appearance of a rogue NASA unit operating as covertly as the CIA, does little to quell those concerns. Fortunately, the explanation of the mission doesn't involve aliens or Twilight Zone twists, but a very real mission more rooted in scientific fact and placed into fantastical fiction. It's when the crew takes off and enters that wormhole that the craziness begins and the story starts to peel its many layers.
Rarely has a space epic been so thoroughly concerned with the passage of time and all the consequences surrounding it.The realization of a massive gravitational time dilation ends up being the foundation on which all the film's most powerful themes rest, with one hour on the surface equivalent to seven years on Earth. It is a "race against time" in the strictest, most literal sense, as each minute Cooper spends investigating could represent a birthday missed or a wedding passed. And the more details we learn of Professor Brand's plan, the less likely Cooper's reunion with his kids seems, especially considering they're now adults his age.
The moment Jessica Chastain takes over for Mackenzie Foy as Murph is emotionally brutal, if not only for the transmissions Cooper sees from home, but the moral quandary the screenplay presents, testing the boundaries of sacrifice and selflessness. It's the ferry boat dilemma from The Dark Knight taken to a cosmic scale with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. Well suited to their roles, Chastain and Casey Affleck are completely plausible as the adult counterparts of Cooper's kids 23 years later, with Murph still harboring a grudge against her father for abandoning them. When their story of trying to survive on an inhabitable Earth starts to take center stage, Nolan juggles it well with the ongoing space mission, which quickly deteriorates from a potential return home to a race against the clock.
For the first time since 1997's largely underrated Contact, McConaughey finds himself in a giant sci-fi space epic, and while he was clearly the weak there, he's now entering this project as not only an recent Oscar winner, but ten times the actor he used to be. Much more relaxed and confident as a performer compared to his rookie years, he must this time carry the entire load of this movie on his back, appearing in every scene and selling some pretty heady stuff in the third act. He's a farmer, father, pilot and equally adept at playing each and all in a role that actually earns him all those Paul Newman comparisons that have been made over the years.
Anne Hathaway joining McConaughey enables us to watch two of the best at the top of their game, feeding off each other with their characters' differing philosophies toward the missions' ultimate purpose and steps toward fulfilling it. The biggest discussion point isn't whether Hathaway's more believable as an astronaut and scientist than Sandra Bullock was in Gravity (hint: she is), but just how much she manages to do with Brand's eyes and subtle facial expressions. That's why it's disappointing whenever Nolan gives her too much to say about feelings that should be demonstrated rather than discussed. There's a cringe worthy speech she has in the vessel about that would have been unbearable had any actress but Hathaway delivered it. In a way, when given clunky dialogue she proves just how good she is, as this deserves to rank amongst her most rewarding performances.
There's also a third major name uncredited the film whose identity has been concealed in the advertising for mostly valid reasons. It's not a well kept secret, but I was still completely taken aback by the magnitude and importance of the part, which heavily informs the film's themes. Again taking from the Spielberg playbook, it can't be a coincidence that the character is named "Mann" given the nature of the role, which is fleshed out to perfection by the star playing him.
Viewers wouldn't even need to be told that this project forgoes the use of CGI in favor of practical effects and miniatures since it's plainly obvious just watching it. Or maybe I should say it's not obvious at all, since the effects sequences don't call attention to itself like green screen work so often does. If ever there was a case not to use it, Nolan wisely knew it was here, as a hard science fiction tale with big ideas is basically begging for a traditional approach that's the antithesis of what's in theaters now, making it easy to see why he rejected a 3D release. While there were supposedly numerous complaints from those who saw it on the big screen about the sound drowning out dialogue, the only sound-related issue that caught my attention was Hans Zimmer's score, which seemed to be constant in every scene, as rarely a minute passes without it.
It's questionable whether the ending's a complete success. It is somewhat incomprehensible and gutsy, not to mention the closest mashup of the 2001 "stargate" sequence and the final scenes of A.I. as we're going to get, strangely without cribbing either. There's again probably a bit too much discussion about what Cooper's experiencing to reach the transcendent heights Nolan's aiming for, but we could only hope an eighth of the movies released each year had as much ambition as this picture's final hour. It isn't strictly a survival story set in space, as Gravity was, but a hardcore sci-fi fable hinging on thoughtful ideas As if it wasn't already apparent, Nolan solidifies his status as a visionary storyteller whose decision to leave the Batman franchise is justified by just how much he has to say outside of it. While many currently rank this effort among his least and most flawed, I'm not entirely sure whether that assessment will stick. Ironically enough, that's something time will have determine.