Review: Interstellar

Interstellar

Trailer

Matthew McConaughey goes down the rabbit hole in Interstellar.

Matthew McConaughey goes down the rabbit hole in Interstellar.

I’ve had huge expectations for this one, ever since the first trailer (above), set to the haunting strings of V For Vendetta’s “Evey Reborn”, first dropped. Even beyond the seemingly impressive scope for an epic story, the name of the director would have sealed my attendance at a screening, with Nolan’s Inception not only being one of my favourite films ever, but even lends its name to my own barometer for how to measure the quality of a film despite apparent plot holes. Nolan is an ambitious and committed filmmaker, and the thought of following a narrative of his into the stars and beyond was tantalising to say the least. Could he keep striking gold in my eyes, and craft something to rival or better the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Ex NASA pilot/engineer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) farms corn on an Earth suffering an ecological cataclysm that has forced humanity back into an agrarian age. With mankind’s options running short, Cooper must leave his children behind when he is selected to go on a daring mission through a mysterious wormhole just past Saturn, with the hope of finding a new habitable world for the human race on the other side. On Earth, Coop’s daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain) works with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to find a solution to the oncoming apocalypse, while in another galaxy, Cooper and Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) go further than any other explorer has gone before.

Interstellar is, as advertised, an ambitious, expansive, epic tale of space exploration and humanity on the brink of survival. It has its fair share of marvels, and a strong emotional core. But something stops me from offering the firmest kind of recommendation, despite all of the positives I could offer about this modern day jaunt through our solar system and beyond.

As with other Nolan films, I found that I most enjoyed the first two acts of the film, especially the first 45 minutes or so set on a rapidly falling to pieces Earth, where the right amount of great detail, down to the necessity of leaving plates upside down before meals to stop the dust from spreading, was presented. It was simple, measured exposition and universe building, showing how far humanity had fallen, not just in actuality but in the dreams they are encouraged to have. Gone are tales of daring do and reaching beyond our limited understanding of the universe. Here to stay are lessons on how the moon landing was faked, and the best students in school being assigned farming work.

Coop and family are our eyes on this world. Coop is a man out of time, desperate to explore but pegged back by social and family responsibilities. Interstellar very quickly puts his relationship with daughter Murphy – named after the famous law – front and centre, a parent and child bond whose strength will have to transcend boundaries of time and space. The two, thanks to mysterious goings on at the Cooper household involving strange binary messages and “ghosts”, stumble upon the remains of NASA, and from there Coop is off to try and save the human race. But Interstellar never forgets its base – the Cooper/Murphy relationship – and everything is designed around that, effectively for the most part.

But, if I’m being honest, we didn’t come here for all that. The second act is a breathtaking journey through the planets, wormholes and another galaxy, of alien vistas and environments, of the limits of human endurance and hope. There is adventure and enthrallment aplenty, most notably surrounding the brilliantly executed story arc of a character, introduced late enough with a big name actor in the role, amazingly kept hidden in the promotional material. There are moments of great levity, desperate danger and wonderfully explained scientific quandaries. But it is also in these sections, between the maudlin tale of a suffocating Earth at home and subpar monologues on the power of love in space, where Interstellar starts groaning under the weight of its own running time and ideas. The supporting cast becomes more and more empty of character, and not just because of the black hole.

The ending – the last act that is – was a disappointment for me, for three main reasons. First, after a story about making difficult choices on behalf of the entire species, everything gets wrapped up all too neatly. Second, 2001 was an obvious influence on Nolan, and it shows in this ending, to an extent that threatens to leave “lifting” and move straight into “rip-off” territory. Third, and most importantly, the ending is all kinds of sappy and corny, in both narrative choices and dialogue, to an extent that felt more insipid than inspiring. Par for the course, although not totally film destroying, the ending leaves you with plenty of “But wait, what about…” thoughts pinging around your head. While I am certainly a proponent that it is better to let the audience figure some things out for themselves and connect the dots, at times in the final straight of Interstellar I would have preferred a bit more showing, telling or a mixture of both.

In acting terms, Interstellar is, regrettably, a mixed bag. McConaughey is immense, whether he is being the brow beaten father, the fearless space adventurer or the desperate representative of the human race, lost among the stars. Nolan consistently gets the goods from his leads, and McConaughey is the equal of DiCaprio or Bale. Beyond him, MacKenzie Foy is brilliant as the younger Murphy, really doing a fantastic job at making that emotional connection with the Cooper character, VA Bill Irwin has a great turn as robotic assistant TAGS, and that big name actor really makes his mark in the time he has onscreen.

The Cooper/Murphy relationship forms the emotional core of Interstellar, thanks largely to the performance of  Mackenzie Foy.

The Cooper/Murphy relationship forms the emotional core of Interstellar, thanks largely to the performance of Mackenzie Foy.

But then it all goes to hell. Hathaway, an actress I am rapidly coming to think very overrated, is rather stale in what is, essentially, the female lead role, though the fact that she is stuck with the highest amount of the frequently terrible wordplay might be the cause of that. Michael Caine struggles through, this being one Nolan film too many maybe. And Jessica Chastain, as the elder Murphy, is just too dry and flat in the role, hardly living up to the emotionally gut punching performance of Foy.

But I’d say a lot of the audience is here for the visual feast, and boy is there one. Yes, Nolan has some repetitive camera and environment choices – spinning action scenes and weird overhead landscapes spring to mind – but it all just works. I caught Interstellar on 35mm, as the director wanted people to see it, and beyond some eye straining for scenes of all white, I found it to be a brilliant portrayed film. Alien landscapes are strange but accessible, the “action” scenes bring a measure of Gravity back to the big screen, and all of the wonderful details and minutia that you would have come to expect of Nolan are present, whether it is a dust ravaged convoy of refugees on Earth or the scintillating depiction of a black hole about to swallow you up. The immensity of what Interstellar is depicting is really brought home on the audience through the visual work, and Nolan is a master at blending the computer generated with the real, to create something that might very well prove iconic when it comes to science fiction on screen.

Oh, if only the script had been there to back it up. It’s never been Nolan’s great strength (or that of his co-writer, brother Jonathan) but it really is a black mark on Interstellar, a film that is chock full of the kind of language that makes you arch an eyebrow and think “People do not talk like that”. Characters in Interstellar go around spouting poster taglines and other action hero mumbo jumbo, when they aren’t waxing lyrical about how love is the only thing that can transcend time and space (or something). The science is explained well, but how about some character interaction? How about some of the kind of dialogue that was present in Inception, when characters had more distinct voices? The exception is the stuff between Cooper and Murphy, but the back and forth between the two is gone after the first act.

Interstellar’s soundtrack is a difficult one to judge. It was certainly booming and dramatic, without having the kind of instant appeal of the music for Inception or The Dark Knight trilogy. But the problem, one that I read is replicated in many different screenings throughout the world, is with the sound mixing. It is simply put: at times throughout Interstellar, the soundtrack literally makes dialogue unintelligible, sometimes very important dialogue. Characters appear to be mumbling under the symphonic assault on our ears, and it’s all very bizarre. Some people claim this didn’t happen to them in theatres, and I believe them. So, what is the issue then? Whether it is the fault of the filmmakers, the people doing the screenings, or both, Interstellar has some very serious sound issues that should have been worked out better.

Some brief spoiler talk.

-You expect the standard influences: 2001, Gravity, The Black Hole, etc. But I really didn’t expect Nolan to take an idea from Contact, in regards the watch Cooper gives to his daughter. Man, there are better films to get your ideas from.

-So, the ending – the whole plot in general – is a gigantic bootstrap paradox without any explanation or throwaway reference to explain it. If “they” are an evolved form of humanity screwing with time from the future, how did “they” even get to that point if the humanity of Interstellar’s time are on the brink of extinction without the intervention of “them”? Where’s the closed loop?

-I’ve read different things about the accuracy of the science in Interstellar, between the likelihood of planets surviving near black holes or the finer points of time dilation. In the end, I didn’t care too much. It doesn’t have to be completely accurate to form a good movie, and Nolan is clearly driven by the idea of getting one of his characters through a black hole, and into a beyond that science cannot fathom yet.

-Man, that opening shot of Cooper having some kind of test flight accident: that just seemed to be dropped as a plot point near instantly.

-It would probably outrage much of the audience, but I think I would have preferred a film where the revelation of “Plan A” being a lie was at the end, and formed a conclusion, the Earth (and Coops kids) doomed and the astronauts left to save the species with the “population bomb”. Pessimistic? You bet. But I feel it would have been more satisfying to me than what we actually got at the end.

It is, very much so, a visual masterpiece of science fiction.

It is, very much so, a visual masterpiece of science fiction.

-Because that ending, wow. Yes, Nolan is wrapping everything around the Cooper/Murphy relationship, but it all gets stretched too far, with a liberal dose of difficult to understand science involving four dimensional boxes and the involvement of “them”. And it’s just corn, corn, corn all the way, whenever the concept isn’t so high as to be unreachable. Too many ideas are better than none, but that doesn’t mean you should pile them on.

-TAGS was one of the best parts of the film. It’s been a while since a robotic character has been done this well onscreen.

-I find Interstellar is this year’s Pacific Rim, insofar as it has a fanbase who are passionately, irrationally, drawn to not only praise it to the hilt, but criticise those who have decided not to. I have read, in several places, defences of the film that claim those who criticise it are merely doing so out of some form of ill-defined spite or “to be different”. Gimme a break.

– I loved Matt Damon and his performance as Dr Mann. It’s a little character journey that’s expertly done, the heroic astronaut built up long before we meet him, only to turn into the worst kind of coward right before our eyes (and perhaps, through his name, a representation of the worst aspects of the species).

-That Dylan Thomas poem was overused the second time its lines were read out. I think they quote from it four times in total.

-“They” were really just the ultimate Doctor Who-esque deus ex machina device, whose involvement could make up for any problem in the narrative, right down to Cooper getting rescued by “Cooper Station” at the end.

-“Cooper Station” itself, and the scenes that take place there, could do with a bit of elaboration. Is that ship heading through the wormhole? If so, why does the elderly Murphy insist Cooper follow Brand right then and there?

Spoilers end.

I did like Interstellar. It seems to be one of those divisive kind of pictures, where to not love every bit of it is distressing to those who do, or where criticism of its parts is met with scorn. I have no compunctions in saying I deeply enjoyed the first two hours or so of Interstellar, but felt that its final half hour or so was some of the poorest work Nolan has ever done, and rather spoiled the, to then, favourable impression I had of the overall film. As well as that, most of the supporting cast are misused or not putting in enough work, the script is remarkably underwhelming and the sound issues bear serious scrutiny.

But Interstellar is still enjoyable. It passes the Inception test. Its whole is better than the sum of its parts. That’s thanks to McConaughey, the general story, the visuals and that father/daughter relationship in the first half of the film. It is not as good an experience as Inception, and part of me does feel somewhat let down by how it all turned out. But that might just be a measure of the esteem I feel for Christopher Nolan, and the majestic adventures in visual storytelling he tries to take people on. I eagerly await his next effort.

Somewhat overrated, but still a very enjoyable experience.

Somewhat overrated, but still a very enjoyable experience.

(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures).

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6 Responses to Review: Interstellar

  1. steoller says:

    Nice,
    Just one point on the Dylan Thomas poem growing old – I think the point was that the audience become numbed to it’s message, so that Professor Brand’s bold resolution starts to ring hollow as the film progresses.

    • NFB says:

      Hmm, I never thought of it that way admittedly. I’m not sure it really works like that though, seeing as how the last use of it was naked triumphalism of the mission.

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