Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar

Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Cooper), Anne Hathaway (Brand), Jessica Chastain (Murph), Mackenzie Foy (Murph Р10 yrs.), Michael Caine (Professor Brand), John Lithgow (Donald), David Gyasi (Romilly), Casey Affleck (Tom), Bill Irwin (TARS - voice), Josh Stewart (CASE - voice), Wes Bentley (Doyle), Matt Damon (Dr. Mann), Ellen Burstyn (Murph - older), Topher Grace (Getty), Timoth̩e Chalamet (Tom - 15 Yrs.), David Oyelowo (School Principal).

There are plenty of nits you can pick with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – some of which matter to me more than others. The fact that Nolan stretched the science in the film doesn’t really matter to me – who the hell goes to a science fiction movie expecting absolute fidelity to physics anyway? The movie has other issues – like all Nolan films, the film’s dialogue is heavy on exposition, which stunts the drama at times, especially since at times they are explaining things they have already explained before. The movie makes some story choices, particularly in the last act, that don’t make a lot of sense given what has happened before. The film is clearly an attempt to merge two of Nolan’s favorite filmmaker’s sensibilities – the Kubrick of 2001 and the Spielberg of Close Encounters, and it doesn’t always work. Yet despite the problems with Interstellar, I couldn’t help but love the film overall. Is there another director in the world who would attempt to tell a story like this – and could actually get it made? Flaws and all, Interstellar is an awe inspiring film.

The film opens sometime in the future – when much of humanity has been wiped out due to climate change, and a lack of food. Armies have been disbanded, technology is no longer moving forward, and even a highly trained engineer and one time NASA pilot like Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is stuck working as a farmer. He is the widowed father of two children – the teenage Tom will be happy to follow in Cooper’s footsteps and become a farmer himself. The 10 year old Murphy (played by Mackenize Foy), is more like her father – and looks up at the stars in with the same reverence as her father. The opening scenes of the movie recall the Dust Bowl of the great depression – where everything is dirty, everyone is poor, and no one is really happy. Through a series of events too complicated to explain, Cooper ends up, alongside Murph, at a secret NASA facility. There he reconnects with his former mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) – who tells him about a secret mission that is going to launch soon. There is a possibility to save humanity – by leaving the planet, going through a wormhole and inhabiting another planet. Someone or something has opened that wormhole, and 10 years ago 12 different scientists were sent to the 12 planets on the other side of the wormhole – with the purpose of finding out which one, if any, were inhabitable. Nothing can travel backwards through the wormhole except a series of pings – and three of the scientists are pinging back telling them to come to their planet. Since Cooper is the only person with any actual flight experience he joins a crew including Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) and two other scientists (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) to figure out which of the three planets will actually be right for humanity. I won’t divulge anything more of the plot that twists and turns in unexpected ways through its three hour runtime.

The film is a heady mixture of smarts and emotions. This is the most boldly sentimental film that Nolan has made to date – and while some may reject Nolan’s emotional button pushing, particularly in the last act, it moved me more than I thought it would (perhaps it’s because I am the father of two girls, and Nolan does a great job at making the central relationship in the film between Cooper and Murph – which finds its counterpoint in an equally complex relationship between the Brand father-daughter. McConaughey is a natural in a role like this – which requires him to be cool, charming but also mine some emotional territory. Even better is Chastain as the grown up Murph – who is able to make something of a role that doesn’t have a lot of narrative significance at times. Less well utilized is Hathaway – but she does a fine job in her few big moments. The most underrated member of the cast is probably Gyasi, who arc is the most tragic, even if it’s often confined to the background.

But as much as the emotional currents in the movie help to overcome some of the narrative flaws in the movie – and they do – the larger achievement is technical. Nolan, who shot on film, and uses as little CGI as possible. I have actually loved practical effects more than CGI – they have a weight to them that makes them feel more real. The visual worlds that Nolan creates in the film are truly awe inspiring – from the dust bowl of earth, to a planet of nothing but water, with giant title waves, to the harsh, desolate frozen wasteland on another. All of these worlds are similar to earth, but not quite. The scenes in space brilliant in themselves.

No, Interstellar is not a perfect movie. While I didn’t find the much discussed sound issues to be that bad (there was only scene where I struggled to hear what was being said because the mix had the music up too high) – they were there. And the movie takes some strange steps in its final act – final minutes really – that I found to be a little hard to accept. But the flaws in the movie do not really detract from my overall feelings on the film. The film is smart, emotional and brilliantly executed. Yes, there are flaws – but there are few films this year I look forward to revisiting more than Interstellar. It is that rare sci-fi that forces the audience to look at the sky in wonder about our place in the world, and yet keeps the focus on its main characters, and their relationships. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Nolan doesn’t quite pull it off – but damn if I didn’t love seeing him try.

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