Christopher Nolan's imperfect but breathtaking 'Interstellar' dreams big and wears its heart on its sleeve
Interstellar Paramount Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Bill Irwin and Casey Affleck
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 49 minutes
November 7, 2014
(out of four)
"...it's the pictures that got small."
Grandness is in such short supply at the movies. For a medium long defined by dreaming big and imagining the impossible, blockbuster cinema rarely dares to truly reach for something, to push itself toward the limits of possibility. With so many filmmakers safely cocooned in franchise-building* and so many others satisfied with playing it straight down the middle, along comes Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, a film of astonishing ambition and spectacle, and an essential antidote to a climate of contented mediocrity.
* In fairness, Nolan is partially guilty of this as well, having made his bona-fides with one superhero franchise and shepherded the start of another. Still, he's never been content to play it safe, even with Batman.
That Interstellar is overstuffed with ideas, ambitions, characters and narrative threads (and exposition ... and sound ... and twists) is kind of inevitable, and more a testament to the magnitude of its ambitions than an indictment of its craftsmanship. In any case, to focus on such elements is to miss the bigger picture. Perfect, as they say, is the enemy of good.
"We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars; now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt." That's a line spoken by Matthew McConaughey's character, Cooper, and Nolan has echoed the sentiment in recent weeks, stressing the importance of "looking up again." But that doesn't just reflect the director's thoughts on the essence of human endeavor and ambition; it's practically a mission statement on the state of cinema. His optimism (or at least hope) about the possibilities of both - what humankind is capable of achieving; what filmmakers are capable of creating - bleeds through every frame of Interstellar. The kind of artistry and vision on display here is what makes the cinematic art form what it is, and in that regard, at least, this may be his most definitive statement yet.
In a different sense, it could even be read as a response to his own work - or at least a philosophical detour. His films have often been characterized by their cynicism, even the ones with ostensibly happy endings. Interstellar picks up in a world that embodies - almost by necessity - a sense of cynicism that has made human advancement an impracticality, if not an impossibility. A worldwide food shortage (which, thankfully, goes largely unexplained) has made the world smaller again, reducing society to agrarian towns and communities still struggling to survive, struggling to harvest crops. The air is hardly breathable anymore. The future of the human race is still up in the air. In this world, there's no more nostalgia for actual human progress, nor even a belief in it. It has become conventional wisdom that the moon landings were faked - in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union, as the story goes.
Nolan, through Cooper/McConaughey - who is such a perfect embodiment of old-fashioned, corny, earnest American optimism - flouts that cynicism, openly professing his belief in reaching for the stars. Out of that belief he and co-writer Jonathan Nolan - re-writing a script that had initially been pegged for Steven Spielberg - fashioned a story about a manned mission through wormholes and into new galaxies in search of a new home planet for mankind and save it from extinction. (In terms of grand human endeavors, it doesn't get much more high-stakes than that; if nothing else, Nolan is not screwing around with the degree of difficulty.)
Interstellar embraces the scientific ideas - some theoretical, others more practical - at the heart of such a journey, going out of his way to explain the theoretical physics that govern the narrative and all the concepts it attempts to explore. Sometimes this leads to the script over-explaining things as widely understood as relativity; but on the whole Nolan does a really interesting job reconciling the hard science with the atypically sentimental (for him) character dynamics and philosophical ideas.
The scope allows for it all to fit, and ultimately that's what's most impressive about the movie. Nolan is working on an operatic scale here, a fact emphasized by the majesty of his outer-space imagery and the bombast of Hans Zimmer's organ-heavy score, which at any given moment feels celestial, funereal, anxious or overblown, sometimes all at once*. Nolan is going for big emotional and existential strokes, and that's reflected in the music, the urgent, jittery tension generated by his trademark cross-cutting, and of the course the breathtaking visuals of Hoyte Van Hoytema (replacing Nolan's long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister, who's moved on to directing). While the 2001 comparisons are inevitable (and certainly fitting, especially the way this film captures the slow movements and silence of space travel), I was reminded even more of certain passages from the creation sequence in The Tree of Life (which did its own version of space opera by scoring it to an actual opera piece).
* There's one scene in particular - a swelling, cross-cut suspense sequence shifting between a crucial event on one of the candidate planets and a comparatively low-key, but no less important, scene back on Earth - in which Zimmer's pulsing organ music is reminiscent of Goblin's great Suspiria score.
There's a nice study of contrasts going on throughout the film - first and foremost with the dual settings of a Dust Bowl-like middle America (all browns and yellows, volatile and harsh) and the calm emptiness of the cosmos, its darkness pierced by the blinding brightness of the black hole Gargantua that Nolan and Van Hoytema look upon with awe and reverence, its calm interrupted by moments of unexplained phenomena.
I can't even get into much detail about my favorite setpiece, which comes late in the film, except to say it is a dazzling piece of visual design - surreal, kaleidoscopic, gorgeous, even musical (consider the string-like texture of what we're seeing) - and boasts perhaps the boldest visual choices of Nolan's career to date.
The contrasts continue with the focus of the story, which takes the hard science and blends it with a surprising sentimental streak that focuses on love as not just a sentiment but an actual key plot point and ideological concept. The merging of the science with the more abstract ideas about the human heart and the human spirit is potentially cumbersome, but essentially the movie is just presenting love - and by proxy human connection - as a virtually unconquerable force of nature that drives what we do, and what we accomplish, as a species. (If it doesn't work for you intellectually, then I can't imagine what you would make of, say, Metropolis.)
It also works because the cast sells it so well - particularly McConaughey, whose relationship with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a young girl, Jessica Chastain as an adult) is the film's emotional fulcrum, and the key to understanding most of its ideas and narrative elements.
The character work is strong in general. While Cooper and Murph are the two most important, there's a nice hodge-podge of side characters typical of a space-opera - the old mentor (Michael Caine, of course) who organizes the mission, and the crew played by Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi and Wes Bentley. Oh, and then there's TARS and CASE, a pair of silver, monolith-like former military robots re-appropriated for interstellar travel. TARS in particular (voiced by Bill Irwin) is one of the film's most memorable figures. In fact, he epitomizes a strange and refreshing sense of levity that I did not expect coming from the typically straight-faced Nolan. That attitude permeates the film's tone in general; amidst the sometimes dry scientific discussion is a genuinely warm and funny rapport between the characters. There may be issues with the dialogue at times, but at others, it's positively naturalistic.
I'd describe Interstellar as a more science-heavy, less abstract cousin of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, which was also hugely ambitious, and flawed, and spectacular. This is a feat of rare filmmaking and even more rare ambition. It is a movie that looks up at the sky and wonders; in all its cheesy, awestruck, heady glory, it sees the possibilities not just of human achievement but of filmmaking itself (seeing it in 70mm is essential), and Nolan goes further than others can, let alone dare to try. There have been better movies this year, and probably better movies from Nolan's career. But Interstellar, whatever its imperfections, is a legitimate cinematic accomplishment.