WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
Before we begin, let me be fair. In my review for Transformers 4, I stated that one of the main issues I had with it was the running time of 165 minutes. I stand by that, too. Interstellar, the new film from director/co-writer Christopher Nolan, is even longer, clocking in at 169 minutes. When the news broke that the new space epic from the mind of Chris Nolan would be near three hours, my initial thought was “YES!” (Read that in the voice of an ecstatic third grader who has just learned his school has been cancelled for a snow day.) Admittedly, I was pumped because I am what the kids are now calling a “Nolan Fanboy.” I’ve seen every movie Christopher Nolan has made (most more than once, some (The Dark Knight) more than ten times) and I think every single one of them is good (most of them great.) And I have been eagerly anticipating the release of this movie since it was announced some years ago. Which is why I must be honest and fair and say that while Interstellar is light-years better than Transformers 4 (and I really mean light-years better), there is no reason for it to be three hours long. On the other hand of the argument, Transformers 4, while being the same length essentially, was also unbearably boring. Interstellar is not. The script, by Chris and his brother Jonathan, suffers a few issues along the way (which I will discuss as the review goes on), but has a tremendous way of keeping the viewer hooked for the entire ride. That being said, I felt it appropriate to address the haters who would say, “Why would you complain about Transformers 4’s runtime but not Interstellar’s?” An even simpler answer would be, “Nolan > Bay.” Shall we move on?
Interstellar wastes no time transporting us into its view of the future. Earth is nearly done. Humans have used up its resources to the point of near unsustainability, with corn being the only real source of food left. The atmosphere is dusty (just refrain back to history class and picture the Dust Bowl from the 1930s) and blight is destroying what crops we are graced with. The majority of the human race has resorted to an agrarian way of life (mostly by force), forced to put their interests on hold in an effort to simply survive. One of the many families suffering through this is led by Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former engineer and NASA test pilot, and takes up their residence on a farm. Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who was Renesmee in the Twilight movies; I know, I know, calm down) is convinced there is a ghost in her room, knocking books off her bookshelf (because that’s what ghosts do when they try to communicate). After Cooper discovers that this “ghost” is actually an unknown intelligence giving them messages via gravitational waves, they find themselves at a gate in the middle of nowhere. How they get there, the movie never explains. Oh well. A crazy, smart mouthed robot (a really funny and memorable robot character) takes them in for trespassing, and Cooper and Murph find themselves inside a hidden branch of NASA (convenient, right?) Professor Brand (Michael Caine, in his sixth collaboration with Chris Nolan) leads the team of intellects and reveals to Cooper his plan. Upon learning about a mysteriously placed wormhole orbiting Saturn, Brand plans to send a team of astronauts to it (and of course through it) in order to search for a habitable world for humankind.
That’s where the movie lifts off. Until then, it’s a bit slow, focusing on some human drama and some humdrum stuff about Murph’s problems in school and the school’s “wrong” teachings of the moon landing being staged as a form of propaganda to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Cooper, strutting his ex-NASA persona, obviously doesn’t like this and it results in a magnificent scene in a principal’s office with McConaughey spurting passionate dialogue. And the first act is full of moments like that. Good moments, but slower than the eventual moments that follow because once that shuttle launches, it’s on. The shot of the craft (called Endurance in the film) launching into space, leaving the earth behind, is a beautiful one and one that creates an uneasy feeling of ascending heights. Nolan doesn’t use lots of CGI though. Instead, he shows us McConaughey’s face, a broken heart who is leaving his family behind to do what he is called to do. It’s really wonderful filmmaking. Once the astronauts arrive in space, things get gorgeous. Nolan, along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her), has managed to capture some truly mesmerizing images of our solar system. As they drift further from the homeland and near the realm of Saturn, time is allowed for human drama, but there isn’t really much going on inside the ship. They make their plans, draw out their maps, and it’s all fascinating, but the human drama fails to exceed the magnificent space shots.
But even as the human drama fades a bit and the ship lifts off, plunging through our solar system as the humans inside make their plans to search for a new world, things escalate even more as the real soul of the movie kicks in. Once the team sees the wormhole (Nolan convinces us that it’s a “wormsphere,” a kind of black spherical energy that uses gravitational force to draw its visitors in), it’s lights out. The metallic blackness of the wormhole is awe-inspiring. The experience of seeing the ship slowly enter the wormhole and hearing the loud, thunderous sound design, is truly some of the most breathtaking and exhilarating cinema I’ve encountered all year. Once they’re through the wormhole, there’s lots of other stuff. Giant waves, talk of Plan A vs Plan B, the discovery of a new character played by an A-list actor, and some really incredible usage of relativity. And it’s all really awesome on so many levels.
From the beginning of Interstellar to the final shot, I was completely invested. Christopher Nolan is clearly passionate about this story and the script, while sometimes going into crazy alternate-dimension territory, feels like a “take notes” kind of thing instead of a “what if.” And for a movie that involves talk of transporting fertilized eggs to a new planet in a new galaxy via a wormhole in space, Interstellar never really feels as science-fiction-y as you may expect. It feels tangible and realistic, if sometimes a bit silly.
It’s a space exploration movie front and center, but when it isn’t wowing us with eye-popping visuals and wondrous scenery, it still manages to mold a set of likable characters in Cooper and his family. Matthew McConaughey is magnificent as Cooper and this is just one more testament to the accuracy of the term “McConaissance.” Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck are terrific in their smaller roles of Cooper’s kids grown up (it factors into the relativity aspect of the movie). And while McConaughey is on the voyage, he is supported by Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, and David Gyasi (all good in their roles). But even when considering the performances that bring this story to life, Christopher Nolan is the real star of this show. What a brilliant filmmaker. He has succeeded in changing the blockbuster into something more important; something with meaning, logic, and heart, more than Michael Bay could ever dream of doing. Interstellar is no exception. This is an enormous movie, one that starts on the dirt of earth and eventually transcends space and time (literally). It’s called a space epic and even that is an understatement. We go from the very smallest of towns to the grandest of galaxies. We see planets and stars, some made up of endless water and some made up of snowy terrain. But it all comes back to humanity. Humanity is the driving force of the film; a species so keen on maintaining survival that we would even fly to another galaxy instead of facing natural extinction.
What it accomplishes is giving us something to think about. As Christopher Nolan always does, he makes us use our brains. Some people have complained about not being able to follow the movie even when paying close attention to every word spoken and I simply cannot relate. I also heard someone say “Interstellar is like 2001: A Space Odyssey with an audio commentary track you can’t turn off.” Unfortunately, this is true, which is a bit of a flaw, yes, but it is also the reason why I feel most people will be able to follow it easily. The script, while intellectually sound (maybe?) and intriguing, does have a few flaws, and one of them is the use of expository dialogue. Sometimes the characters speak what Nolan wants us to know, instead of letting us figure it out on our own. But I know I daren’t criticize the film for making it easier on the audience to follow along. Some people don’t get it even with the help of exposition. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the movie doesn’t need to be three hours long. It’s always fascinating and the plot always goes in directions that allows giant plot points to fill the running time, but it doesn’t excuse the unnecessary length.
But enough griping. Christopher Nolan has taken an enormous budget ($165 million) and made a futuristic space epic, but has also done the unthinkable. When all the fun and games are over, the humans are the driving force behind the film. Despite all the beautiful space imagery and the visual splendor of the wormhole itself (some of the best space imagery ever featured in a film), the movie finds a way to resort to the humans. “Love transcends time and space,” says Anne Hathaway about halfway through. By the end, that has more significance than anyone could’ve expected. This isn’t Nolan’s best work, but it is his most ambitious. Flaws aside, this is a beautiful and unrelenting attempt from Nolan; one that has the emotional power and visual splendor to leave a long-lasting impact. It isn’t perfect, but it is unforgettable.
Interstellar (2014) 169 mins Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan Directed by Christopher Nolan
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