PLOT: In a future where Earth has become uninhabitable, a widowed ex-NASA pilot (Matthew McConaughey) is sent on a mission through a wormhole in order to find a new home for the species and save mankind from extinction.
REVIEW: Christopher Nolan is nothing if not ambitious and there’s no doubt that INTERSTELLAR is his most ambitious movie to date. This is considerable as Nolan’s not only made a movie that ran backwards (MEMENTO) but also INCEPTION – which took the pyrotechnics of a mega-budget action movie and set them almost entirely in a dream (within a dream, within a dream, etc). Here, Nolan’s made a close to $200 million three-hour epic about science and relativity, and like his other stabs at the unusual, it’s almost entirely successful.
One common criticism of Nolan’s work is that he lacks a human touch. INTERSTELLAR – co-authored by his brother Jonathan – seeks to remedy that, telling a highly emotional story that at its heart is less about space exploration than an absentee father’s guilt and the effect it has on his family. Think of this as the answer to Steven Spielberg’s highly-criticized ending to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND where the hero abandons his family to go explore the galaxy. While McConaughey’s dilemma here is understandable (he’s literally leaving to go save the world) the loss both he and his children face is the absolute lynchpin of the film and the thing that will make INTERSTELLAR click with an audience that’s looking for more than eye candy – although naturally that’s something the film has in spades.
While INTERSTELLAR will likely become famous (and possibly even iconic) due to its incredible imagery, the one who makes everything come together is without a doubt McConaughey. This continues his amazing resurgence, but unlike TRUE DETECTIVE or even DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, this is the actor playing a highly relatable everyman, and being a father himself, McConaughey is able to brilliantly convey the love he has for his family (particularly his daughter Murph – as played by Mackenzie Foy) with their potential loss informing everything he does throughout the rest of the movie. There’s not a second where we don’t think he’s thinking of them, particularly a nail-biting sequence set on a water-world where time passes so fast that every hour spent on the surface equals a decade in Earth time. McConaughey’s devastation here and in several other scenes (such as the trailer’s image of him driving away from his children with tears in his eyes) is palpable and worthy of being called one of the year’s best performances.
However, INTERSTELLAR is far from a weepie. If the film becomes as iconic as some are suggesting it will likely have a lot to do with the striking imagery. Nolan is one of cinema’s great modern showmen, and INTERSTELLAR allows Nolan to use his preferred large-format IMAX shooting in absolutely brilliant ways. More than half of the film (most of the non-earth or rocket based stuff) has been shot this way, and seeing this on a large format 70MM IMAX screen is a must to get the full effect. The lensing by Hoyte van Hoytema (who – amazingly – has since signed on to do the next Bond movie) is superb, and strikingly different from Nolan’s usual work with Wally Pfister. On Earth, the film looks almost like a Terrence Malick movie, while on the various desolate planets surveyed by the mission, there’s an almost total absence of color, giving these sequences a truly other-worldly feel. Finally, space itself is shot almost like an IMAX HUBBLE documentary (made even more eerie by the scientifically accurate total lack of sound) save for the frequent explosions of color as they travel through worm holes, encounter black holes, etc.
There’s no doubt that van Hoytema needs to take home an Oscar for his work here, and the same goes for Hans Zimmer, with this arguably being the greatest score of his already impressive career. Nolan’s always brought out something special in him, and his incredible score (with heavy use of organs) is gripping and highly emotional. Some will call it manipulative, I call it genius.
On the whole, INTERSTELLAR only goes wrong in small bits here and there. As good as McConaughey is, his co-stars have much more thinly written parts. Anne Hathaway is very cold for much of the film, with her character never getting the same kind of stakes McConaughey does, although to a certain extent they remedy this later in the film. Meanwhile Jessica Chastain, as the adult Murph, strains credibility in how much she resents, and even hates her absent father – despite the fact that she’s spent decades working for the very same project (headed by Nolan’s good-luck charm Michael Caine). Casey Affleck fares better in a small part as McConaughey’s grown son.
It’s also clear that Nolan’s taking a page here from a huge variety of films, with not only Malick and Stanley Kubrick having a major influence, but also people like Andrei Tarkovsky, and even Peter Hyams, with this having some striking similarities to his under-appreciated 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY sequel, 2010 (with that film’s star, John Lithgow, turning up in a key supporting part). Nolan’s wise-cracking robot T.A.R.S seems to have been heavily influenced – in personality if not looks – by Roddy McDowell’s robot in THE BLACK HOLE – which in turn was influenced by STAR WARS. Warren Beatty’s REDS even gets paid homage to, with some testimonials of the now aged inhabitants of earth sprinkled into the first act (admittedly this doesn’t quite work).
On the whole, INTERSTELLAR adds up to a film the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s almost too much to take-in with one viewing, but while there are some elements that maybe don’t totally work, it’s a thrilling, emotionally exhausting ride and a rollercoaster for the mind and spirit. In some ways, the flaws only make it more perfect and this stands alongside Nolan’s best work. Heck, twenty years from now we may even think of it as a classic, even if it takes a bit of time for it to sink in.
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