If Christopher Nolan wasn’t already the most daring filmmaker of the 21st century, “Interstellar” seals the deal. Somehow, the “Dark Knight Trilogy” and “Inception” director manages to package theoretical physics, space-time travel and a doomsday scenario all in one film that even when it doesn’t make sense, still strikes several nerves both in terms of spectacle and compelling storytelling.
“Ambitious” might be the easiest way to describe this 169-minute epic that makes “2001: A Space Odyssey” seem artsy-fartsy. And in true Nolan fashion, the ambition involves more than just the science, but in the way these high-brow concepts connect to core human themes and ideas.
In a minimally explained but pretty graspable not-too-distant future, Earth is running out of resources to sustain the human race. The need to reinvest in agriculture has wiped out the entire field of technology, which is why Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is no longer a space pilot, but a farmer. But when his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) discovers some strange gravitational phenomena, it leads Cooper and Murph to NASA, where they discover an operation to find a new home for the human race in a galaxy accessible through a black hole just off of Saturn. When Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway) offer Coop the job of piloting their mission, he accepts and leaves his family, even though he has no idea when he’ll return — if he returns.
At it’s core, “Interstellar” is about the lengths we will go to for the ones we love, the choices we will make when guided by love, the least quantifiable force in the universe. A layer above that is the length humankind might go to survive, what we would or wouldn’t do as individuals to ensure its continued existence. A layer above that is our purpose as a race and as individuals. Wrapped around this is a lot of science. I mean, a lot of science.
As we saw with “Inception,” Nolan gets way in over his head explaining stuff most movie-going minds simply can’t grasp. If you thought characters in “Inception” existed solely to help explain stuff to the audience, “Interstellar” has a whole slew of these folks. Somehow, Nolan gets away with it, hoping you’ll be blinded by your own curiosity and distracting you with the film’s good looks.
Technically, “Interstellar” could be studied again and again. There’s so much to take in beyond the themes and scientific theories and the emotion of characters lightyears apart. Whether it’s the computer animation of black holes, the editing of scenes on earth with scenes on a planet in an unknown galaxy, or Hans Zimmer’s off-the-wall but powerful score, there’s an abundance of technical detail that will undoubtedly be recognized come the Academy Awards. “Interstellar” is no less ambitious in these regards as well. Having the privilege of seeing the film in 70mm IMAX, the experience of the film compares favorably with last year’s “Gravity” only more epic in scope.
Nolan’s philosophy behind the camera for the space scenes of “Interstellar” is to pick his angles and be patient. The major sequences get repetitive in terms of shots and last unusually long in some instances to deprive us of the instant gratification we’ve come to expect from traditional blockbusters. It creates the desperation of space, the feeling that every decision is crucial and one small thing can send everything spiraling into chaos. The storytelling allows for plenty of this too. Nolan and his brother Jonathan take their time for the first half of the movie, but deliver on the palm-sweating scenes that big movies like this necessitate.
I will validate the feelings of those who struggle to take the leaps that that Nolans ask of us in this movie. Given the film is based on theory, it’s hard not to question the likelihood of the events and to occasionally check out because you’re not able to “go there” with the filmmaker. “Interstellar” has more of these moments than “Inception,” but probably because the concept of “Inception” is already far-fetched unrealistic. That film played by its own rules, “Interstellar” has to play with the rules of the universe. Yet everywhere the Nolans take the story ultimately services the emotional story deep within the plot holes and incomprehensible events. The film’s biggest “WTF” moment, for example, proves to be one of its most emotional. It’s one thing when a film gets so big it loses sight of its characters, but that does not happen in “Interstellar,” as you would rightfully expect from any Nolan film.
At the same time, “Interstellar” also exposes Nolan’s storytelling process, like taking a microscope to something beautiful and seeing the grossness of how it all works. The sheer magnitude of telling this story allows you to see the contrivances that make it all work, in the same way plot holes become more obvious in certain types of films. Everything from the purpose of characters to their names, like Murphy. The dialogue also reveals itself as fitting a category such as expository or theme-building. The use of the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gently into that good night” is frankly overbearing rather than something that subtly illuminates the film’s ideas.
On the other hand, look closely enough at the technical elements and they demonstrate what a triumph “Interstellar” is in that regard. While you could argue Nolan’s storytelling ambitions exceed his reach in this film, you can’t levy much criticism at the visual storytelling. Easy to say, perhaps, for someone who saw the film in IMAX 70mm as intended, but what other filmmakers are pushing the artistic boundaries of film on a multi-million-dollar blockbuster scale? James Cameron and Peter Jackson, that’s about it.
The audacity of “Interstellar” is therefore the best thing about it and the worst, but what a thrill to take this cinematic journey into rarely treaded epic filmmaking territory with one of the world’s greatest cinematic minds.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan,
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine