Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review - Interstellar

Shoot for the moon, and if you miss, you'll land among the stars. That ancient adage serves to remind us that dreaming big and daring to achieve the impossible is often its own reward, even if it does turn out to be, y'know, impossible. Christopher Nolan sets his sights well beyond our puny moon in Interstellar. He's not even aiming for the same galaxy! So if he launches a misfire, it sure as hell is an intriguing misfire, and probably the most essential science-fiction of the year.

His space opera begins on Earth sometime in the future (Nathan Crowley's weathered production design suggests a future that's distant in technological advancement but aesthetically not unlike our present), when violent dust storms are a routine bother and most of the planet's crops have gone extinct due to blight. There's plenty of corn though, both in the fields and on the page in Nolan's typically creaky expository dialogue.
One of the cultivators of this vital food source, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), bemoans that his education and training as a pilot/engineer are going to waste in a vain attempt to sustain a global population that won't last past his kids' generation. He doesn't merely want his children to survive. He wants them to grow up with the same awe and wonder of the universe that he has.

He's built a strong relationship with his daughter Murph on that mutual passion for scientific curiosity. Much credit is owed to McConaughey and the precocious Mackenzie Foy for selling this crucial opening chapter of Nolan's screenplay (based on an earlier draft by his brother Jonathan) with such emotional honesty. See! Scientists have feelings too!

Cooper would do anything to preserve Murph's future, including leave Earth on a rocket ship with no guarantee of ever seeing her again. When his old mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) makes it clear that humankind's salvation lies not on our dying little piece of rock, but on potentially habitable planets through a wormhole just beyond Saturn, Cooper can't refuse the offer to pilot the mission.

Among his crew are Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway), a pair of monolithic robots with programmable personalities, and a pair of additional scientists (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) with far less personality than that. Our heroic band must brave the perils of exploring these mysterious worlds, but also the complications of a mammoth black hole named Gargantua.
While Cooper & crew are traveling through distorted space-time in the presence of such enormous gravitational fields, time passes more quickly for Murph and everyone back home on Terra Firma. While Nolan doesn't take any pains to actually explain Einstein's postulations on relativity, we clearly see its effects as Murph grows into an intelligent, mature woman (Jessica Chastain) while Cooper hardly ages at all.

Thought-provoking and visually magnificent though it is, at times even flirting with greatness, Interstellar is still a successful failure. Simply put, the movie has a lot of problems. It's overlong, unevenly paced and clumsily scripted, with dialogue thinner than the mere millimetres of aluminum that protect our intrepid cosmonauts from the unforgiving vacuum of space. That is, when the dialogue can even be heard above the muddled sound mix.

And I'll do my best to avoid spoiler territory by simply confessing that I couldn't help but stifle a giggle when the film's much whispered-about surprise actor shows up, and immediately emulates the most famous scene from his most famous movie! Well, it's not his fault. But it sure is a distracting casting decision.

And yet Interstellar is fascinating because its ideas literally defy gravity with their loftiness, and the canvas on which it paints is so astronomically grand in scale (with an equally imposing pipe organ score from Hans Zimmer). Comparisons to Kubrick's 2001 are to be expected, but are also superficial and do a disservice to the singularity of Nolan's vision – and to his vision of the singularity!

Consulting with renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, vfx supervisor Paul Franklin and his CG artists at Double Negative have rendered wondrous celestial phenomena that are not only beautiful, but scientifically credible too; An icy planet with frozen clouds, a wormhole represented as a shimmering sphere, a water world under immense tidal pressure due to a neighbouring black hole... All are mesmerizing for the eyes to behold and even more so for the mind to contemplate.
In fact, Thorne has even gone on to publish academic literature on gravitational lensing (which causes the luminous swirls of light and matter that encircle Gargantua) based on insights gained from his collaboration with the effects team. Whether or not you dig the film, THAT is cool.

Trying to quantify the extent to which Interstellar's virtues mitigate its faults is enough to warp one's mind as much as a singularity warps time and space, but the boldness of the mission ultimately transcends the rustiness of its vessel. As though slowed by relativity, the themes and concepts that so confidently blast off the screen age far slower in the back of one's mind than the flaws.

These days, studio execs don't even joke about producing big-budget spectacles that would dare to challenge audiences the way Interstellar does. That's a license Nolan has earned and is exercising while he still has the opportunity, so more power to him. Even though Spielberg was once attached to direct this project, it feels unmistakably like a movie only Nolan could have made. A must-see.

*** out of ****


  1. Gee, I kinda loved Interstellar. Yeah, it had some obvious flaws, but the effects were incredible and McConaughey was spectacular. But this is one of those movies that people are either going to strongly love or strongly hate with no middle ground, kinda like Les Miserables or Moulin Rouge! before it. Half the people I know who saw this loved it and half hated it. You are certainly the most middle ground I have seen. It will be interesting how the Oscars, or frankly the other critics' awards, will come to play for Interstellar, and what will happen as this picture ages.

  2. I never had any desire to purchase a Blu-ray until I saw this film.