INTERSTELLAR Review

Where does one even begin? To describe a film as ambitious and overwhelming as director Christopher Nolan's latest is to take on as daunting a task as Nolan likely felt in making sure the science of his script was accurate. I don't know that anything I say in this review will perfectly capture the way I'm feeling about Interstellar because honestly, after three days of thinking, I'm still not sure I know exactly how I feel about it or what I think. I know that I was fascinated by it, I know that there is so much going on within it that I will need to see it again to feel I even somewhat understand it and I know that no matter how much I want to be able to say I either decisively adored or disliked the final product that kind of ruling won't come down until I've had multiple viewings and allowed plenty of time to pass. In this age of instant gratification where first weekends determine whether you are a success or failure, Interstellar offers an experience that demands to be contemplated, debated and seriously considered before ever giving anything close to a defiant verdict. I will admit to my initial reaction being that of pure awe while somewhat corrupted by the fact there were facets that didn't thrill me as much as others; sequences where the film felt it could have been trimmed or was a little too scatterbrained in contrast to the more precise scenes where Nolan is clearly in control of his spaceship. Ambition is key though and that is the one thing Nolan is never short of. Always pushing the limits, not only visually, but within the story, this time backed up by science that places the events of the film within the realm of real possibility. We are asked to make a few exceptions in how far we are willing to go with all we see being steeped in reality, but unlike some issues of the past Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan have crafted dimensional characters that are able to keep the sentimentality in check. There is never a moment where the film regresses from not being one hundred percent about the actuality of the situation at hand and the facts that support it, but it is able to take into consideration what we cannot explain or fully understand and how that might indeed factor into what is best for the characters outcome. It is a genuine mix of heart and facts that meld together over the course of three hours leaving you bewildered, haunted, alarmed and mystified to the point you may not be able to swallow everything you just took in, but will certainly be able to appreciate the intent.

Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is upset with her father (Matthew McConaughey) for leaving her behind.
In what seems to be forty to fifty years into our present future the generation being born at this moment have forgotten what a world of narcissism looks like. Gone are the days when people lived for themselves and making their personal dreams come true. Humanity, or what seems to be left of it, has reverted to the bear necessities of if a high schooler doesn't score high enough on a test college is out of the question and farming is their assigned future. The thought of something as relaxing as a Sunday afternoon baseball game is interrupted by what are now intense and frequent dust storms that are both harmful to the health of the human race and to their crops and farmland that desperately need to be maintained. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was once a NASA pilot who desired doing something innovative with his life, but has long since retired those dreams and aspirations for farming. Along with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and his children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet, Casey Affleck) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain), Cooper maintains and provides the one thing the earth needs more of: food. In the midst of these trying times ten year-old Murph (Foy) believes she is visited by a "ghost" in her bedroom though her father attributes this to nothing more than gravity. Soon though, it becomes clear even to Cooper that there are messages to be deciphered that lead him to Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Brand reveals that a newly discovered wormhole offers a chance for humanity's survival on a new planet. Using it, NASA has secretly been running missions to identify three potentially habitable planets orbiting the black hole. Brand recruits Cooper to pilot a mission along with his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and fellow scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) so that they might recover the astronauts' data; to see if one of the planets is habitable so that humanity might continue to survive somewhere other than our current planet. In his decision to leave and take on this daunting task though, he devastates Murphy, bringing us to terms with the films main idea of separation and the meaning of our endeavors in life weighed against their worth.

Besides the sheer bigness, the epic scale on which Interstellar operates it is singularly admirable for trying to say something larger than simply delivering an entertaining piece of cinema. Nolan strives to create art, to make a statement with his films and with his latest he digs into a vast amount of territory that even as I continue to write this review feels overwhelming to try and grasp. To state the obvious is to begin with how beautiful the film can be. Granted, there are certain shots throughout the film, whether intentional or not, that seem to be held together by a string. Whether it be in the composition, the focus, or the lighting there just seems to be something off about some of the scenes that take place on earth. On the other side of things, there are moments within this dustbowl climate that Nolan has created that are stunning in their majesty and scope. The way in which Cooper plows through miles of cornfields as the camera pans outward is as grounded in reality (meaning at no point can we tell that much of the background has been filled in by computers) as when a spaceship sets down on a distant planet. Coming around to the portions of the film set in space, they are nearly impeccable. The visual effects are invisible and the environments are nothing short of breathtaking. The visuals and even the overbearing, bass-heavy score though are not the issues with the film and it should be noted that I again adored the music Hans Zimmer has created here for the big, swelling moments that match the mood and atmosphere the film intends to elicit perfectly. The problems for me, at least at the moment, come when the film tries to do too much with its premise. At ten minutes short of three hours Interstellar is a behemoth of a film that begins most intriguingly by throwing us into this ruined world and for the first hour builds upon facets that we are asked to piece together rather than feeding us exposition so that we clearly understand the bigger picture. Nolan asks his audience to participate, to be active in responding and feeling a part of the experience which only aids the moments when we find ourselves steeped in information where a good portion is likely to go over our heads as we aren't paying as much attention to the semantics as we are the emotions at play.

Cooper (McConaughey), Dr. Amelia Brandt (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi) in Interstellar.
In terms of emotion versus fact, Interstellar seems to see it as its mission to find a natural way of merging the two which almost feels like attempting to bring together the lines of thought that say God exists and those who swear by the theory of evolution. Where one of these ideas reciprocates the other rather than driving a wedge between them because we fear what we don't know or can never fully understand. How can we discuss the possibility of our place among the stars and the vastness of it all while being more concerned with our own selves and the more raw, real emotions we experience daily? Which is more important? Does it matter? As much as Nolan is keen on getting the science of his story right or making the wormhole look as accurate as possible his real struggle is incorporating two battling philosophies into one kindred spirit; in creating a world where all lines of thought are not just proven relevant or correct, but vital to the ongoing survival of our race. We need the logical, literal thinkers to push the limits of our brains and understand that the earth is dying, unable to support our needs for future generations or even comprehend the possibilities of the time and space involved in trying to solve this conundrum. While, on the other side of the coin, it takes a person like Cooper, someone with attachments and an understanding of the type of unconditional love that is able to exist for another person to know that one is pointless or non-existent without the other. Nolan touches on many a themes in his works though he typically likes to keep one as a prime directive and while I haven't heard if the director has clarified his thesis statement for Interstellar, I imagine it would be something along the lines of the burdens placed upon individuals in making the decision between doing what we feel we should do and what we want to do with our limited time in this life.

Cooper's opportunity to be an astronaut, to be what he wanted to be, was essentially stolen from him due only to the time in which he was born. When the opportunity to live this dream, to discover this feeling of purpose comes along he has to ask himself, "is it more desirable than possibly never seeing your family again?" Cooper likely feels he should stay with his children, but the outside opinion of his personal life versus the survival of mankind reinforces his decision to go after what he would no doubt love to do. It is a difficult line to walk, a difficult subject to tackle because even within the person making the decision wants and desires are ranked for different reasons and not everything is absolute. An example can be made from within the film itself in that Nolan clearly wants to make a science fiction film based in as much reality as possible, but he also has plenty of psychological thoughts bouncing back and forth that he'd like to discuss and in melding the two he gives way to a film that feels more balanced than anything he has done in the past. In terms of complimenting the depressive, scientific, somber tones with that of sincere human characters that convey these complex emotions as best they can without ever coming off as manufactured or fake this is the closest we've seen Nolan come to an even scale. Much of this balance has to do with the actors being able to pull off the tall order of making much of the scientific jargon transcend its innate coldness and somehow bring deep and profound meaning to it that resonates. What the actors cannot do though is assure the overall tone of the film falls in line with their approach and in taking on that task Nolan gives Interstellar a consistent pacing that, even as it builds and goes further into the unknown, keeps the emotional weight in check while never losing sight of its innovative nature.

Grown-up Murph (Jessica Chastain) feels it's her duty to figure out how to save the human race.
Speaking of performances, have we come to the end of the McConaissance? At the beginning of the year we came to the culmination of the actors come back as he was christened with an Oscar and validated for the turn around in going from dismissable rom-coms to the kind of "serious" acting that garners you more credibility and a desirable legacy. As Rachel Syme wrote about the actors career resurgence in The New Yorker McConaughey is an actor who is, "keenly aware of his own mythology," and in playing with the known expectations of his audience was able to deliberately, "slash through his own persona with glee and abandon." Funnily enough, in Interstellar the actor seems to be going as middle of the road as he possibly could. There is no extreme weight loss, no mythological sense of wonderment around his character or even button-pushing moral and ethical choices that make audiences re-think who we perceived the actor to be as a person outside his movies, but instead McConaughey is asked to play the everyman. He is a dad, a farmer, a teacher, a handyman and yet he is also a dreamer. What qualities could we better attribute to the ideal picture of Americana? In short, his renaissance may be waning, but he has found a good place to settle.

In this role, Nolan has asked McConaughey to play what Nolan seems to often rely on for a lead protagonist in that he is a single father tasked with overcoming an insurmountable mission that might somehow be a means of paying back those he has failed in the past. As this anchor, McConaughey is completely believable and actually makes the more complex aspects of the role truly devastating in a way that the audience really feels it. In an almost shocking scene where Cooper and Amelia return to their ship after a failed attempt to survey one of the planets to discover an aged Romilly waiting on them due to relativity it is the immediate thought of what he has truly sacrificed apparent on McConaughey's face that drives home the main idea of the entire film. In many ways, it was breathtaking not in its outright claim of diversion, but in its heartbreaking subtleties. The other major players including Hathaway and Caine are fine enough, but do nothing necessarily of note while Chastain effortlessly carries the weight of the emotional baggage in the second half of the film. As love is the reciprocal idea to all that science can explain Chastain is the complimentary performance to McConaughey's. The connection between Cooper and Murph is the clear heartbeat of the narrative (so much so that it's almost strange how discarded Affleck's character is) and in contrasting the good Cooper believes he is doing with the confusion and hate that Murph feels for her father Chastain only serves to be our surrogate into this greater dilemma we're not sure we fully understand. Proving again why she is one of the most talented actors working today, Chastain delivers on her character arc that is necessary for us to buy into and understand the complications the plot presents in the third act. It is largely due to the instinctive give and take she and McConaughey create among their characters without ever being in the same room together, that allows the film to hit home its human element.      

Christopher Nolan makes grand and ambitious films and approaches each of them with a certain air of speculation and mystery so as to not give into the internet culture that wants to know everything about a movie before walking in. He is a true visionary that continues to push boundaries each time out and even if you don't think Interstellar is his best work or even very good at all one must seemingly have to admit that at least the guy has validity in what he's doing; that he has real courage in trying to break the mold. I've gone through this review speculating on what Nolan might have intended to say with Interstellar and dissecting how he made what works about the film work so well, but maybe on a much simpler level he is speaking about the very industry he works within. Hollywood has become such a factory with a product line spitting out the same thing over and over again that the majority of the time even big, tentpole movies feel like just another cog in the machine rather than something truly special or exceptional. Rather than being inventive and exploring different forms of storytelling or even pioneering our own Nolan seems to believe we have become more like caretakers of the movie-making process and he is intent on changing that course, one film at a time.