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Film Review: Interstellar

Interstellar (2014; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The films of Christopher Nolan are intelligently-constructed hybrids of the work of other cinematic auteurs first and foremost. Interstellar is no exception, and zeroes in particularly on the hallmarks of two such directors. With his grand, constructed visions and rational precision, Nolan tends to resemble Stanley Kubrick rather more than perhaps any other major filmmaker; the other major filmmaker he resembles in his genre enthusiasm and populist outreach is, perhaps surprisingly, Steven Spielberg. Nolan has found himself shifting progressively closer to Spielberg’s profile while tiptoeing carefully around Kubrick’s considerable artistic legacy, while also engaging in the sort of ambitious philosophical puzzle-building that never much interested either of those men.

Interstellar began production development life as a Spielberg project: Nolan’s screenwriter brother Jonathan was hired to pen it and suggested his sibling as director when studio production alignments took the rights out of Spielberg’s reach. This explains the preponderence of grand emotional sop to some extent; it’s easy to imagine to Nolan’s mansplaining devotees balking at the sheer number of tear-soaked cheeks on display here. The film is also an old-fashioned, grandiose, stargazing sci-fi epic of the kind that Spielberg once excelled at (Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of many reference points, along with Star WarsStar Trek, Andrei Tarkovsky, Superman and even Apollo 13) but that was forever defined by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If Nolan has spent years of his notable big-budget directing career giving the self-evident Kubrick associations a wide berth, he dispenses with the hedging with Interstellar. This is a film that not only evokes and often directly references 2001 (there’s a clear Star-Child callback just after the climax), it’s likewise the product of the concept of manned space travel as the starting point for a deeper existential discussion.

The Brothers Nolans begin with some heavy-handed politically-charged dystopian material that does not bode well for the rest of the picture. Sometime not terribly far in the future, a phage of agricultural blight has reduced human civilization in both population and ambitions. Only corn can be grown, and probably not even that will provide plentiful harvests for long. In America’s Great Plains grain-basket, massive dust storms descend on the regular. Nolan makes the 1930s Dust Bowl association explicit by intercutting testimonials from aged witnesses filmed for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the period into his opening section in the Heartland. The dire need for food production has made itself felt on American education: university spots are hard to come by and most capable young people are steered back to the fields. Frustrated farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) even learns that textbooks have been conquered by conspiracy theories and are teaching that the Apollo moon landings were propaganda exercises by NASA to drive the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself on space exploration spending (the scene revealing this is awkwardly overdone, barely fits in the movie, and probably would have been cut had it not reflected a pet issue of the screenwriter, who is also the director’s brother).

Cooper is frustrated as a farmer because he isn’t really one. He was a NASA pilot and engineer before the agency was forced out of space flight by a shift in funding priorities (sound familiar?). He now reluctantly tends his farm along with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two kids, his field-tilling heir Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet as a teen and Casey Affleck as a young man) and his science-loving maverick daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy as a girl, Jessica Chastain as a young adult, Ellen Burstyn as an old woman). Murphy suspects that a ghost is leaving her morse messages with books on shelves and in gravitational waves acting on falling dust. Coop thinks it nonsense until he realizes it’s binary, and that the message is a set of coordinates.

The coordinates lead Cooper to a secret NASA base on NORAD’s subterranean premises in Colorado. There, the brilliant (but subtly dissembling) Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has masterminded a last-ditch effort to save the dwindling human race from the planet they’ve irrevocably poisoned: find another world out in the stars that is amenable to conditions of human life and transfer either humanity’s survivors or their fertilized embryos there to start over. A dozen solo astronauts have passed through a wormhole near Saturn and landed on potential planets; some are still broadcasting data about conditions that may or may not be promising for colonization. Brand wants Coop to pilot a crew through the wormhole to investigate these potential new homes and begin the process of either relocation or genetic repopulation. Coop doesn’t want to leave his family, but knows he belongs in space and not in the dirt. He decides to accept the offer, and to the stars he goes.

I hesitate to go into much more detail about what follows, partly to avoid spoiling the fascinating revelations and partly because I’m not entirely certain I understood them, particularly the ones grounded in complex theoretical physics. Suffice it to say that the space-bound later acts of Interstellar feature visually wondrous travel through the spherical wormhole, to forbidding planet surfaces, and over the horizon of a supermassive black hole; maximum emotional wringing of the concept of relativity; Anne Hathaway with short hair, Wes Bentley awaiting an inevitable snuffing (what does that man do but die in movies? He’s like a more metrosexual Sean Bean), and a surprise cameo on a world of frozen clouds (no, it’s not Billy Dee Williams); not one but two sassy talking robots (I’m not kidding); and, finally, a more hopeful and unambiguous conclusion than any of us would have had any reason to expect from Christopher Nolan.

Like most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is a transporting, entertaining, impressive cinematic experience. The operatically monumental long-building climax is tremendously tense, a marvel of interwoven performance, effects, technical excellence, and emotion-manipulating editing acumen elevated to the level of the visually symphonic by Hans Zimmer’s rising, resonantly dramatic score. I’m hardly qualified to speak on the film’s scientific accuracy, although both consulting theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and prominent astronomer and public science intellectual Neil DeGrasse Tyson are so qualified and they were both pretty much on board, with Thorne authoring scientific papers on the basis of the computer effects and Tyson even defending the most tenuous leaps of the film’s ending.

Does all of this mean, however, that it’s a good film? Long experience with Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre should give us pause about praising the whole on the basis of the sum of its parts. While the editing of specific sequences is superlative, the movie as a whole is far too long, with unwieldy portions concentrated in its earthbound opening act and even occasionally in its more involving space sections. And it’s undeniable that the ask of belief on the part of the Nolans in the ending is huge and maybe beyond most casual moviegoers.

As always, the visual and intellectual scope of Christopher Nolan’s visions deserve our admiration even while his populist compromises, rule-bound rigidity and recurring aesthetic hiccups tend to temper that admiration. The results of his Spielberg/Kubrick hybrid are often astonishing and always compelling. But the philosophy and existentialism can be submerged by sentimentality like in Spielberg and can equally alienate its audience with its museum-display composure like in Kubrick. Interstellar is unquestionably spectacular, but like its characters, it passes through a cinematic black hole and doesn’t entirely retain its structural integrity while it does so.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Science
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  1. December 7, 2014 at 9:12 am
  2. January 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm
  3. June 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

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