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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: Interstellar

Have you ever thought of someone only seconds before they called you?

Interstellar is a film rooted in massive ideas: wormholes, black holes, intelligent life, the end of one world, the potential beginning of a new one. But smaller, more personal riddles tug at you throughout, becoming a through-line for a film with an otherwise staggering scale. The invisible threads that connect two minds, the value of truth and the weight of a lie, the role of a parent - these concepts help to keep the film afloat, from drifting into an abstract exercise or giant, metaphysical pontification. 

Interstellar takes place in a future where the Earth is dying. Dust storms terrorize the population and the world has turned inward, focusing on farming and caretaking in hopes of resuscitating our home. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), our central protagonist, lives in the margins between these two worlds: He was educated as an astronaut, but only lived to see a fraction of that dream realized before the notion of space exploration was deemed wasteful. He now lives in a time where the history books teach the moon landing as a sham, invented to escalate a pointless cold war. His son, Doyle, takes well to farming, but his daughter, Murphy, is cut from the same cloth as Cooper.

When Murphy detects gravity abnormalities in her bedroom (she calls them a "ghost") that give way to a coded message, Cooper finds the lest vestiges of NASA, which still operates underground, in secretive shame and on a shoestring budget. The scientists tell Cooper that the Earth does not have hope; it is not in recovery, it is in hospice care. Our only chance for survival is to leave. They think they've found a way to do so, via a wormhole, and ask Cooper to join them in their search for a new home. Cooper decides to go, alienating his daughter in the process, unsure if or when he'll return.

Everything above is loosely outlined in the trailers. Everything that happens after that is a depiction of the unknown, and treading into any of it could lead to spoilers, so I'll leave it at this: the latter two-thirds of the film explores what's on the other side of the wormhole, the choices made to save humanity, and whether Cooper has any hope of returning home.

That last two-thirds of the film are where the beauty and intricacy of this film's visual flourishes come into play. This is definitely the "see it on as enormous of a screen as possible" film of the year. Rejecting green screen for practical effects, Interstellar creates some beautiful shots and landscapes, escalated by the dread-inducing organ music from Hans Zimmerman. It's difficult not to compare it to last year's Gravity; it exercises similar tension and haunting visuals, but pairs it with a well-written script and dialogue that was missing from Gravity. It's also easy to compare it to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact.

Interestingly, Interstellar was supposed to be a Steven Spielberg directed movie written by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan's brother, but Spielberg fell through due to business/production reasons. At its heart, there are parts of this movie that still feel a bit like a Spielberg film, but Intestellar benefits from director Christopher Nolan's precise eye and his ability to keep the cheesy factor at an acceptable threshold. In Spielberg's hands I'm pretty sure this would have felt more like A.I.

There are a few across-the-board points of criticism for this movie:

1. The film is too long
2. It tries to tackle too much
3. It ignores the role humanity should have/would have played in Earth's destruction

I don't prescribe to any of these particular criticisms,  but I understand why they're there.  One and two are intrinsically connected, and three was a big surprise - early on in previews, it looked like this was a movie about the way we'd ruined our planet and our need to flee it, but our role in its destruction was almost nil.

If anything, I think all three above are what will help Interstellar stick with me beyond this month or this year. Cutting off the end of a movie at an ambiguous point, spelling out humanity's doom with a dystopic view of the world we've destroyed - these are all recipes for good movies, but they're also recipes for movies I've seen a million times by now. I appreciated the unique take on the Earth's destruction. That for all our scientific achievements, the Earth would have an expiration date that we would be completely powerless to prevent. And while I think this could have still been a successful movie at 120 minutes, it would have been a completely different, and much safer, one.

The only real criticism I have of Interstellar would be the lack of character development. This was almost next to impossible to achieve in such a short span of time, with such a large cast, but it was arguably the sacrificial lamb. Cooper is the best developed character of Interstellar, thanks not only to his screen time but due to the impossible magic McConaughey has at bringing characters to life in small moments of silence. That his character feels real and well-formed is solely due to that magic, I think, and not the script. 

Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain play their parts well, but could have been given more weight if some of the excess characters were cut. Cooper's son (Casey Affleck), for example, could have been nixed from the story entirely with minimal negative impact to the movie's themes or ideas. Same goes for several of the scientists and astronauts, characters played by Topher Grace and Wes Bentley. 

Basically, lose a bunch of the boring white guys.

At the end of the day, Interstellar is a blockbuster that feels like what I want from my big-budget movies. There are complicated human relationships, philosophical quandaries, space ships, amazing robots, subtle humor, and adventure on a massive scale.


Verdict: For Immediate Consumption

Verdict: For Immediate Consumption

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