Interstellar (2014): Written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Billy Irwin, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn. Running Time: 169 minutes.
Any of us who have avidly followed the trajectory of Chris Nolan’s career have no reason to be surprised at the subject matter of Interstellar. The man has always eschewed the normal “rules” of storytelling; out of the 9 films he has helmed so far, only 3 (Insomnia, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises) follow the typical pattern of presenting the story to us straight, from start to finish. And Insomnia was a studio-ordered remake, not one of his original screenplays. Given his tendency to break his narratives into as many pieces as rational sense would allow, it was only a matter of time before he threw all caution to the wind and proclaimed Time Itself to be his new stomping grounds. It was an inevitable next step in the life of a man determined to cinematically question every facet of self-perception imaginable, and the result is Interstellar.
But I am getting ahead of myself. We open on Earth an unknown number of years in the future. A blight, possibly-though-never-explicitly aided by global warming (kudos to the film for not going for the easy points), has wiped out all crops on earth except for corn, which is heavily harvested by a small number of farmers in the American Midwest. Times are so desperate that teachers and other authority figures openly refer to themselves as a “caretaker generation,” blatantly lying about past space exploration to keep their children focused on how to better cultivate the Earth. None of this sits well with Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot and engineer who tries to raise his kids, especially his preternaturally brilliant daughter Murph, to have a sense of wonder at life and at the stars. When strange goings-on (ghostlike, according to Murph’s description) in Murph’s room seem to be sending them coordinates of some sort in Morse code, they follow them to what, it turns out, is the remaining base of NASA, forced to operate in secret after the tide of public opinion forced governments to abandon any open support for space exploration. There he finds his old mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). From them he learns that another blight is soon to come, one that will both destroy all remaining corn and will also consume so much oxygen that the remainder of humanity will suffocate as a result.
That said, a lone form of salvation has appeared near Saturn- a wormhole leading to another galaxy, where a handful of potentially habitable world circle a massive black hole. Cooper is convinced to lead the final team, which will include Amelia, to seek out the best one (several teams have been sent out before, and a few have sent back positive return signals). The elder Brand will stay behind to complete an equation that should allow him to solve gravity itself, thus allowing humanity to leave Earth en masse in massive space stations before zero hour hits. Murph is obviously heartbroken by her Dad’s decision to leave, and their agonizing separation is perfectly timed with the countdown for the final lift off. As she sobs into her grandfather’s arms while Cooper drives off, we hear simultaneously hear the launch countdown. The crew is lifted off into the recesses of space, preparing themselves for whatever they may find through the wormhole.
By now, a great number of cinephiles are solidly split between those who adore the general body of Chris Nolan’s work, and those who may admire his technical prowess but loathe his seemingly incontrollable urge to explain EVERYTHING about the complexities he thinks up for each of his films (the rest, to judge by appearances, do not give half a rat’s tail either way). This film will change the minds of no one in either camp, and if anything is likely to reinforce and harden any preconceived notions or attitudes towards the man that a particular viewer walks into the film with. The characters are, for the most part, the same stock archetypes of stoic professionalism willing to sacrifice their own humanity for any great ideal of their choosing. This is very often the point in his films- his stories tend to both respect or even revere such a mentality while also being brutally honest about the price that must be paid as a result. Thankfully, much to film’s salvation, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway end up being fairly inspired casting choices; both are able to bring along more than enough pathos to overcome the clunkier bits of exposition they are handed (and was there every any doubt that Michael Caine would sell his biggest scene like DiCaprio huckstering bad stocks?).
I was also rather amused to see the first effort we’ve ever gotten at straight humor from Chris Nolan (of the non-pitch-black variety, that is) in the form of…...a snarky AI robot (named TARS) voiced by Billy Irwin. Like with his decision to finally turn to time itself as a plot device, it is ironically fitting that Nolan’s first comic character is not, in fact, a human, but a robot programmed to simulate human humor and emotion. Interpret that as you will. And the result is a character all its own in recent sci-fi memory, one that would easily outrank all the flesh-and-blood creatures gamboling about as the most emotionally-engaging persona on screen were it not for McConaughey opening up every last gate holding back his tear ducts. This will be another factor in the film dividing audiences, but I enjoyed TARS immensely, not least because of the unique style of movement the designers came up with for how the robots move. I’m not sure what’s supposed to hold their various constituent parts together, but based on my experience with a certain trick wallet, I would guess magnetism of some kind.
There are, to be sure, stumbles other than the standard Nolan-isms on full display, ones that are harder to ignore. Unlike in a number of my past reviews, I will not delve into spoilers for this film- like many of Nolan’s films, there are several twists built into the story’s structure that are best experienced cold- but I sadly cannot ignore one smaller twist where two of the human characters (without saying who or where or why) turn antagonistic to Cooper’s mission, in ways that very much feel as if they are only there for the purpose of adding clearly identifiable bad guys with human faces. Given that the stakes for the entire affair were already pretty damn high, this was entirely unnecessary, and is a strange distraction from the otherwise very solid third-act, where the various plot points and story pieces Nolan has set up come together beautifully in one of the most visually and thematically interesting mashups of actual scientific theory and more mythical sci-fi wonderings we’ve gotten in….hell, I can’t remember the last time we had a big-budget movie try to push a discussion like this. This, combined with the looming threat of human extinction, was more than adequate for the purpose of creating dramatic and nervous tension. The fistfight in spacesuits was just extraneous.
And yet…for all the ways Nolan seems to inadvertently trip over his own toes in his eagerness to match the transcendent splendor of the final sequences in Kubrick’s 2001, there is a staying power in the film’s more potent scenes that it’s slower parts and occasionally punishing length can never undo. Cooper’s final goodbyes with his family, the buildup to and subsequent journey through the wormhole, a sequence involving a spinning station, and a major third-act segment involving the giant black hole itself are all the sort of scenes that could easily become sci-fi legend, given a little time for the film to make its impact felt. There has been a bevy of criticism leveled at the film for the ways it holds itself back, and while many complaints are not without merit, it should bear remembering that the reason sci-fi as a genre exist in the first place is to make whatever leaps, however halting, into the future of both mankind in general and the art of cinema specifically a writer or director can dream up. Interstellar takes more than a few leaps of logic and daring, and the simple experience of watching the jumps in action is its own special treat, even when it can’t always stick the landings.