Interstellar (2014)

28 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Maybe it’s because I’m noticing more of Christopher Nolan’s film trademarks (and frankly, getting a little tired of them) that I didn’t like his latest film, “Interstellar,” very much. Christopher Nolan has made some truly impressive, groundbreaking films, such as “Memento,” the “Dark Knight” trilogy, and “Inception”…but watching them again, I feel like these already-terrific films could be even better if the characters acted like real people. The characters’ emotions are always present, but what Nolan always seems to ask from his actors is that they always know how heavy the weight of their situations are, and so they say their lines in a sort-of monotone way while saying dialogue that is mostly made up of philosophical insight and plot exposition. Nolan never seems to want audiences to feel for themselves what it means for his characters to do what they do; he seems to want the characters to talk about it themselves.

Before anyone attacks me, “The Dark Knight” and “Memento” happen to be two of my all-time favorite films. I admire the in-depth conversations in both films because most of them do give the material more power. Why do I appreciate his most glaring trademark in those films and not in “Interstellar?”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the story. It’s in the future (though a specific year isn’t mentioned), and the world is falling apart due to famine and blight, causing dust storms to appear and crops to die. Former NASA test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family farm acres of corn that he owns and do their best to adapt in this world where humanity most likely is getting closer to its doom.

Cooper’s daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), keeps noticing a strange occurrence in her bedroom that she thinks is caused by a ghost. She brings her father in on the discovery and interprets these signs as Morse code (this child is either very intelligent or has had a lot of time to think about this—hey, that’s another Nolan trademark). Well, she’s right, and it draws Cooper to a secret location, where NASA is operating as a think-tank to save humanity. One of their solutions is to get people off the planet and into a space station. The only problem is overcoming gravity to send the ship into outer space. But Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has an idea to send Cooper and a small crew, including Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and a sarcastic robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), through a wormhole near Saturn that was most likely placed there by a superior intelligence presumably to give humanity a chance of survival. With Cooper as pilot, he and his group set out to see what’s out there. The main drawback to attempt saving the world: the mission will most likely take decades to complete, which is how long Cooper will be separated from his family. Murph is particularly upset and resentful as she feels she’s being abandoned.

The first-third of “Interstellar,” which is 45 minutes of a 170-minute film, is fine and it does give us a good look at what it’s like for these people (Cooper, his kids, and his father-in-law, played by John Lithgow) live in this ominous scenario and having to deal with this world every day. Though, there are some parts that I found laughable—for example, the public-school system has new science textbooks that explain how the NASA moon-landing was all fake and staged. Why? Well, because they don’t want the students to even think about the possibility of leaving Earth. (I don’t know; schools are weird. Apparently, nowadays, you get in trouble for saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.) Another odd moment is when the characters attend a ball game and apparently no one notices the approaching massive dust cloud right away. But aside from those parts, it does a good job at establishing the relationship between Cooper and Murph, so that when Cooper has to tell Murph that he’s leaving, it’s very moving. Cooper is not willing to abandon his family, but he knows the chance to save the human race, and his family, is his to take when it’s offered. (But did he really have to make the situation worse by joking that maybe he and Murphy will be the same age when he gets back, because seemingly he won’t age in space? I mean, come on; that was kind of cruel.) And the first act has a pretty good buildup of a mystery involving who made the wormhole, who or what is out there, who or what was causing the anomaly in the first place, what’s the significance of the “ghost,” etc.

I have to give credit to a great transition to the second-third, which goes into the “space” portion of the film, as Cooper and crew blast off into outer space. It shows Cooper driving away from home, as we hear a countdown. At the end of the countdown, there he is, in front of the spacecraft, taking off. No training sequence—just an immediate transition. But unfortunately, the film doesn’t have that kind of smooth cutting for the following hour or so, and I’m afraid it needed it.

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. When Cooper, Amelia, TARS, and the other astronauts, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), set off in space to embark on their journey through the wormhole. But what do they find in the wormhole? A planet covered in water and a planet covered in ice.

Let’s get to the good things about this long section of the film. The wormhole is spectacular and definitely deserves to be experienced on the big screen, with the best surround sound. The water-planet makes for a suspenseful moment in which the crew must leave before a massive wave comes along to envelop everything. When I saw that wave coming, I got goosebumps; I’m not going to lie. And that some of the icy mountains on the other planet are upside-down and some are even clouds! That’s impressive. And later on, they come across a black hole that is also amazing to look at; maybe even more so than the wormhole. And there is time for legitimately dramatic moments, such as when Cooper realizes how long he’s been gone and watches video messages from Earth that show his kids grow older, while he can only sit and weep at what he’s lost and probably can’t get back.

But unfortunately, this large portion of the film is also the weakest. When all is said and done, these planets are unspectacular; they’re just water and ice. Couldn’t there have been more imagination to go with these planets in a science-fiction story? The adventurous parts of this “epic” science-fiction film are not very epic as a result, and it only gets worse when half of it is made up of that typical Nolan trademark I mentioned before: lots and lots of dialogue having to do with exposition, philosophy, meaning, etc. Only every now and then do the characters behave like real people, and that’s always only for just a few seconds before it’s back to explaining and spewing more dramatic ironies and so on. Oh, and lots and lots of scientific babble.

A lot of people have been wondering whether or not the science in this story is accurate, which really fascinates me because I didn’t think you were supposed to question science in a science-fiction story. There are a lot of talks about relativity and complex physics and so on, and because there is so much dialogue that gives us theory upon theory upon theory, maybe that’s why people who watch this film question it, because they want to know if they should trust it. Well, it’s still science-fiction, and I just sort of go with whatever one can think of, when it’s executed properly.

Though, I did learn that one of the executive producers of this film is CalTech physicist Kip Thorne, so I don’t know; maybe the science is accurate. So there you go.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the Earth scenes that show Murph (now played as an adult by Jessica Chastain), assisting Brand in NASA and still resentful of her father leaving. You would think that after all these years of working for these people who sent him on this mission, she would’ve gotten over it by now. Doesn’t she know the world is at stake and he left to protect the human race? I get it; she feels like her father abandoned her. But sheesh, look at the big picture, why doesn’t she?

Nolan is a hell of a storyteller, which is why most of his films work as well as they do. And even when his stories seem uneven, like this one, there is a big payoff. “Interstellar” is no exception. The last third of the film is quite strong and powerful and, being a Nolan film, quite complex. I won’t give it away, but it gets the emotions right and provides a satisfying resolution to the story. But even then, it has its questionable moments, such as an ending that I thought went against what it was about.

There are strong elements in “Interstellar,” particularly the battle between circumstance and emotion that’s always present and has people wondering what’s more important and of course, being a Nolan film, what it means. And it is serviceable for audiences who just prefer to turn their brain off and watch some good sci-fi action (I forgot to mention an improbable but riveting scene involving trying to lock a craft in place from underneath a space station) or those who just want to get a good emotional experience. But I feel like the film is overblown by Christopher Nolan’s ambition to make it something grand and epic, and as a result, I feel that this is what causes the film’s undoing for me. I hate to say this about a filmmaker I often called one of the greats, and to be fair, maybe it’s because I’m noticing (and being slightly annoyed by) more of his trademarks, particularly with his directing and writing, that I wasn’t getting into “Interstellar” as much as I wanted to as I was entering the theater. But this film just didn’t do much for me.

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