The rise of television in the 1950s put pressure on the studios to make films which offered an experience beyond what television could provide. Cinerama, CinemaScope, stereophonic sound–all were developed to make films bigger, broader, deeper–to make films events. Films aren’t so often billed as true events anymore. (Props to Universal for touting David Lynch’s Dune as such.) But every so often, a film comes around, so ambitious, so huge, so theatrical, that it merits the status of an event. And Interstellar, my friends, is an event.
It’s a film which begins with the premise that Earth was not meant to be humanity’s only home, and then asks the question–where, then, will humanity live? It throws at us science so dense, so abstractly theoretical, that it verges on fantasy–those viewers without the benefit of extensive scientific knowledge (i.e., me) may be content to sit back, at least the first time, and let Nolan’s ambitious spectacle envelop them. And it did. It most certainly did.
Spoilers to be noted as we encounter them.
At some point in the future, the Earth has been afflicted by droughts and crop blights so severe that corn is the mainstay of the human diet, and the vast majority of Americans are farmers. The need to maintain societal calm is such that the Apollo moon landings are officially regarded as fake, not that most people have time to ponder such things while repeated dust storms ravage the country.
Former astro-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), works a farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and daughter Murphy (or Murph) (Mackenzie Foy). One day, during a particularly bad dust storm, Murph notices dust falling in her room in particular patterns, and assumes that this the work of a ghost, which has also knocked books off her shelves in what appears to be a deliberate pattern. Initially skeptical, Cooper finds that the dust patterns are actually a set of coordinates, and setting off to track these down (with the irrepressible Murph stowing away), finds himself at a secret base which houses what remains of NASA.
After a brief period of interrogation, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) reveals to Cooper that he and his team have been working on a plan to evacuate the human race from Earth: some time earlier, a wormhole had formed near Saturn which led to another galaxy. 12 astronauts set off into this wormhole to see if inhabitable planets existed on the other side. Three of these astronauts have sent back information (in a rudimentary form), indicating that their planets have the potential to sustain humanity. Brand has two plans: Plan A involves evacuating the majority of humanity and resettling them on the new planet. Plan B involves sending fertilized embryos to the new planet to re-establish the species. “Plan A”, he says, “is a lot more fun.”
Cooper is asked to pilot the expedition–he will be joined by Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi), Dr. (?) Doyle (Wes Bentley), and robots TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart). Murph, who is not told as to the purpose of the journey, resents Cooper for leaving. The expedition, Endurance, sets off for Saturn (a two-year journey in of itself, during which the crew hibernates), then enters the wormhole–and as they pass through it, Amelia notices a gravitational distortion near her which she reaches out to touch, considering a kind of handshake from whatever beings created the wormhole.
On the other side, though, things begin to go wrong, as the planets themselves prove incredibly dangerous, and human nature asserts itself, in ways which will seem all too familiar. It does resolve itself–but how, I urge you to find out for yourself.
I cannot unequivocally praise Interstellar. It’s not the best film of the year (I have it at #4 right now, though it might bump up a slot or two on second viewing). Depending on what gets nominated this year, I might not even root for it for Best Picture (though it would take the Academy reaching outside of their comfort zone for me to do so). It’s an incredibly dense and admittedly rather confusing film at times (if I said Cooper went to plaid, it would make sense, but only if you’ve seen it), and Nolan ultimately asks you to trust him when he posits how the human race will be rescued. I trusted him–but some may find it hard to.
And the acting is, all things considered, good, often very good, but rarely great. There are no breakout performances like Heath Ledger’s Joker (though that’s a once-in-a-blue-moon level performance), and on the whole, the actors seem to be subordinate to Nolan’s ambition, and act accordingly. The two best performances are from McConaughey and Foy. McConaughey’s continued career high (I refuse to call it by that neologism others use) is justified here, as he carries a great deal of the film on his shoulders, and does so successfully. McConaughey is fatherly, idealistic, obsessed, and resourceful all at once, and he never loses sight of Cooper’s ultimate goal, which is to save his family. He disappears into the role as fully as he can (without a Dallas Buyers Club-level physical transformation), and remains wholly believable from start to finish.
Foy, for her part, transmits the idealism and imagination–and the volatility–of childhood without seeming self-conscious or showy. She and McConaughey craft a fairly poignant father-daughter dynamic, underscored by the moment when Cooper, setting off for the last time, looks to see if Murph has stowed away again. Foy, like McConaughey, is completely believable, especially when (spoiler) she grows up to be played by Jessica Chastain, who assumes the challenge of solving the final question of how to evacuate the entire population of Earth from the dying Brand, who reveals in his last moments that all may be lost–but Murph is not about to take that for an answer. Chastain, who’s been mooted for Oscar consideration, is solid, but her performance isn’t quite on the level of her best work (I don’t know, she seems…a little stiff, maybe? I’ll see if I don’t change my mind). Ellen Burstyn takes over the role of Murph at the very end–she’s fine, for the 30 seconds or so she’s onscreen. (end spoiler)
Hathaway is quite good as well, though she doesn’t reach the heights of her wonderful Selina Kyle. Amelia Brand is–as I am realizing most of the characters are–written as “normal” as possible. So much of the film reinforces the maxim “N0 matter where you go, there you are” (Probably first said by Confucius, definitely reiterated by Buckaroo Banzai); even as she has been catapulted into another galaxy, with the fate of humanity in her hands, she still wants to follow her heart in making a crucial decision, and before one criticizes her for doing so, remember: Cooper is doing the exact same thing. The line “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space” may sound like hippie bullshit in the trailer, but in the film it’s put to rather thrilling–and rather symbolic–use.
But yes, Hathaway is, like so many of the cast, completely believable–and perhaps, on future viewings, I’ll appreciate the nuances of her performance more. For now, I’ll say: she did what she needed to do. Gyasi is quite good as the patient, unassuming Romilly, sort of the calm yin to Cooper’s passionate yang; Bentley, as the nerdy Doyle, fills his part quite adequately. Michael Caine gets to play the wise-mentor role he tackled in Inception, but with more depth and range than in that instance; a telling of the story from Brand’s perspective would be a worthy narrative of its own, and when at the end of his life his composure cracks under the weight of guilt and fear, Caine plays it very well indeed. Lithgow (who’s having a good year), provides a little crusty humor and grandfatherly warmth in his small role; he’s as good as ever.
In their own roles, both of which depict the darker side of human nature–which, as the film has established, is a constant which circumstance can never wholly erase (a refutation of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian ideals?)–Matt Damon and Casey Affleck are effective at being infuriating bastards, while being believably so. Damon is saddled with the film’s weakest moment (it’s not what he does so much as how he does it that”s the problem), but as a self-deluding, bullheaded son-of-a-bitch, you buy him. Irwin’s work as TARS (he also apparently manipulated the strange, monolithic machines on the set), and Stewart’s work as PACE also hit the right note–though it’s not the note you might expect.
Nolan’s screenplay, co-written with his brother Jonathan, features a great deal of humor–TARS and PACE, in fact, have adjustable humor settings, and frequently crack jokes or dry one-liners. Throughout the film, characters often make small quips, and while some of them are amusing, they’re not the stuff of belly laughs, and some might well argue that Nolan is imposing his rather second-rate wit on us. But I think there’s more to it than that.
Whether we the audience find the humor funny is less important than whether the characters do. And in the midst of a dangerous, potentially futile, possibly lethal voyage to rescue the human race, do you really think we’d lose our need for humor, however mild or brittle? No one on the Endurance doubts the weight of their mission, but can they go all that long without making (or hearing from TARS) some kind of quip to ease the tension? I think of Shaw’s great quote “Life does not cease to be funny when people die, any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” And if you think I’m getting a little quote-heavy, well…
Brand is very fond of quoting “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, using it as a rallying cry for the seemingly doomed human race, and while some have argued that his use of the poem misses the point of the poem, I think it’s apt in that Brand does not necessarily believe humanity can be saved–but just as Dylan Thomas urged his father not to greet his inevitable death with complacence, so Brand does not think we should greet our own extinction passively. Is the poem over-quoted in the film? Maybe. But I’m reminded of the repeated quotings of Wordsworth in Splendor in the Grass; there, a teenager frustrated by life and love clung to a Romantic quote which ultimately summed up her emotions at film’s end, and here, an old man frustrated by the seeming impossibility of saving his species clings to a poem which sums his dogged belief in trying.
It’s this empathetic understanding of the persistence of human folly that underpins all the daunting science and mind-bending leaps that the Nolans undertake, that allows the film to transcend its fairly simple basic story (as convoluted as it becomes, there’s a clear through-line), that makes the film great. Often the characters act foolishly or irrationally (Nolan cited The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as an inspiration, and he wasn’t pulling our legs), but that’s, for better or worse, the way people are. I should also note the dialogue, which in Nolan’s previous films has tended to sound a bit stilted and overly expositional, is much more real and natural here. There are still a few heavy-handed bits, but purely in terms of speech, this might be his best film to date.
I don’t want to dwell on the screenplay’s scientific complexity, as that would only drive home my lack of understanding. There were moments I found brazenly bizarre and admittedly a little hard to swallow, but I trusted Nolan, and did not feel cheated at the end. Structurally, it may not be quite as thrillingly accomplished as Inception (which, on the whole, I still prefer), but the Nolans still craft an expansive, exhausting, and utterly engaging narrative. Nolan’s political views seem to skew to the right (his Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises especially, manifest this in ways that have often been criticized), and here, some might find Cooper something of a libertarian hero, a man with no use for the bureaucracy that rewrites history and for the loss of the adventurous spirit in the modern world (and indeed, we haven’t been to the Moon in 40 years). Don’t let that turn you off, though; Interstellar is far from a political film; in the end, it’s about humanity.
I previously said that I might not root for this to win Best Picture. But I will root for it to win Best Director (David Fincher, right now, is the only other remotely acceptable choice). What Nolan accomplishes with this film is nothing short of stunning, creating a true epic which spans billions (even trillions) of miles, many years, and many dimensions. At 169 minutes, it’s not short and the time doesn’t always fly, but it never becomes tedious, and Nolan crafts considerable suspense as it becomes ever less clear just how it’s all going to end. (spoiler) And when, at the end, the narrative circle closes and the ultimate answer makes itself known, it’s hard not to be impressed at the confidence and ingenuity on display. (end spoiler) If The Dark Knight Rises faltered because Nolan’s heart wasn’t totally in it, then Interstellar soars because Nolan put his heart into it. It may ultimately be bullshit, but I do not doubt Nolan’s sincerity.
Of course, the production team delivers extraordinary work across the board; cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema makes staggering use of light and shadow, from the apocalyptic blur of the dust storms to the infinitesimal Endurance drifting by Saturn, from the mountainous waves of one planet to the craggy icy wasteland of another (they did location shooting in Iceland, to great effect). In IMAX, the experience is especially dazzling, as all the fear, awe, and excitement of the story is continually enhanced by van Hoytema’s work. And the visual effects are as perfect as you’d expect from a film of this scale (and cost); between this and the very different but equally accomplished work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, picking a Best Visual Effects winner this year will be tough. At times it does evoke 2001, but it’s mightily impressive work in its own right.
Nathan Crowley’s production design is subtle, but the Cooper’s archetypal farmhouse, the NASA base, the spaceships, and what they find on the other side of the wormhole are all exceptionally well done. Lee Smith’s editing keeps the film gripping across its great length, with some nicely accomplished blending of perspectives throughout. After his rather unbelievable snub for Inception, he’s due for some Academy attention.
Hans Zimmer’s score is in a wholly different style from his previous work with Nolan, but in its own right, it is quite strong. The use of organ (again, shades of 2001) gives it a nice air of religious solemnity (without becoming somber), and I can say it never detracted from the film, though the first time around I was not able to fully appreciate how much it enhanced it. It’ll take me another listen or two to sort out my feelings on it, but Zimmer did a fine, fine job.
The sound mix has been criticized by some for drowning out the dialogue, but while I found some of the dialogue hard to understand, it seemed to me most of that dialogue consisted of off-hand comments, shouted words that didn’t necessarily need to be understood, and the like. Yes, a few lines might have been obscured here and there, but overall, I have few complaints and many words of praise. Particularly in the dust storm scenes, the overwhelming roar of Nature at its most destructive was highly effective; like the sounds of the sea in All is Lost, the feeling of vulnerable humanity amidst forces beyond our control was reflected in the sound design, and count me as one of the impressed.
I also want to mention the design of TARS and PACE, which I quite liked; a series of interlocking monoliths which allow the machines to move and manipulate, it’s quite a novel design, and kudos to the designers.
There’s a shot in Interstellar, the circumstances of which I won’t give away, where two people are shown in graceless, desperate hand-to-hand combat, and the camera pulls back to show how tiny they are against the forbidding expanse of an extraterrestrial world. And in this shot, the cosmic tininess of humanity, and the constancy of our nature, are powerfully illustrated. At its worst, that nature leads us to endanger ourselves and others for the sake of hopeless or meaningless goals. But at its best, it compels us to not go gentle into that good night.
Oh, and it was better than Gravity.