Last year at around this time, Alfonso Cuaron received nearly universal praise for his space-set visual effects real, ‘Gravity’. As you may have just inferred, I was not a fan. The film cobbled together a badly written story and flat, two dimensional characters as a mere excuse to show off advanced visual effects, and frankly, it’s a wonder to me how after all the flack that the blockbusters that received for CGI exploitation, that Gravity managed to get a pass. I bring all that up, because it’s almost as if Christopher Nolan hated that movie also, and set out to make the ultimate space-set prestige picture that would upstage Cuaron’s with ‘Interstellar’.
Interstellar is set in a distant future where Earth has been reduced to nothing but rural farmland dedicated to growing corn. Production of practically any other recourse has been whipped out by profuse sand-storms, and it is believed that humanity will go extinct in a generation. That is, unless Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former engineer, joins up with the remnants of NASA to take an intergalactic mission into a wormhole orbiting Saturn that could lead to a new, inhabitable planet in another galaxy. When he agrees, he realizes that he will have to abandon his family for decades on end, perhaps not getting back until his children are old and grey, much to the particular devastation of his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy (young)/Jessica Chastain (adult). Even so, he saddles up his crew, co-lead by Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), and blasts off into the unknown.
Interstellar is nothing if not ambitious. Granted, this work-ethic is nothing new from ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception’ helmsman Christopher Nolan, but here he takes it into an entirely new direction. Make no mistake, this is a science fiction/adventure movie in the most pure sense of the phrase. It’s not a film about massive action set-pieces (although there are a couple), or constant stimulation, but one about using plausible science to explore new worlds, while also tapping into genuine emotion and observation about the human condition to anchor everything. As such, to say that this is a deeply intelligent, and powerful film is an understatement, however, it does sacrifice some entertainment value in service of that intellect.
While this is not always the case, some Nolan films suffer from some pretty flat characters, this is not the case with ‘Interstellar’ in the slightest. In fact, I would argue that this is the best character work Nolan has pulled off since ‘The Dark Knight’, and the actors here are more than up to the task. It’s becoming redundant to say just how great Matthew McConaughey has become in recent years (and perhaps always was), and here he cements that notion even further. Cooper is a fascinating person, riddled with pain over leaving his family, while also guided by strong curiosity, practicality, and ingenuity in his research. McConaughey nails every facet of it, particularly the most emotional moments, where he will definitely bring some tears out of people. Hathaway is also very strong, playing a much more stoic character than we’ve seen from her lately, while still giving her plenty of strength and humanity. The supporting cast with Chastain at the helm is equally good, with a whole host of character actors including Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Topher Grace, and one other A-lister who I’ll leave for you to discover all turning in wonderful work.
Beyond just having great characters, they’re given a whole ton to do. The film at it’s core explores the power of time, and the toll missing the lives of the people most important to a person can take on them. Beyond that, there are themes of artificial intelligence, colonization, and love running through, keeping the conversations and interactions between everyone, particularly the crew, fascinating. Also, I am not kidding when I say that this film is deeply rooted in science. There’s a great deal of talking about the mathematical and astronomical theory involved in these adventures, and from what I understand (or more accurately what my very knowledgeable friend affirmed for me), it’s all extremely plausible and deeply researched. All of this will be a joy for those interested in this kind of thing, while the layman might get a little lost and confused (and there’s no shame in that) by the sheer density of everything going on.
The film is also visually stunning. Everything from the down to earth moments, to the traveling through worm-holes and everything in between is sensationally visceral, with prevalent attention to detail in every frame. The worlds that our explorers travel to are also very impressive, not venturing too far into sensationalism, while still being stimulating. The only slight hiccup are the action sequences themselves. While it’s admirable that the film sticks with realism all the way through, this leads to some frustratingly slow paced set pieces that go on for just a little too long and feel a little flat. It’s not horrible by any means, but it seems as though this film lags most when it’s most in motion, as opposed to the exploration and character moments.
When I walked out of this film at 1:30 in the morning last night (perhaps it was not the best idea to see it so late), I was not exactly sure what to think. I certainly liked it, but I felt a little cheated that I perhaps did not get as exciting of a movie as I was expecting in favor of so much realism, and emotion. However, after reflecting on it through a good night’s sleep and a nice bright morning, I’ve come to appreciate this film more and more with each passing minute, and think that I will appreciate it more on a second viewing. This is simply not the type of film we see made in these day and age, a sci-fi movie that feels completely grounded, and is concerned not with set-pieces, but with themes of all shapes and sizes. This is certainly not something to watch passively, go in with an open mind, and wide awake eyes, and you just might find yourself enjoying an entirely new kind of experience. It might not be one of my favorite Nolan films when it’s all said and done, but it’s certainly a deeply respectable piece of work.