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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interstellar

It's Christopher Nolan's most ambitious film yet, of course I was going to talk about it...

Also, this is probably going to be a bit of a long one so I have included heading breaks for ease of reading. 

Finally, I will do my utmost to reveal as little about the plot as is humanly possible because, despite some fairly predictable story beats, it's probably best to go in knowing as little about the film as possible. Consider this review free of spoilers but if you haven't seen the film yet, you may want to avoid the section marked "plot and themes".


Drawing heavily from all sorts of existent science fiction (novels like Childhood's End, TV shows like Babylon 5 and, of course, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact and Silent Running), Christopher Nolan's latest is both his most ambitious film ever and his most intimate, spiritual and sentimental. It's also highly divisive, unquestionably flawed - though what the actual flaws are, is perhaps less obvious - and is utterly fearless in both its willingness to explore theoretical science; hippy dippy, New-Age spirituality and the very things that make us human.

What it gets wrong

In terms of its flaws, Interstellar shares a number of the same missteps as most of his other films, as well as one or two that are entirely unique to it.  Like most Nolan films, it does occasionally suffer from over-exposition and a sense that his tremendous imagination always feel like it's being held back by his preference for the literal over the metaphorical; the explicit over the implicit. This was an obvious problem with the otherwise excellent Interception, whose banal dreamscapes and almost total lack of dream logic within, robbed the dream-within-a-dream narrative of much of its visceral impact. Similarly, though I love all three of his Batman movies, his refusal to embrace the more fantastical and more ludicrous aspects of the Batman mythos was a real weakness in the first two movies but was almost a fatal failing when it came to the far more cartoony Dark Knight Rises.

By the same token, Interstellar's insistence on spelling everything out, rather than relying on metaphor or subtext, means that it does feel quite clunky at times - especially in terms of its often exposition-heavy dialogue. It would probably have also helped in terms of overall enjoyment and effectiveness had Nolan given audiences more to chew on by leaving just a bit more open to interpretation.

As for its other flaws, though, these will probably oscillate wildly between viewers.

Some might have problems with the more sciencey bits, while others may take issue with the sentiment/ mysticism/ spirituality and others still may have problems where the two intersect. And then, of course, there's the rather slow pace and very long running time. Personally, I was engrossed by the film throughout and found it quite easy to overlook all but the most severe problems in these latter, Interstellar-specific areas (though none actually come to mind) but I understand that that won't be the case for everyone. Similarly, when dealing with a film this ambitious, undoubtedly there will be a number of plot holes and leaps of logic but, again, I was engrossed enough that I didn't notice.

On the other hand, considering how measured and, shall we say, carefully paced most of the movie is, I wouldn't be at all surprised if most people really latch onto the later scenes in the film where the tension is ramped up considerably, but, however well that stuff was done, I actually found the need for a semi-bad-guy unnecessary and the increased pace took away somewhat from the more meditative feel of the rest of the film. But, really, that may just be me.

Either way, only the most forgiving "Nolanite" would find the film to be free of flaws but it's probably equally true that only the most die-hard Nolan-hater wouldn't be able to find plenty to, at the very least, admire.

What it gets right

In an age where it's all too easy to take most film's visual effects for granted (CGI may require great skill to use properly, but I think we've all pretty much accepted that pretty much any kind of effect can be created on a computer - except for a convincing human being, of course), Nolan's decision to rely on physical effects as much as possible means that his films still have the ability to wow on this level. Admittedly, Interstellar clearly has more CG effects than anything he's ever done - it kind of has to have, doesn't it - but he clearly still does a lot of this physically, which results in a film that still has the power to take one's breath away. Also, because he apparently ensured that his actors always had something to work with (projecting images of completed CG space effects outside of the spaceship, as for example), there's never a disconnect between the actors and what's supposed to be going on around them.

And, of course, there is always plenty going on around them. Despite this being the first Christopher Nolan film in nearly twenty years not be shot by Wally Pfister, Interstellar still looks incredible - though in that muted Nolan way, of course. More than just eye-candy though, there's clearly a concerted effort to ensure that the different environments clearly stand out from one another. An especially powerful contrast is made between the still beautiful vistas of a semi-post-apocalyptic earth, the desolate planets that are presumed to be the last hope for the human race and the coldness of the space between the two.

Interstellar is, very simply, spectacular. It's the sort of film that you experience, rather than merely watch - and that is no doubt amplified considerably by anyone who is lucky enough to see it as Nolan envisioned it: on a giant IMAX screen. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that just because it's a piece of spectacle that it has nothing to offer on less (awesomely) superficial levels. I'll delve relatively briefly into the film's many rich themes in the section below but the film still really works amazingly well purely as a piece of storytelling.

It could definitely do with a bit more humour but Interstellar is dramatic, thrilling and smart, with its science courtesy of no less than renowned theoretical physicist, Dr. Kip Thorne. Most importantly though, it keeps its characters front and centre, as it spends a long portion at the start of the film introducing us to our central hero (Matthew McConaughey in now typically brilliant form), a retired NASA pilot and engineer named Cooper, and his very ordinary, very relatable family, and it's primarily through their eyes that we get to learn about the dying earth. Interestingly, this is also probably Nolan's most female-centric film to date, as the most important characters outside of Cooper himself are the characters played by Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and the seriously impressive Mackenzie Foy.

It is precisely the tight focus on these (and more) characters and their respective relationships that prevents the film from ever collapsing under its own ambitions or, worse, under its own technobabble and philosophical musings.

Speaking of which...

Plot and themes

You may well have figured out some of it by now but the plot of Interstellar basically concerns a group of astronauts who set off for a distant galaxy to try and find a new home for a humanity whose days on Earth are clearly numbered. Along the way, there are wormholes, fifth-dimensional beings and blackholes, as well a fair share of character conflicts and family drama.

What the film is actually about though, is slightly more complicated. It is all anchored in an incredibly well realized relationship between a father and his daughter (I can now, in this ever so slightly spoilery section, reveal that Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain both play Cooper's daughter, Murph) but the film is very much interested in much larger questions. Questions about humanity's place in the universe is perhaps the film's most humble question, as it then also goes on to try and explore the relationship between science and our higher spiritual aspirations and beliefs - love, most specifically - with all of these themes and more coming to a head in the film's bonkers climax that takes place smack bang in the middle of a black hole.  

Does it all work? Almost definitely not. It's especially interesting that Nolan is careful to explain fairly straightforward scientific concepts (anyone even remotely familiar with science fiction should be well aware of how a wormhole works, for example) but often glosses over the really trippy, metaphysical/ theoretical science stuff. Still, considering how relatively rare ambitious, thought-provoking hard-scifi movies are these days, it's hard not to appreciate how willing Nolan is to really go for it here.

Final verdict

Despite its ludicrously high IMDB rating right now, there's little doubt that Interstellar will seriously divide audiences. It has, in fact, already very much divided critics - often in seemingly contradictory ways. While some complain of its gushing sentimentality, others accuse it of being emotionally cold and while some laud its ideas as challenging and smart, others write them off as naive and banal. One thing is certain though: if you are at all interested in serious science fiction or challenging genre cinema, you owe it to yourself to see Interstellar. You may love it, you may despise it, you may do both at once but it is absolutely one of must-see spectacular cinematic events of the year and should absolutely be seen on a big screen with killer sound. It's simply one of those films.


 

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