Interstellar

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Christopher Nolan’s films are always sort of a tricky proposition with me. Usually, my gut reaction is to be totally amazed and fall in love with them, though months later I look back on them like “what happened? What was that movie? Why did I decide I liked it?” etc etc. I still haven’t rewatched or reviewed The Prestige for that reason; I’m really afraid it’s not going to hold up. It’s a distinct possibility I’m going to look back at this overly favorable review for Interstellar in about two weeks and wonder what drugs I was on while I wrote it. This is going to be a favorable review; many of the criticisms I’ve been reading about didn’t bother me, or didn’t even register with me at all.

Interstellar takes place in a future where Earth is dying. Everyone is frantically farming in a dust bowl-like environment, trying in vein to produce enough food to feed the dwindling human population. Former astronaut and engineer Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) is one of these farmers, and resents it quite a bit. He laments the fact that humanity is only focused on survival and not exploration, invention, or innovation, and shares this sentiment with his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain as an adult). The two of them stumble on the remnants of NASA, run by Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), an old associate of Cooper’s, and he shares with him a chance to go into space again, and look for a suitable planet to colonize. Cooper agrees, leaving an angry Murph behind. Years pass, and due to relativity, Coop and Dr. Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), have limited time to save Earth, which is aging much more rapidly then they are.

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Interstellar is quite a long film, clocking in at two hours and forty nine minutes.  A lot happens in this time, and Nolan, king of the plot twists, makes it almost impossible to adequately summarize anything that happens in the second half. Suffice it to say that not all of the plot twists, or the sci-fi “science” behind them, are one hundred percent believable or realistic, generating a lot of complaints from other reviewers. For starters, Nolan deals quite a bit with relativity, wormholes, black holes, and some deus ex machina type multidimensional beings from the future. I was on board for all of that stuff, surprisingly. I’ve never really been one to try to poke through all the plot holes I can find. I’m sure they are there, and I’m sure the science is very fictional, but I think Interstellar still did a good job with sci-fi’s primary objective. For me, a good sci-fi engages with how the implications of advances in science or technology affect basic human emotions.

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Much has been made of Anne Hathaway’s character ridiculous speech about love, and while I agree that it was terribly written and made her character sound a bit delusional, I think the basic idea was still an interesting one. The space travel and understanding of time in Interstellar made how humans think about survival different than normal; they don’t relate to time or space the same way as usual and therefore the scope of their decisions are larger than ever before. That’s a lot of pressure and it was interesting to see how some characters dealt with it by remaining just as petty. They intellectually understood the stakes were higher, but emotionally acted selfishly. McConaughey’s character really wanted to go into space, so he did, regardless of the very good reason that he also had to save humanity.  Hathaway and another character (apparently the casting of this guy is supposed to be a secret, though I can’t imagine why) acted similarly. No matter what’s at stake, people will put themselves and their feelings first, which is kind of depressing, but also enlightening. It seems to me that what Nolan’s saying here is that no matter how scientifically advanced humans become, emotions are important and they will always be a factor. Maybe not the only factor, but still, they cannot be escaped, so maybe they should be used to one’s advantage. The expression of this idea with Hathaway’s speech and at other points in the film may have been overly-sentimental, but at other times it worked very well.

Another key aspect of this film is its themes of ambition. The film itself has been criticized for being too ambitious, for not delivering on everything it set out to do. It’s an interesting criticism, and one that seems a bit unfair from my perspective. I’d rather a film fail interestingly than succeed mundanely (at least that’s true most of the time), but I don’t think this film fails. It sets up the world’s problems: that no one tries, that people are too concerned with themselves to properly live or ensure that humanity continues, and then brings them back into the realm of outer space. The main characters find humanity’s flaws in themselves and have to confront that. While the film’s ultimate answer, love, might be a bit corny in its presentation at times, it’s still an answer.

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I did see this film in IMAX, and while I’m not sure it’s worth the extra money, I was incredibly immersed in the film and glad I saw it in that format. Nolan is known for using IMAX and championing the use of film, and while that debate is one I’ll probably never be able to pick a side on, you got to admit Nolan seems to know what he’s doing because the film looked amazing. It’s been a while since I’ve been this much in awe of the vastness of space, and I know what you’re all going to say, what about last year’s Gravity, but honestly I liked this film more. It was much more speculative in what it showed us, which is something unique to sci-fi. Everything from the classic view of Earth getting smaller as the astronauts moved away from it to the strange new planets, to the wormhole and the black hole, had me completely in awe of how vast our universe is. Whether any of it was “scientifically accurate” is beside the point for me, no matter what actually is out there in space, it’s got to be at least this amazing.

I hadn’t realized this until recently, but apparently there has been some sort of controversy over the sound mixing in the film. People are upset that the dialogue can’t be heard at some points because the other effects and/or the score is mixed too loud. Honestly, I didn’t really realize this upon watching the film. The film is quite loud though, making use of a lot of low register sounds to get a rumbling effect. My chair shook a lot during the film, just from the sound. I liked the effect, it was immersive and served the film well.

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I have little to complain about on the acting front. Mathew McConaughey’s casting was inspired, not just because he’s a good actor and does well in the film, but because it hearkens back to his role in Contact, one of my favorite sci-fi films ever. He’s playing a completely different character, but the films deal with similar issues. McConaughey is one of my favorite actors and he does well here, particularly of note is his chemistry with Mackenzie Foy, the 10 year old version of Murph. I was somewhat sad to see that the older version of Murph was a far less interesting character, resulting in the under use of Chastain, who is very good but not given much to do besides act bitter all the time. In fact, this movie has a tendency to cast actors who could do so much more with their roles than they’re asked to, which makes me wonder why they bothered to cast such people in the first place. Really only McConaughey, Foy, and to some extent Hathaway (if only they hadn’t given her that stupid speech!) were used to their potential, which was disappointing for a film that champions ambition.

Interstellar has its flaws, but for the most part they didn’t bother me. The flaws got left far behind the awe-inspiring portrayal of the vastness of space and the ethical issues of survival at play. The most disappointing aspect of the film for me was definitely how some of the actors were underused, which is just terribly unfortunate. If I still feel this way about Interstellar seeing it second or third time remains to be seen, but I certainly hope so.

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“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Flixchatter review
The New York Times review
PG Cooper’s Movie Reviews review

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