‘Interstellar’ Review (dir. Christopher Nolan)


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It would be disingenuous of me to not start this review by saying that I went into ‘Interstellar’ with a clear and present bias. Not towards Nolan – though I think he is a wonderful director who has not yet made a truly bad film. But a bias towards the scientific theories and potential themes I expected – based on trailers and the concept of the film – that it would explore. I have always been very interested in astronomy and astrophysics – and have a soft spot for science fiction films with a strong emotional core (‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Contact’). So when I headed to the theater I knew I was walking a very fine line (one that many reviewers walk but won’t admit to). If the film met (even marginally) my high expectations then it would in no doubt lead to high praise that bordered on hyperbole – and if it didn’t – if it disappointed – then it would cause a reaction a lot more negative than it really needed to be.

Where did ‘Interstellar’ ultimately fall? Hyperbole…or disappointment? Well luckily for me it was the former…to a fairly strong degree. I’ll say it now – this is not just probably  my favorite film of the year so far, but like with ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ (yes, more on that later) in recent years, this may  fall within my favorite films of all time. It is a dazzling, visually stunning, emotionally resonant and incredibly well made sci-fi space epic – one with the power to keep you on the edge of your seat one minute and in tears the next. It explores big ideas about the cosmos while also staying incredibly grounding with an intimate story about family, regret, sacrifice and love. Like I said…hyperbole.

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The film takes place in a not so distant future in which the world is becoming unlivable. After population growth, climate shifts and diseases ravishing crops, the world is struggling to produce enough of what little food sources they have left – which means a heavy reliance on corn farms. It is very bleak future where dust from dust storms covers everything, and the only focus of mankind is struggling to survive with what they know and have. Innovation, free thinking and exploration are at a standstill – and unless schools deem you smart enough to go on to a university, your only career prospective is farming.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a widower and former pilot who now owns a farm where he lives with his two young children. He does his best to provide for his family but clearly wants more for them than what the current world can provide. After finding a mysterious message in his daughter Murph’s room, Cooper finds himself being recruited by what is left of NASA. They are secretly putting together a mission to journey through a wormhole that has appeared near Saturn. They do not know how it got there but they do know that beyond it is a solar system with some potentially habitable planets. They want Cooper to pilot an expedition through the wormhole to explore these planets and see if one is suitable to set up a new human colony. Cooper reluctantly agrees, even though it means leaving his children behind. He knows that the journey could kill him or – due to the laws of relatively – that by the time he does return his children may be much older than he is or already dead. But the fate of the human race – including his son and daughter – relies on finding a new home. So he sets out with a team of astronauts – and one pretty funny robot – on a journey that will take them farther than any humans have ever gone. The decision devastates his young daughter Murph – who he had a close relationship with – and it sets her out on a journey of her own to save humanity in a way she believes her father couldn’t.

To go into much more detail of the plot would ruin much of the experience. But I will say it becomes a fast paced and exciting journey. It does sometimes fall back on the usual genre tropes but there is never a dull moment; and it all builds up to an emotional and rewarding conclusion.

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The performances are truly superb. For all his technical mastery, Nolan is also an actors’ director and he gets the most out of his casts. McConaughey is at his best here – which is saying a lot considering his work in recent years. The emotion he brings is on a whole different level than anything he has done before. Jessica Chastain, who plays the adult Murph, also has a strong presence. Both actors wear the burden of their decisions and regrets on their shoulders, and you can see it in every scene. They are the heart and soul of the film. Hathaway also did a wonderful job – as did Wes Bently, Michael Caine, and David Gyasi.

The score from Hans Zimmer is loud and heart pounding. He always manages to perfectly convey the intensity of some truly exciting set pieces – while also slowing down to capture the emotions of the more intimate moments, and this score is no different.

The visuals are absolutely stunning. The effects (most of them created through practical means) were influenced by physicist Kip Throne – who also oversaw a lot of the science in the film – and the result is dream-worthy space imagery. Interestingly, the depictions of the wormhole and black hole in ‘Interstellar’ are considered to be the most accurate ever created. The results are gorgeous, especially on a big screen – with one scene with Saturn making me all teary eyed.

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Below the spectacle and hard science is an emotionally resonant tale of exploration and human ambition that puts its faith not only in science but also the human soul.  Does it become heavy handed at times? Of course! This is a space opera – a science fiction epic – with a big budget, big ideas, big name actors, big visuals and so the emotions at times match that. The first 40 minutes or so do a fantastic job setting up the bond between Cooper and his daughter. It is a wonderful relationship – but a complex one filled with love, anger and regret. It is also the backbone of the story and Nolan builds the emotion from there.

Like with ‘The Tree of Life’ (I told you I was going here), the juxtaposition of dazzling space images and the exploration of the cosmos with this grounded and intimate family story about love and nature make for a challenging but truly rewarding experience. One that asks big questions about our relationship with each other and the universe we inhabit; and examines how the flow and clash of such things as love and instinct with nature can change and inspire us for better or worse. Nolan does seem to want to show how love has the ability to conquer and transcend even the harshest things nature and its laws can throw at us. It is almost fitting then that Chastain stars in each, and has a roll in both stories that could be almost viewed as similar – as the focal point of love that guides the main character and the audience. And like with ‘The Tree of Life’ I can totally understand why people would not like ‘Interstellar’. Neither are films for everyone. I believe most reviews I have seen are so mixed because ultimately ‘Interstellar’ relies so heavily on the emotions at the core of the story that it was inevitable that it wouldn’t connect with some people. You have to be open to some extreme sentimentalism, which just isn’t the case for everybody.

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I won’t go into much detail over the film’s final act, but I think it makes perfect sense within the logical and emotional progression of the story – though some critics disagree. They seem to think that Nolan’s often straight forward hard science approach is too stern and takes the wonder and ambiguity out of his stories and I found that to not be the case with ‘Interstellar’. Mainly because the ending does in fact have some level of ambiguity – but what it does explain adds a level of wonder and hope that would be lost had it been open ended. I will also say that I find it absolutely absurd that some critics who praise and accept the ending to’2001: A Space Odyssey’ have dismissed this one for being too convoluted or even nonsensical…as if those couldn’t also be said of the ending of Kubrick’s film.

But again maybe this is all just me. As I warned you, hyperbole was expected and I think this review lived up to that. I truly loved the film. It generated in me the same feeling of wonder, excitement and curiosity I got from the spectacle and emotions of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘Contact’ –the realism of ‘Gravity’ – and the complexity and mind bending theories of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Throw in with that the connections I felt it had with such films as ‘The Tree of Life’ and there was no way I wasn’t going to love it. This is cinema at its finest. Whatever flaws it might have I can easily overlook due to not only how moving and entertaining of an experience it all is – but also because it is just so damn ambitious. Whether you see it on a large IMAX screen or not, you’ll be moved in one way or another.

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Now, I don’t usually do this but I would like to end by quickly addressing the small group of people who have been crying sexism before the film even got its wide release. Apparently, because the lead is a scruffy male and the film is about the will power of mankind to journey off and explore the unknown, that it is somehow a male centric film that is about masculinity above all else. If the idea of human endeavor, innovation, the struggle to survive, and the pursuit of knowledge brings to your mind nothing but masculinity and male dominance then blame society – not the film – because it was clearly not its intentions  and really is just not even remotely the case here. You could easily replace McConaughey’s character with a female lead (like in ‘Contact’) and the narrative, emotional and thematic results would be EXACTLY the same. This all seems even more ridiculous given the fact that the female characters play a much more important role than any of the men. Their work, decisions and perspective essentially save the day. It isn’t until the men view the situations and universe through them that they are able to succeed.

I have also been thrown off by the complaints of Nolan’s reliance on “daddy issues” or the “dead wife/spouse” tropes, and fail to see how these (which I admit are often present in his films) should at all matter when they fit so well into the story and are so emotionally effective. Not to mention Cooper being a widower has nothing to do with any decision he makes; and the relationship Murph has with him is far more complex than simply being “daddy issues”. It is actually a wonderfully realized one, with Nolan drawing experience from the relationship he has with his own daughter.

But why are these even being brought up by people, so early and with such vigor? Do not get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the opinions of those who simply did not like it…but for the few who have criticized it for the aforementioned reasons I just cannot wrap my head around where they are coming from. Sexism is often an issue in cinema and film making as a whole and something that could clearly be worked on…but it just does not apply to ‘Interstellar’ in any way. And I say this as someone who isn’t a Nolan fan boy. Yes, I appreciate his work – he has made some truly great films – but I am not one of those who think he is the best director working right now. But it is hard to not be disappointed and confused by the fact that every time he releases a film there are tons of articles that pop up to critique what would otherwise be completely ignored in other films – or in some case they critique things they didn’t even care about in his other films. Maybe this is just the price a director like him faces. His work tends to be so popular that critics seem to try extra hard to make their voices heard – an attempt to quell the masses of fans excited to see it – by overreaching in their criticism. This is made all the more disheartening when you consider he is one of a very few filmmakers willing to take such big risks to make smart and ambitious films. But maybe I am wrong. Please, let me know your thoughts!

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