Review: Interstellar

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The Earth is not permanent. Though it has served as a home to mankind and living things for millions of years, there will come a time when it will expire. Whether by humanity’s own doing or by forces beyond its control, when the Earth becomes inhospitable, the choices will be stark. Humanity needs to look beyond the stars and find a new place to call home, or it will face extinction. Yes, it is a gargantuan task, but a nomadic, star hopping existence may be the only way forward. This is the ambitious vision of Christopher Nolan, who is certainly no stranger to original filmmaking on a grand scale. Interstellar may be almost too overstuffed with scientific exposition and hits a couple of emotional snags, but its scope and thematic depth simply cannot be denied, a visual and intellectual feast.

At an unspecified time in the future, the Earth has approached its eleventh hour. The United States has essentially become a dustbowl, with the majority of crops extinct, save for corn. This is the world Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives in, having long abandoned his previous stature as one of the last great pilots, tending to his farm and family. A widower, Cooper does his best to be a positive influence on his children in a dying world, even if that means some of his hotshot tendencies are also passed on. While his son Tom (Timothee Chalet) is likely to carry on as a farmer, Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) has her father’s instincts and intellectual curiosity. She’s lately been haunted by disturbances of light in her bedroom, which she and Cooper discover are coordinates to the biggest kept secret in the world. As led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), what remains of NASA has researched a plan to ensure the survival of the human race. A wormhole appeared around Saturn some decades ago, and on the other side there may be habitable planets. Professor Brand pitches this to Cooper, trying to convince him to take the journey along with three other astronauts, including his own daughter (Anne Hathaway). For Cooper it is a massive sacrifice, for not only will this journey span years for him, but due to the laws of science, it may very well be decades.

That is as broad an overview of the premise of Interstellar that can be provided without being too specific. On the whole, the narrative arc certainly goes into some strange and extraordinary places from the moment the film hits liftoff. It certainly would not be a Christopher Nolan film without a couple of twists and turns, and while one specifically felt initially arbitrary, in retrotrospect it illustrates a key thematic conflict. This is also Nolan’s most emotive film to date, and those occasionally uneven beats arrive often, yet never drown out the film’s intellectual edge. Suffice to say, there is a wealth of scientific explanation that goes into this type of space travel, which at times is nearly impenetrable as characters sort out their situation from scene to scene. The most fascinating of these is the theory of relativity, and how the perception of time changes drastically depending on where one is in the universe. It is this concept that lends Interstellar some of its most profound thematic weight.

Even as it voyages to the outer reaches of the universe, the film hinges on the relationship between the Cooper and Murph, and thus those characters are the most fleshed out. McConaughey certainly brings some of his characteristic charm to Cooper, but he is also far from autopilot here. Cooper often has to face incredibly hard choices, ones which take him to deep emotional depths. Admirably, McConaughey dives right in, providing a formidable human anchor to counterbalance the film’s cerebral inquiries. Mackenzie Foy is also quite strong as Murph, who later grows up as Jessica Chastain, proving to be tenacious in her pursuit to find a way to both ensure the survival of humanity and see her father again. The majority of the other supporting characters all have some memorable moments, but they are mostly quick sketches at best, present for the purposes of progressing and explaining the plot. A particular highlight comes from a character named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), a monolithic robot with a human voice that assists on the mission. Even with all of its exposition, Interstellar is peppered with quite a few moments of levity, a useful reprieve from when the narrative takes darker turns.

As a technical showcase, Interstellar makes a serious argument for being Nolan’s most accomplished work yet. This begins with the photography, as lensed by Hoyte van Hoytema. There are images and sequences in Interstellar that are on par with any of the great space films, from the Endurance as a tiny speck orbiting around Saturn, to the new and strange worlds Cooper and his crew explore. The imagery on Earth is no less impressive, nearly a color sequel to The Grapes of WrathInterstellar is Nolan’s third film to employ IMAX cameras, and the resulting photography takes up an hour of the film’s runtime. As the perspective shifts between the standard widescreen format to the taller, more expansive IMAX shots, one gets the impression that Nolan and Hoytema are literally flexing their cinematic muscles. Nolan has also been a huge advocate for shooting as much practically as possible. From the interiors of the spaceships to the environments of the planets, and a wealth of models and miniatures, there is a grounded visual reality to Interstellar that matches its scientific accuracy. That precision comes from theoretical physicist and executive producer Kip Thorne, whose algorithms played directly into the visual representations of black holes and worm holes in the film. This is something no film, science fiction or otherwise, has ever achieved. Hans Zimmer’s score is also hugely important, if heavily favored in the final mix. The primary instrument of note here is the organ, which speaks to the film’s epic ambitions and aurally distinguishes it from other space films. Nolan’s affinity for cross cutting is also present here, but the efficacy here is a little mixed. While the action sequences are often thrillingly constructed, some of the back and forth between Earth and the Endurance in the latter part of the second act gets somewhat muddled. Fortunately, the audacious third act brings those intentions to fuller clarity.

Even if the human element to Interstellar is solely found in a handful of characters, its thematic concerns are thoroughly well considered. The first of these addresses the painful separation between a parent and a child. While Cooper is doing the right thing in the long term by leaving his children, he is ultimately missing out on their development into adulthood and will not be there for them when they potentially need him most. His talk with Murph before he leaves is less a tearful goodbye and more a tearful confrontation, neither willing to accept the full implications of Cooper’s inevitable departure. This leads into a theme of legacy, for as hard as the choice is, Cooper goes on the mission because he intends for mankind to live on. If our lives mean anything at all, it is that they we must strive to allow successive generations to have better lives than our own. To that point, how far does one reach to ensure that continuity? As Interstellar barrels to the end of its second act, Cooper is confronted with the question of whether he values his family over the saving humanity. Many of these thematic questions are posed outright in the film, but the blunt telegraphing reinforces the stakes of mission. The final key thematic component to Interstellar is time itself. As a major element to all of Nolan’s cinema, the impact of time serves as both a narrative ticking clock, and more broadly, an illustration of the change in relationships. To examine this any further would unspool the secrets of Interstellar, but there are subtle and thoroughly impressive choices that are made in the film’s final twenty minutes. With Interstellar, it’s evident that Christopher Nolan strived to push his own storytelling capabilities to their very limits. The final result is not clean and perfect, but perhaps this is a virtue. Like the intricacies of time and space, Interstellar can get messy, but there is no questioning the magnitude of the grander design.

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~ by romancinema on November 6, 2014.

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