Interstellar is the kind of insane, ambitious movie that you’ll have the strong urge to discuss as soon as the credits roll. And I’m not just talking about whether or not the film was any good. It’ll have you analyzing all of the finer points. Why was this the way it was? What did this line mean? Did you notice when this character did this? And so on. I noticed an abnormally large part of the audience just standing around in groups outside the theater for quite a while after the movie ended, just talking about the experience. I overheard some lamenting how predictable certain parts were, while others went on about how certain twists completely blew their minds. But even those who were harshly critiquing the film did so with huge smiles on their faces.
No matter how flawed the movie is, and it most definitely is, there’s no denying that Interstellar gets one thing completely, gloriously right: it transports you to a different place. This is director Christopher Nolan’s greatest skill as a filmmaker. Whether he’s taking you to the comic book world of Gotham City or plunging you four dream layers deep, when you come out of a Nolan film you feel like you’ve really been in that space. Sure, the massive length of his recent movies help make them feel like true journeys, but it’s mainly his visual creativity and his attention to detail that really authenticates his settings. With this new space odyssey, he outdoes himself on both of those counts.
The film follows Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a pilot who is sort of, kind of forced to go on a long, long space voyage, presumably in order to find a habitable planet to replace a dying, near-future Earth. Cooper is joined by Dr. Brand, played by Anne Hathaway, who does a slightly better job than Sandra Bullock of selling a beautiful movie star as a capable astronaut. There are also two other guys who aren’t important, as well as a comic relief robot named TARS, an obvious variation on HAL (the movie does not try to conceal its direct inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor should it). The crew is only sort of likable, but it doesn’t really matter. This is a movie driven first and foremost by ideas and then by characters.
The journey takes us to a couple of far-off planets, which go against the recent sci-fi grain by not teaming with alien life and by not being remarkably exotic. As was the case with Inception, Nolan isn’t concerned with showing us worlds that are like absolutely nothing we’ve seen before (a la Avatar). Rather, his particular form of sci-fi spectacle comes from showing us things we are already familiar with in completely new ways. With Inception he brought us sideways cities and endless snowy hills. Interstellar, meanwhile, has waves the size of mountain ranges and ice formations that stretch up into the sky. It’s our familiarity with these commonplace elements like water, ice, and rock that makes his grandiose depiction of them so awe-inspiring in contrast. Even the shots of our planet (think lots and lots of corn) are perfectly shot and serve to remind us (and the characters) just how much beauty we would lose by leaving Earth.
The movie goes on and on about quantum mechanics, the function of wormholes, and more highbrow science stuff , but Cooper’s mission is simple enough for any audience to immediately understand. Most of the physics lessons the movie espouses are ultimately just words to make it sound more intelligent. The real complexity of the film comes from its powerful emotional core. Cooper leaves behind his young daughter, knowing full well that she’ll grow up without him. That’s tough enough, but an added wrinkle is that he’ll remain the same age due to relativity (cue joke about McConaughey’s famous “they stay the same age” line).
Thus, we get two other elements which Nolan shows in a completely different, and completely terrifying light. The first is space. The film’s shots of space, and it’s depiction of various physical anomalies are the film’s showstoppers, some of the most visually impressive sequences ever made, not just on a technical level but on an artful one as well. These moments are beautiful, terrifying, extravagant, and beg to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Complementing the astonishing visual beauty is one of Hans Zimmer’s more memorable scores, mixing Martinez-esque techno with a more traditional, operatic majesty.
The other main element is time. The film effectively expresses the weight behind every minute that our heroes are in space. On one planet, we learn that one hour will equate to seven years passing back on Earth. Audiences are put thoroughly into the characters shoes, and we’re asked to imagine such a terrifying prospect, and one that no human has ever really had to consider. Such implications, and how they are visually shown as the film switches back and forth between Cooper and his family back on Earth, perfectly conveys the vast distance the film covers.
It’s pretty amazing just how effective the emotional moments are, considering the movie as a whole suffers from constant, cringeworthy writing and some of the most poorly-concealed, manipulative setups for a movie that’s otherwise so meticulously crafted. I guess this is to be expected of Nolan and his screenwriting brother; both Inception and to a lesser but still noticeable extent The Dark Knight Rises were victims of poor dialogue and sloppy exposition. Speaking of exposition, remember how Inception had a long and arduous stretch towards the beginning where characters had to explain a bunch of complicated rules? Well, Interstellar has the same thing, except it’s all at the end instead of the beginning.
Yet because the world and the stakes are so well-illustrated and Nolan nails the important narrative points and themes into our brains so incredibly hard, I was able to look past the oft-horrendous dialogue and enjoy the glorious sights and the exciting action without feeling taken out of the narrative. More impressively, Interstellar never felt like the near three hour experience it is because the suspense is so sustained and because there are tons of surprise plot twists placed perfectly throughout (maybe a few too many). The big finale is where this technical grandeur collides with the film’s thematic, intellectual and emotional poignancies to create one of the most fascinating, visceral and mind-melding scenes in years, even though it’s far too elaborate for its own good.
It’s easy to understand the film’s polarizing nature, as it oscillates between being incredibly ingenious (in its scientific accuracy, brainy ideas, absorbing sense of place and profound thematic ambitions) and incredibly knuckle-headed (in its atrocious dialogue, clumsy exposition, and a few questionable gaps in logic). Regardless of the film’s obvious shortcomings, Interstellar should be applauded for juggling so many different hats as well as it does. It’s a space opera, a family drama, a pro-space exploration statement, and an inspirational celebration of the human spirit.
Above all, it’s an unwieldy achievement in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking — an original, grand (and convoluted) sci-fi adventure with a vast physical breadth and an earnest emotional depth. When it’s all over, there’s no question: you feel like you’ve travelled a great distance, and that you’ve been far, far away. And isn’t that the point of any movie, especially a science fiction one?
Score: 4 out of 5