Christopher Nolan might not be the incomparable artiste that Paul Thomas Anderson has become, the lyrical poet that Terrence Malick succeeds at being, or the rabble-rousers that the sicko David Fincher and the pop pastiche-aholic Quentin Tarantino are…but damn it, he’s the best Brand there is in Hollywood. You know what you are getting every time you see a Christopher Nolan film, and unlike, say a Michael Bay, you should be ecstatic you’re getting it. He’s going to entertain you and make you think while conjuring his own impossible cinematic dreams, attempt (sometimes clumsily but always admirably) to tap into a zeitgeist, dazzle you with his technical skill, twist the plot and up the dramatic ante every time he steps behind that camera.
His sprawling space opera, Interstellar, is no exception. It is at times wondrously ridiculous and miraculously beautiful in its ambitions
In the not so distant future, food is running out from over-population and environmental calamities that have produced a new Dust Bowl. There people are forced into farming as society has transformed from one of innovation to one of scraping by that has been branded as “caretaking.” It is here where the widowed Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) eeks out an existence with his son and daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult), while he dreams of his lost opportunity to be an astronaut after a test flight crash and the disbanding of NASA years earlier. The boy has already been tested by the school system and found to be a perfect candidate to be a farmer, while the smart-as-a-whip Murphy gets suspended for bringing a book to school that teaches the Lunar landing as a fact and triumph of the human spirit, when the new consensus teaches it was Cold War propaganda (and no one should ever dream of space travel again as growing food is the only noble pursuit).
But strange things start happening. Automatic technology (drones and plows) begin acting up. There are gravitational anomalies happening. And Murphy thinks there is a ghost in the farmhouse trying to deliver her a message. It all adds up to father and daughter stumbling upon a secret base where, lo and behold, Cooper’s former professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), is leading an underground NASA team that has discovered a wormhole beyond Saturn and is plotting manned voyages to search for inhabitable planets on the other side. The very survival of the human race is dependent on their mission, and they want Coop to pilot the next one which will be headed by Dr. Brand’s own daughter, the aptly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway).
READ WITH CAUTION – SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
The first two hours of Interstellar go from earthbound survivalist drama to grand space spectacle and are interspersed with long bouts of dialogue espousing the scientific theories at work. Those who find Nolan’s explanatory dialogue to be a nuisance might view some of this as major drag on the story. It often comes across as a futuristic spin on Ken Burn’s Dust Bowl mixed with an episode of NOVA, all hosted by the McConaissance. The family drama is punctuated by a typically melodramatic (but effective) Hans Zimmer theme, while the always evolving composer then playfully employs an organ and immense bass to place an explanation point on the mesmerizing space imagery. Thus Nolan and his maestro paint space as a cathedral. It’s all wonderfully photographed by first-time Nolan collaborator, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.
It’s the last hour, however, where true Nolan fans will rejoice and learn to appreciate the slow build of the first two hours. It is here where Nolan composes his signature crescendo with Zimmer’s pounding score, interspliced editing of parallel actions of different characters in different locales, all building to an emotional climax where the true nature of the events we are tracking along with the characters’ own discoveries finally comes to fruition. Witness Hathaway emoting and pining (and reaching for a hand), Chastain sticking to her guns and figuring stuff out, and McConaughey tumbling through space and time (Alright, Alright) into something that makes the Matrix look like a moonlit walk on the beach! Things come full circle as is common in a Nolan narrative, and it’s all so wonderfully orchestrated you should be willing to forgive some of the more cloying and sentimental stuff like the scientific discussion on love and Caine’s constant reciting of that overused Dylan Thomas tome featuring the famous line, “Do not go gentle into that good night…”
Interstellar is that rare mainstream beast where art and entertainment collide. It contains everything you would want from both a sci-fi film (cool robots, wormholes, blackholes, dramatic interpretation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and…voila, an actual fully visualized Tesseract!) and a Nolan Branded product (all of his moves and memes are there, including a watch that serves the same function as the pinwheel did in Inception, and a spaceship docking station that might as well be the evolution of the infamous spinning top). It’s also refreshing to see Artificial Intelligence (as seen in TARS and CASE, two boxy limber monoliths) portrayed as helpful and non-threatening. AI will be loyal and trustworthy if humans program it to be (as well as humorous and truthful). The Nolan brothers (the script was co-written by Jonathan) make a clear statement that it is other human beings, not technology, that we should fear the most. There’s a startling cameo by a certain major Hollywood actor (known for his Matthew McConaughey impersonation on David Letterman) who basically embodies, in human form, the destructive spirit of 2001‘s HAL where the mission is put above all, endangering all.
Yet it’s also boldly hopeful. Early on there’s a bit of mystery surrounding who put the wormhole there and what beings might be intervening to save the human race from extinction. But it turns out the Nolan twist is aliens have nothing to do with it (take that History Channel!)…it was always us…it was always all about us. And it paints a future where we stumble, pick up our feet, brush off the dust…and not only survive…but innovate. How can one not appreciate Nolan, a man who clearly loves his audience and pushes himself and us to the limits even when he occasionally stumbles over his own too-fast moving feet?
In the end, the Nolan Brand is fortified by Interstellar. Is it any wonder that the fair maiden Amelia Brand is left dreaming and waiting for us to join her on our new homeland? Won’t we, in turn, dream of joining her? What a pleasant reverie, and how nice of Nolan to want to take us there.
Thus it was T. S. Eliot’s voice, and not that of Dylan Thomas, which ultimately echoed in my mind while musing on this Interstellar beast:
“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark, the vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant…”
Nolan leads us into the dark…and reaches with us for the light. And we shall gladly continue to pay him for that luxury.
Ah, but now you see…it’s the Hollywood Machine that survives!
Written by David H. Schleicher
Below is a photo of the free poster giveaway at the showing I attended. Kinda evokes Andrew Wyeth…in spaaaaace!…doesn’t it?
The world is a-buzz with Interstellar, which due to its heady and sometimes incomprehensible “science” has engendered more mixed reviews than is usual for Nolan, but there are plenty in rapture:
- The Midwestmovieman lays it all on the line in quite simple terms and effortlessly gets to the heart of the matter
- Joseph J. Langan at Aiguille bows down to the awe of spectacle
- Colin McMahon at The Red Rings of Redemption praises the risk-taking and implores A-list directors to follow suit
- Jaideep Vaidya focuses on the audience reaction
- Over at The Obsessive Viewer a well written, balanced mixed review is presented, but I fear they missed something
- Steven Rea at The Philadelphia Inquirer praises the ambition and skill of Nolan but can’t help but feel something integral is missing
- Richard Roper of The Chicago Sun Times can’t help but gush
- Richard Corliss at Time wrestles the films ambitions and Nolan’s vision
- As predicted, David Denby at The New Yorker delivers a classical mixed review