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INTERSTELLAR (review)

interstellar_ver2INTERSTELLAR
Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain

Cooper: We’ll find a way; we always have.

I will begin by stating that INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan’s latest science fiction opus, is a cinematic feast of epic proportion. It is nearly three hours of stunning visuals, often gripping action and sound and music unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen or heard before. On the one hand, it is a glorious film experience, something that Nolan is particularly skilled at crafting. On the other hand though, INTERSTELLAR is also an overinflated, plodding journey that is weighed down, not by the gravity it is obsessed with thematically, nor by comparisons to the far more satisfying space exploration that is Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY, but rather by a very heavy handed effort at infusing the film with drama and emotion in an attempt to raise the stakes and make the whole thing much more meaningful than it is.

Perhaps in direct response to criticism that Nolan’s past films have lacked the emotional weight necessary to make them truly unforgettable, he goes all in this time around, and then some. The first act of INTERSTELLAR establishes where humanity has ended up, as seen through the eyes of one particular family. Oddly enough, Nolan is vague on the details here; at some point, the planet could no longer sustain the billions of people it housed so it turned on humanity by wiping out a huge chunk of the population with a consistent barrage of dust storms. Again, Nolan was vague on this so I think that’s what happened. As their food supply continues to diminish, all resources remaining are spent on maintaining that supply to ensure the ongoing survival of humanity. Or so it would appear …

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One of the remaining families left on Earth is led by patriarch, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut who now does what everyone else does, which is farm. He lives with his two children, and his dead wife’s father (John Lithgow), and all seems more or less fine until an unexplained phenomenon occurs in his daughter’s bedroom. It turns out the unexplained was just gravity, but apparently gravity was sending Cooper a message, more specifically coordinates. He and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) head out in search of the coordinates (which are conveniently within driving distance) and they find NASA, a program long thought to be dead. Headed by a Nolan staple, Michael Caine, NASA aims to go out into space one more time to accomplish one of two goals. The ideal plan is to find an inhabitable planet just on the other side of a wormhole that has recently appeared near Saturn (apparently placed there by “them”, possibly the same “they” who led Cooper to NASA to begin with), confirm the planet is good to go and come back to get all of humanity. Plan B ensures the survival of the species but in a much less ideal fashion for the people still on Earth, but I won’t spoil that for you here.

As it turns out, Cooper is the best pilot Caine has ever seen (he literally says that at some point) and the bizarre series of events that led him to this base could not have been better timed. Now he can lead the team, which includes Caine’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway, as well as other crew members, played by Wes Bentley (still sporting his THE HUNGER GAMES facial hair) and David Gyasi, on this mission to save humanity. There is just one small problem. Cooper will be gone for a while, a potentially very long while when you factor relativity into the equation, and he will most likely miss most of his children’s lives, if he makes it back at all. This causes a major rift between him and his daughter and sadly, he has to leave while she is still mad at him. It takes Nolan a good hour or so to establish all of this premise and all of this emotional manipulation. Every step of the way is heavier than the last and you can feel his painstaking efforts to make the audience understand just how deeply Cooper is breaking his little girl’s heart. This time on Earth isn’t painful; it is just rather plain and pretty obvious, so much so that, by the time Cooper does in fact leave, I just wanted him to go already, no matter how much Murph was hurt by his departure.

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Once the mission takes off, so does INTERSTELLAR. This is where Nolan thrives, in a boundless universe of imagination and excitement. Of course, the mission is not an easy one, nor should it be. As the crew search for a planet with the resources necessary to sustain life, INTERSTELLAR comes to life with one dazzling and suspenseful scene after the next. Whether it’s massive tidal waves the likes of which you’ve never seen, or a desolate rock planet surrounded by frozen clouds, or the inner workings of a black hole, wherever Nolan takes his audience is exhilarating. Hans Zimmer’s inventive and sometimes insane score heightens the tension even further and the result is often dizzying but in the best way possible. At times, it is all so exciting that you forget about the melodrama that awaits these explorers back on Earth. When a movie is about the survival of the human race though, you should not be secretly wishing they never make it back to Earth.

While Nolan pushes himself as a visual director to places he’s never been, he continues to explore themes he has throughout his career, most notably time (which he explored at length in INCEPTION and MEMENTO). Given that Cooper and friends are moving at the speed of light and hovering dangerously close to black holes, the people they left behind on Earth are aging much faster than they are. At one point, Murph is now an adult played by Jessica Chastain and she still isn’t speaking to her father. Of course, he promised he would come home to her one day and that is looking less and less likely as time goes on. Nolan also focuses a great deal of his attention on survival and science. I am no scientist but I am assured that most of the science in INTERSTELLAR is relatively sound, which makes it incredibly fascinating at times. That said, there is still plenty of science pushed off as fact that isn’t even remotely believable. Nolan is clearly an intelligent man but when he deviates from his strengths and tries to sell the audience on love as an intangible human force capable of transcending time and space, he calls that intelligence into question. It doesn’t help that Hathaway’s soliloquy on the subject, as like most of the dialogue in the film, is as poorly written as it is given, as like most of the acting in the film.

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Nolan needs to learn how to keep things simple in the future. There is nothing remotely simple about his mind blowing visual landscape but he makes that look easy for him. By trying so hard to make the relationships in his film just as complex as the science and philosophy driving the film, he does nothing more than reveal his hand, and his weaknesses as both a writer and a director. In fact, hammering the emotion home only served to make me care less about the characters, as they felt less like genuine people and more like devices designed to make a point. By overcompensating his focus on the forced human drama, he even sacrifices some of the time that would have been much better spent further exploring his majestic vision of outer space. By trying to tie the science and emotion together thematically, he only makes both seem like a stretch. In the end, INTERSTELLAR is interesting but far from stellar.

3.5 sheep

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