The best thing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar does - and it does many things exceptionally well - is assume its audience is smart and that we’re wanting and willing to be challenged. Nolan and his filmmaking team have constructed a complex, thoughtful and thoroughly engaging science fiction drama that exercises both our minds and emotions. The film is exhausting, but in a most satisfying way; as we watch it, its energy, ideas and beauty overwhelm us and we’re reminded of just how powerful the movies can be.
Movie Review: Interstellar
By Matthew Huntley
November 10, 2014
On the surface, Interstellar recycles several elements common to the sci-fi genre, and it won’t be hard to spot the similarities between it and other films of its kind, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (and its lesser known sequel, 2010), Armageddon, and most recently, Gravity. But it doesn’t rip these films off as much as utilize their same assets. What Interstellar does with them, and the effect it has on our minds and bodies, seems unparalleled, at least in recent memory. And speaking of its physical impressions, this is a film that demands to be seen in theaters because of the way it envelops our senses and makes us feel like we’re not only watching something spectacular but also taking a ride.
Typical of science fiction, the story takes place in the not-too-distant future, when most of the world has been marred by an arid and unfruitful climate. Dust storms are a daily occurrence, and corn is one of the few remaining crops, though even its days are numbered. The fear is that this perpetual dryness will one day make the Earth uninhabitable, which is why the majority of the population is doing what it can to stave off famine by abandoning technology-related fields and taking up farming instead. “We are now a caretaker society,” one character observes.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is one such man who’s resorted to farming to survive, though his heart and mind aren’t in it. He ‘s a former NASA test pilot and engineer who still yearns to be in the air surrounded by machines and gadgets. Cooper is a widower who lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two kids, 15-year-old Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and 10-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Murph, like her father, is a science junkie and is also wise beyond her years. She believes there’s a poltergeist in her room that’s trying to send her a message, but as her Dad explains, there’s no such things as ghosts and he advises her to approach the situation from a scientific point of view: develop a theory, test it out and draw a conclusion. Her hunches and curiosity will play an integral role later on.
Following the latest dust storm, Cooper and Murph discover an atmospheric anomaly related to gravity. They believe the particular way the dust settles in Murph’s room is Morse code, and indeed it points them to the coordinates of an underground NASA station. Here, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), are among other scientists and explorers planning a clandestine mission into space. They’ve discovered a wormhole in the solar system that leads to another galaxy with potentially inhabitable planets. Their hope is that humans can settle on one of them, thus ensuring our survival. In light of Cooper’s stumbling upon the project, Professor Brand beseeches him to pilot the spacecraft that would confirm the planets’ viability. But “to save the world,” as it is said, Cooper must abandon his family, which Murph has a hard time accepting.
I’ve laid out the basic premise of Interstellar, but there’s actually a lot more to it, and one of the things I appreciated most about Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s screenplay is that it refrains from conventional exposition to describe the intricacies of its plot. The characters speak to each other as if there’s no movie audience listening to them and therefore their conversations are devoid of blatant “So what you’re saying is…” moments, which exist merely to bring the audience up to speed.
Nolan believes in the story so much that he assumes we’ll pick up on things for ourselves simply because it’s such engaging material. And indeed we do, but what’s surprising is how the film’s heavy dialogue doesn’t necessarily come across as scientific “mumbo jumbo.” I have no idea how much of it, if any, is accurate and conceivable, but the point is the filmmakers believe it is and their confidence makes the story come alive and we get caught up in the film purely on an academic level.
This would have been enough to make Interstellar merely good, but Nolan, being one of the most ambitious directors working today, once again chooses to take things further in order to make it great. Interstellar is equally effective on a dramatic and sensory level. Amidst all of the technical dialogue, the characters actually grow and develop as humans, and what’s remarkable is the plot doesn’t pause in order to make this happen; it seamlessly works such moments into the story and they’re perfectly credible. There’s a heartbreaking scene, for instance, when Cooper catches up on old messages from his kids, and it comes at a time when we believe he would do this.
Given the genre and Hollywood’s tendency to let style overshadow substance, you’d think a movie about intergalactic space travel would eventually allow its special effects to take over simply for special effects’ sake, but that’s not the case here. The visuals and sound serve a purpose; they don’t just give us something grandiose to look at and hear but function to place us in the characters’ position. This notion is nothing new and it’s what all movies hope to achieve with their special effects, but it’s unfortunately rare that it’s done this well - so well, in fact, that we forget there even are special effects. They are that convincing and so, in a way, the characters’ mission becomes our own because we feel like we’re right there with them. Interstellar becomes a complete, seamless experience, and by the time it enters its second and third acts, in which time has gone by faster on Earth than in space, and it introduces new developments, characters and actors, including Jessica Chastain as an adult Murph, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, and Topher Grace, there isn’t an abrupt shift in the storytelling. Everything comes together fluidly.
As serious and profound as it is, the reason I think Interstellar works as well as it does is because Nolan and his team ultimately have fun with their resources and do all they can (and more) to lift the story off the ground. I’m sure there will be countless theories about the ending, which will draw equal amounts of praise, criticism and mockery, but any way you look at it, this is an intelligent, coherent and affecting film that never stops moving, despite its near three-hour runtime. I’m even inclined to say it’s Nolan’s best filmmaking effort yet, at least on a pure experience level, and given his repertoire (Memento, the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception), that’s a bold and daring statement. But then, Interstellar is also a bold and daring film.