“Interstellar”: This generation’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”

Warning: This review, or post, will include MAJOR SPOILERS for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Please read further at your own risk.

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At the Navy Pier IMAX in Chicago.

I admit I was worried going into Christopher Nolan’s newest opus, Interstellar. 

As a self-admitted huge Christopher Nolan fan, I was worried that I would either be 1) extremely biased or 2) disappointed because my expectations were so high. As the release of the film was nearing closer, I actually tried to calm my expectations and lower them as significantly as I could. I didn’t want to love the film unabashedly out of bias and I didn’t want to be disappointed, although I knew being disappointed was a possibility regardless of what I tried to do beforehand. I tried to just go in with decent expectations. The film had been getting mediocre-to-lukewarm reviews in some circles, which actually deflated some of my excitement for the film a tad – until I realized that it didn’t matter what the critics thought. It only mattered what thought.

Before I delve into my thoughts on the film – which will touch on some of the criticisms reviewers have been giving the film – I will say that my favorite genre is science-fiction. I grew up watching Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix – reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Orson Card’s Ender’s Game and all of the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. My stepdad introduced me to some of the classier, more introspective sci-fi films other than Star Wars or Star Trek like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – all which have some kind of influence on Nolan’s Interstellar, which I will unquestionably call this generation’s 2001. So, I unequivocally love science-fiction and sci-fi stories. I knew going into Interstellar that I was going to be in for a treat but I just had no idea how much of a treat I was exactly in for.

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The Endurance.

To get to the bottom-line: I loved Interstellar. I absolutely, purely, genuinely loved it. I don’t love it because I’m a Christopher Nolan fan, although that probably contributed to it. I wasn’t let-down because of my immense expectations – if anything the film succeeded my expectations and then some. As I was walking out of the film, I thought about where it is on my list of favorite Christopher Nolan movies. I realized I’ll need to watch Interstellar again and again to determine its exact placing on that list – as I have watched all of his other movies countless times before I had any final decision. However, with that said, my initial gut reaction is that Interstellar is my favorite Christopher Nolan movie. At least for right now – that might change after repeated viewings. I’m not calling it Nolan’s best movie – so please understand the distinction. I know many people assumed Interstellar would be Nolan’s masterpiece, but I think Nolan has had several masterpieces spread among his career. I think Memento is a Nolan masterpiece. I think The Dark Knight is a Nolan masterpiece. I also think Inception is a Nolan masterpiece. Interstellar is no different. As I am writing this, I probably think Memento might still be Nolan’s best film and it might be some time if he can ever truly top that film – and that might never happen during his career and that’s honestly okay. Nolan is the kind of filmmaker that is always exploring new things, new techniques and new stories with each film. I don’t honestly expect him to try and “best” Memento because he probably doesn’t feel he has to and I absolutely agree with that assessment. He made that film and so he has moved on. Interstellar represents where Nolan is at in his filmmaking mindset both as a storyteller and even more – as a parent. It’s exciting because as Nolan grows as a filmmaker so will his stories. I think filmmakers make films based on where they are at the current stage of their life/career and I can tell Interstellar is a deeply personal film for the filmmaker. In some ways, it might be his most personal film yet and with that comes his most emotional film yet.

This segues into where I discuss some of the criticisms that have been discussed in regards to Interstellar, which is certainly a flawed film and not perfect – although what film is? However, I want to discuss some criticisms in particular which I don’t think are legitimate criticisms, which have been touted by such critics as Devin Faraci of Badass Digest, Todd McCarthy of Variety, Anne Thompson of IndieWire, et al. I’m not trying to signal these critics out, but more so address some of the complaints they issued in regards to the film that I have problems with. For example, Faraci said in his review that Interstellar has some major missteps, which include the narrative going back to Earth. He calls that particular sub-plot or narrative choice “pointless” – and I couldn’t disagree more. When I said that Interstellar was Nolan’s most personal film yet, it took me to watch the complete film to understand why. You could argue that Interstellar is as much about our current ecological/environmental state and our lack of desire to reach beyond our stars and you would be correct. I’ll delve into the ending in a little bit. However, with that said, this is a deeply intimate and emotional film about a father and a daughter. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is just as much a main character as Jessica Chastian’s Murph. In a roundabout way, both characters work together – especially in the end – to not just save the world but each other. Interstellar is very much a letter or film meant for his daughter and I can only imagine Nolan’s daughter, Flora, watching this when she’s Jessica Chastain’s age and appreciating the film in a new light. With that said, by interconnecting between Cooper’s mission and Murph back on Earth is absolutely essential to the main crux of the story. If we didn’t see what was happening on Earth we wouldn’t really be able to understand or appreciate fully what Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Brand are trying to achieve and more importantly what’s at stake in the film. The ending is so emotional and so effective because we’ve been watching this story unfold through the eyes of Cooper (lost in the most outer reaches of time and space) and the eyes of Murph, stranded back at home with little hope.

"Interstellar", due November 7th.

Now, some critics say that Nolan’s film is a bit sentimental and sappy and I can understand why. Although, I don’t really agree with that assessment at all. In the past, Nolan’s films have been criticized for being too detached and too unemotional. I’ve never agreed with that, besides maybe for The Prestige. However, Interstellar is Nolan’s most emotional film yet and I feel like he straddles the delicate balance of philosophical science-fiction exploration with human themes and emotions quite well. There was never a point in the story where I rolled my eyes or I felt the science-fiction jargon went over my head. This is where Nolan excels – he’s able to communicate big, heady sci-fi themes in a way that I think most audiences will be able to understand. Where he also excels is at the visuals of the story, which are some of the most impressive visuals I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Faraci also criticizes the film for not holding on shots long enough and I also completely disagree with that. If anything, Nolan holds on certain shots – especially wide shots – for the perfect amount of time. He is able to communicate certain things, such as the Endurance as a tiny speck across Saturn or the insignificance and pettiness of Cooper’s fight with Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) – remarkably well. This might be in certain aspects Nolan’s most restrained film on a few levels but at the same time Nolan’s most grandiose film, if that makes any sense. It’s that juxtaposition that critics might find unsettling or not totally successfully but I feel like Nolan achieves a balance remarkably well for most of the film. It is where Interstellar reminds me of Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris the most. When it comes to the shots in space, he holds on certain images for a long enough time to let you absorb  and sink in what you are watching without holding on them for too long or even cutting away too quickly. There were certain moments where I exclaimed “Wow…” under my breath and I can’t remember the last time I did that in the cinema.

With that said, I think my biggest flaw or criticism with Nolan’s film deals with the Dr. Mann character, played by Matt Damon who enters the film about halfway through if not a little more. From a thematic perspective, I totally understand why Dr. Mann is in the film and I even understand his perspective as a character and why he does the things that he does. However, I felt like that stretch of the film goes on for a bit too long and Dr. Mann’s dialogue is a bit unfocused at times. To be honest, it was the first time while I was watching the film that I was taken out of the picture and when I said to myself, “Okay, we can move on from this.”  Although, in fairness, Dr. Mann’s character allows the film to have one of the most suspenseful and incredible sequences in the entire film, so I’m torn on his relevance in the story. I just think his section could have been served better and might have been stronger if rewritten or written a tad better or tighter. My other complaints include certain characters, such as Wes Bentley’s character, which feel extraneous. There’s a sequence – a beautiful, incredible sequence – where the Ranger (part of the Endurance ship) visits the first planet after the crew have entered the wormhole. There’s huge risk with this mission – with every hour the crew spends on the planet, 7 years pass on Earth – and of course the mission goes terribly wrong. This is where Wes Bentley’s character leaves the story – in a rather adrupt way – and to be honest I thought this death was kind of unnecessary and pointless. When the crew return, they discover they’ve been gone for 23 years Earth time. It’s a huge blow to McConaughy and Hathaway’s Brand, who feels immense guilt for screwing up the mission. It also serves as one of the film’s most powerfully emotional moments – when McConaugh’s Cooper watches the video messages of his children that were being sent by them back on Earth. It’s so emotional and powerful that we even forget Wes Bentley’s character died. If anything, that revelation totally undermines his character’s death and his departure from the story. I understand why he was there – to deliver important exposition – but I almost wonder if his character could have been exorcised from the story and if his exposition could have been delivered by another character, like TARS the robot or Brand. Even Rahm’s death loses significance and impact because the other characters don’t really seem to mourn his death. If they don’t really seem to care, then why should we care?

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In the film’s technical department, the film is almost flawless. It’s visually Nolan’s strongest film yet with some of the trippiest visuals I’ve ever seen in a film. I will pretty much repeat what other people are going to be saying, but: See this film in 70mm IMAX. I don’t even know if I’ll ever watch the film in digital or even 35mm because the film is absolutely, incredibly astounding in IMAX. It doesn’t even feel like a film anymore at certain points in the story – it feels like an experience. The sound, visuals and score by Hans Zimmer enhance the experience (and there is a reason why the posters say “Experience it in IMAX”). Speaking of Zimmer’s score, I can’t finish out this review or post without talking about Zimmer’s score, which is amazing. It feels very different than anything Zimmer has ever done, especially with his collaborations with Nolan. I almost feel like Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan push him even farther and harder as a musician and composer because every time I watch a Nolan film where he composes the film I feel like he reaches so far beyond what he feels he is capable of doing and achieves something truly magical. The score for Interstellar is no different. Zimmer’s score enhances and enriches the cinematic experience in some truly spectacular ways, creating a melody that is repeated throughout the film to great effect. There are moments where Nolan stays absolutely true to the science of space having no sound – and there are certain moments where that is utilized brilliantly to great effect. Then, there are other moments where Zimmer creates music that plays over nothing but silence and it is astounding to hear and experience. However, with that said, there were some issues I had with the sound mixing. I’ve had this problem with some of Nolan’s other films, such as The Dark Knight, but there were moments where Zimmer’s music drowned out the dialogue. This happens actually quite often in Nolan’s films and I’m not exactly sure why. Especially since there are moments where important dialogue is being delivered and I had a hard time hearing or understanding what certain characters were saying. At first, I thought it might be an issue with my IMAX theater’s speakers or sound system but something tells me it was the sound mix in and of itself. Although I won’t know for sure until I see the film again.

And I will be seeing the film again. Like every other Nolan film, Interstellar is so dense and cerebral that I have no doubt it will reward on multiple viewings. I am very curious if I will love the film even more on repeated viewings – like I experienced with The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento, Inception or any other Nolan film – or if I might appreciate it less. Although, for some reason, I have a feeling I will begin to appreciate it even more. There are a lot of layers to this film and I think the more you peel back the more you will begin to understand certain things that maybe you didn’t on first viewing. If anything, I am sure the experience won’t be quite the same in 35mm film or digital or even when the film hits Blu-ray (sidenote: this film makes me want to buy a bigger TV and better sound system for my home, which is saying something!). Which will make me want to experience this film on IMAX again and again. Once more, I can’t repeat this enough: If you are planning on watching this film, it is imperative that you see this film in 70mm IMAX. Especially for your first viewing. Like all of Nolan’s films, it is something to be experienced in that format.

I think that’s what summarizes my thoughts on Interstellar as a whole, although I am sure I will discover new thoughts the more I watch the film: Interstellar isn’t just a movie. It’s an experience. So make sure you experience Interstellar. Right now. Right at this instant. What are you waiting for?

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