I’m going to be straightforward with my main thesis. If you take nothing else from this here review, you must take this bit of advice: Should you choose to see Interstellar (and I do recommend you do in the end, alongside Boyhood, Interstellar has proven to be THE event movie of the year – quality aside) and if you’re close enough to a genuine IMAX theater (not the fascimiles that have been parading around with the brand), either see the movie in 70mm IMAX or do not see the movie at all. I’m seriously not settled yet from having witnessed the movie as an all-encompassing experience and from what I understand out of how video resolution and aspect ratios work, any other way of watching Interstellar will result in cropped imagery.
Which is a big fucking pet peeve as a filmmaker. Hiding something that clearly is wanted to be seen by the artist.
But don’t watch Interstellar in 70mm IMAX because you’d piss me off otherwise, watch Interstellar in 70mm IMAX because Interstellar is so ambitious of a picture (I believe it to be Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film yet – edging out The Dark Knight Rises) and large of a beast that you deserve to have it surround you, not in front of you.
That aside, let me get to the real meat of my experience with the movie.
I’m 100% certain I only like Interstellar because I wanted to like it.
Sounds stupid, right? That’s kind of how most people should feel about any movie. Well, I’d think the quality of a movie is what is supposed to provoke your final opinion when it comes to anything and well, Interstellar is not really devoid of quality so much as it is all over the place.
The successes with the films are potent – the visual imagery is astonishing and the main cast is what keeps the movie afloat via Herculean effort.
The failures are however, similar to Nolan’s previous film The Dark Knight Rises (again, also ambitious), a giant wreck rivaling the image Percy Shelley drafted of the Ozymandias ruins. That is to say, they are large. Obnoxious. And clearly the work of a great artist who is losing his touch (and I know there’s a cynicism that runs through me when it comes to talking about Christopher Nolan’s works, but I do feel The Prestige and Batman Begins alone validate Nolan as a filmmaker even if he’s never been one of my favorites).
Those failures are a totally imbalanced, half-unintelligible screenplay by director Nolan and his frequent collaborator and brother Jonathan Nolan (I don’t wanna say nepotism, but… Nolan does have enough clout in Hollywood for carte blanche no matter who he uses), a sound mix that sounds like a very very bad rough cut of a home video, a hamfisted attempt to make emotional beats louder than they actually resonate in real-life (but in honesty, when these beats work, they fucking work, so I guess it’s both a pro and con of the film), and sometimes a very blatantly obvious understanding that the space behind the ships the film takes place in are back-projected.
But, hey, it may seem like the deck of cons is stacked against the the deck of pros for the film, but I swear, when it comes to a movie like this, it doesn’t matter. I mean, half of these cons (the script and the emotional anti-climax) are the case in Gravity (whose visuals are not really matched by Interstellar, but to be fair, it takes a hell of a lot to match up to Emmanuel Lubezki and Hoyte van Hoytema’s work here is impressive in its own way), but we didn’t make any real illusions about Gravity was meant to be and it ended up being praised as one of the greatest movies of the past year on its visuals alone.
I don’t see Interstellar earning that acclaim anytime soon, honestly, but its visual work is absolutely astounding. To begin with the outright tangible, so much has been devoted to the reconstruction of what we know on space travel that it’s more through the believability of the confines of the astronauts that we get grounded into the story than the paper-thin characterizations of anyone who isn’t really either Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, & Ellen Burstyn) or Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). And it’s yet another progenitor of the effort to create on-camera effects when it can be done and only allowing CGI effects as can possibly remain devoted to the actor-involving process of living in the scene itself. It feels real because, unlike Gravity, it is real and, even when Gravity still has been the best visual effects of the decade so far, Interstellar at least one-ups the previous film in being completely devoted to itself as a world that the actors can completely live-in without tricking themselves.
In addition to that, there’s something else I have against some of the criticisms towards Interstellar, which is that expectations were already made for the movie to be compared to the visionary classic of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Which is pretty huge bullshit to me, partly because of the bias it brings out in an audience, partly because that’s a very tall order that few movies can meet, but largely because there was really no basis for this comparison beyond very shallow similarities the two films share. Nolan is not really a cerebral director, as much as laymen audiences like to claim, certainly not as much as Kubrick, who is the most popcorn cerebral director we have had yet. Where Nolan is dedicated to simply straightforward synopses and only gets their complexities in the meat of the storyline, Kubrick likes to communicate themes and ideals before any real plot can tie them together. 2001: A Space Odyssey is way too avant-garde to even be compared to what was expected to be a blockbuster science fiction. That shouldn’t have needed to be said, but there it is.
What does resonate as a comparison to me is how similar Interstellar is to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris – attempting to focus a lot more on the human element as the Nolan trademark of dronely shoveling out exposition after exposition gets in the way of that writing-wise. Emotions are what matter most in the end, not the science, which inside provides an initially sterile backdrop to the vividness of the actors’ expressions before leaking out into more and more sharper and dimensioned imagery as extensions to the uncertain atmosphere and heightened tensions the characters face as they go deeper into the wormhole of the film.
But to further explain that, I’d have to go into the story and try to dig it from the cold corpse of that terrible script. In the first act (a lot of people claiming that it is too long and I personally find it taking longer than it should to get to the main plot of the film, but I at least enjoy how it is the closest the film attempts to world-building before fucking itself up – I later found out the first act was the only thing Christopher Nolan didn’t touch of Jonathan’s draft and that explains a lot to me), the Earth is dying in some way and everybody is helpless because apparently the whole country has gone backwards and archaic, disregarding science for the most arduous labor (there’s some sort of common disapproval of NASA in the film – going so far as to have characters claim the Apollo missions were fabricated – but I can’t really put my finger on it entirely as the movie doesn’t make itself clear on this matter. I totally wonder how Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Schmidt, or David Spergel feel on this movie for this reason.). Former NASA pilot Cooper, his daughter Murphy, his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), and his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet & Casey Affleck) don’t really buy into any of that, but they don’t feel able to do anything than begrudgingly wait to die like Cooper’s wife before the events of the movie. Circumstances however lead Cooper and Murphy (it is painfully hilarious to me how Cooper seems to forget Tom exists for most of the movie and that’s one of the problems with the script) to discover a secret NASA base being hidden from the community and run by Cooper’s former mentor Dr. Brand (another father figure role of just explaining the premise for once-great Michael Caine) and Dr. Brand turns out to want Cooper to pilot a mission into space to find another set of Earths through a wormhole.
Problem is, through the relativity of time via dimensions, Cooper knows he will not return to his kids in a timely fashion if he returns at all and Murphy is especially aware of this, later on growing up to become totally resentful of Cooper for going on this mission and leaving her alone.
That’s where most of the emotional center of Interstellar is. How Cooper is only leaving his daughter behind to save her (among others) and how Murphy and Cooper can’t seem to take that separation. That is one of the most unintentional Tarkovsky-ian things I have seen in a film since Tarkovsky has died. I bet Nicholas Winding Refn is jealous. Interstellar does juggle that storyline with the forward attempts to find a new world for humanity to begin again (and several other incidental storylines), but again all of that is totally dismissive to point that Cooper wants to do his job and get back home.
Now the script merely puts this situation forth and hardly expands on it, the Nolans pretending that they have done their emotional growing for the day, but the cast – when given a chance – will give the emotional facets of the arc enough weight. For instance, there is a scene of decision between Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway attempting to be sold as Michael Caine’s daughter), Cooper and company as to the next step in the journey. Brand has some very inexplicable interests that only make me convinced they matter because of Hathaway’s performance and not from the crap about “love transcending dimensions” that she spews out to defend her decisions (I swear to Odin, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Christopher Nolan has never met a person in his life) or a moment that would be impossible to screw up as an actor where Cooper reviews a whole stack of videos from his children that he missed inadvertently that ends up being the best moment in the whole film because of how completely devastating McConaughey’s performance is. Some actors kind of end up not having enough time to be there (like poor Wes Bentley) or just not really being necessary (whatever the fuck Topher Grace thinks he is doing here, it’s little more than a cameo with absolutely no effect on the plot or characters whatsoever), but most of the real players of the film – Hathaway, Foy, Chastain, McConaughey, Burstyn, Affleck, Bentley, David Gyasi – really do enough to make their thoughts apparent and larger than life so that the movie doesn’t come off as fake as it could have been under lesser actors with this screenplay.
And a lot of weight to both the visuals and the moment is given to how well crosscut Lee Smith, a Nolan regular, makes these scenes. I can’t explain too many of these moments without spoiling the movie, but I will say that when the entire third act of the film becomes a jumbled up carnage of moments that don’t know how to present each other juxtaposition-wise, Smith knows exactly how to make the scenes more functional as moments of action. Even a simple moment of looking at an equation on a board ends up feeling like a moment of insurmountable adversity because of how intensely positioned each shot is. But the climax is the true crowning jewel, disregarding the logic of the somewhat unwieldy scene (Kip Thorne was advisor towards the wormhole physics and other scientific topics involved and I hope he feels at least accomplished, because the movie tries its hardest to communicate a diluted form of that science to the audience) to just jump into what Cooper and Murphy feel is necessary to do and making it go as fast-paced as the situation demands without being incomprehensible as a moment.
There are other nitpicks I can make (like how the changing of time is not entirely consistent in regards to what has passed) and there are other strengths I can commend (there’s some pretty satisfying comic relief in the form of TARS – a robot voiced by Bill Irwin who, as an unapologetic Sesame Street fanatic, I identified almost immediately as Mr. Noodles’ brother Mr. Noodles), but in the end the point is clear I hope. Interstellar was a giant conglomeration of brilliance and banality that came entirely from the ambitions of Christopher Nolan and matches the same ambitious jumble done with The Dark Knight Rises. You will notice both what is wrong and what is right while watching the movie and it won’t entirely mesh correctly, but how you react to it in the end is entirely up to you. Go for a good story, you will leave unsatisfied. Go for a visual experience (because audiophiles will be mortified), you will love it.
And you should still see it in IMAX, because with big images comes a big-ass ride. And that’s just what Interstellar works best as. A ride that you only start thinking about after the fact. I almost swore leaving the theater that 500 years have passed – partly because of how overly long the film felt unnecessarily, but gladly due to how much more involving the movie felt than I expected.