November 5, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Interstellar”


INTERSTELLAR:  Worth A Ticket – Christopher Nolan’s Imperfect Odyssey

Remember A.I.: Artificial Intelligence?  It was the deeply odd sci-fi/fairy tale quasi-collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, originated by Kubrick but rewritten and filmed by Spielberg (at Kubrick’s request) after Kubrick’s death.  Spielberg clearly meant it as a tribute to a great filmmaker and friend, but Kubrick’s caustic view of humanity didn’t mesh with Spielberg’s native optimism, and despite some striking sequences, the result couldn’t accommodate being both bleak and sentimental.

Christopher Nolan seems to have in mind a continuation of that collaboration–and all its philosophical rift–with his epic, gorgeous, ever more ludicrous INTERSTELLAR.  The project was originally developed for Spielberg to direct, and Nolan’s brother Jonathan, a frequent writing partner of Christopher Nolan’s, worked on it at that time and brought it to his brother when Spielberg fell out.  Although the Nolans completely rewrote the script and Spielberg’s name is nowhere to be found on the final version, there’s still a recognizably Spielbergian world-view at Interstellar‘s (swollen) heart, which is about a father and daughter reaching out for each other across impossible chasms of time and space.  Nolan, for his part, is often mentioned as a Kubrick successor, due to the cool precision of his storytelling (and his penchant for secrecy and total artistic control).  In particular, Nolan has spoken of the importance of 2001: A Space Odyssey for him, and echoes of Kubrick’s masterpiece are all over Interstellar, in its imagery, themes and even music.  (Hans Zimmer composed the original score, but you’ve heard those crashing chords before.)  At least three of Interstellar‘s key sequences are designed to parallel some of 2001‘s most famous set-pieces.  To all of this, Nolan has added his own love for intricate puzzle plotting, in which the story only becomes clear in its final minutes, and his brilliance with physical scale and the dramatic intensity it provides.  He’s concocted quite an equation, but with elements that never quite solve for x.

Interstellar‘s first hour is its most overtly Spielbergian.  (It’s also the easiest to describe, since spoilers begin to predominate as the story goes on.)  Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot whose character name is in no way accidental, is a widower raising his children Tom (Timothee Chalamet, who will grow up to become Casey Affleck), and Murphy (the excellent Mackenzie Foy, who will become the equally excellent Jessica Chastain) on what had been his wife’s family farm.  It’s an unspecified time in the future, and one by one, the world’s crops are withering away, for reasons that have something to do with nitrogen.  Tom is a good, average kid who wants nothing more than to take over the farm, but Murph is something different.  She’s a spitfire who questions authority, adores her father and believes that a “ghost” is sending her messages.  (Without delving into spoilers, audience members should pay close attention to those ghost sequences.)

Those messages eventually lead Murph and her father to a super-secret NASA installation, where a former professor of Coop’s, Brand (Michael Caine), and Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), deliver the bad news that the world is on its way to extinction.  On the plus side, a helpful worm-hole has suddenly appeared in the vicinity of Saturn, and on the other end of it is a distant galaxy where there are several potentially habitable planets for the residents of Earth, if Brand can figure out how to transport them there.  If not, mankind may only survive through the cultivation of preserved embryos.  First, though, the potential new homes must be investigated, and although Coop has had nothing whatsoever to do with the project until that day, Brand instantly appoints him leader of the expedition, to fly along with Amelia, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi), and a quippy robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) to the 3 planets where Brand had previously sent explorers who’d sent signals back that conditions were promising there.

Despite the whole end-of-the-world thing, Murph is absolutely furious that Coop is deserting her, to the point that she won’t even say goodbye.  That anger, and Coop’s regret at leaving his daughter, is given more weight in Interstellar than the deaths of billions, and it fuels the remainder of the plot.  Nevertheless, Coop leaves, and one has to be careful about revealing too much of what follows.  There’s that (relatively) convenient worm-hole, and a black hole near the planets Coop and his team are seeking, and the kinds of warps in time and space, not to mention a toolkit of  theories involving relativity and quantum physics, that must have made the Nolans very nerdishly happy when assembling their script.  A major actor, one with a role big enough to justify placement in the movie’s ads, shows up.  And by the end, it turns out that absolutely everything has been cosmically connected, and nothing we’ve seen thus far has been casually placed.

A lot of this is extraordinary.  One of the things that sets Nolan apart from other directors who work on a grand scale is his sense for the physicality of his locations (it’s why he’s sometimes compared to David Lean), and as photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema–especially if seen, as Nolan intended, in 70mm Imax (almost half the film was shot with Imax cameras)–everywhere we travel with Coop, from his own dust-ridden town to the ends of the universe, is stunning.  Zimmer’s score can be criticized as portentous, but that’s what this material demanded, and despite a 169-minute run time, the editing by Lee Smith contributes to a pace that never feels padded or dull.  Nolan insists on using a minimum of CG, and the futuristic aspects of the film are remarkably believable, especially his infinitely flexible robot (although TARS’s dialogue isn’t nearly as clever as the Nolans seem to think).  Because of the nature of the films Nolan makes, he doesn’t get the credit he’s due for his skill with actors, but McConaughey and Chastain are superb, the first with an old-Hollywood weary heroism that lives up to his character’s name, and Chastain with a deeply vulnerable core of resentment.  Hathaway, unfortunately, is saddled with the movie’s Mission Statement Monologue, and since Amelia is an underdeveloped character for all her screen time, Hathaway is more a presence than a full-fledged individual.  Nevertheless, she’s completely convincing within the confines of the role.  That goes for Michael Caine, as well, burdened with several metric tons of exposition to deliver.

For all the starry actors involved, though, the featured player of Interstellar is Christopher Nolan, and if Inception was a miraculous balancing act that dodged constant risks of narrative collapse–a thriller that also managed to be a spectacle and a game about time, space, and degrees of consciousness–Interstellar has him stretching the tightrope too thin.  One key way in which he differs from Stanley Kubrick is his relentless need to fit all his pieces together and explain everything, while Kubrick basked in the inexplicable.  Put another way, Nolan is the guy who neatly took apart and reassembled all the magicians’ tricks in The Prestige, while Kubrick was the one who cut out all the scenes in The Shining that would have set out the backstory of what was going on.   Kubrick knew what he (wasn’t) doing:  leaving aside the utter implausibility of much of what happens in Interstellar–and not the quantum physics parts, but the parts that require simple human cause and effect–mysteries can quickly become mundane once they’re exposed, to the point of being unintentionally comical.  While trying to handle all that, Nolan is also bending over backwards here to be heartwarming and “moving”–which is to say, Spielbergian–and it’s just not a good fit for him.  Interstellar is heartfelt, but for all its assured scientific jargon, it becomes in the end alarmingly brainless.

There are so few filmmakers in the world who are given the resources and freedom to make personal films on a spectacular scale, and fewer still that have the gifts to exploit them, that one wants to unconditionally embrace Interstellar, a work with far more imagination and seriousness of purpose than any half-dozen super-hero epics combined.  Somewhere in his journey around the universe, though, Christopher Nolan misplaced his best self in a parallel galaxy.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."