I have a weird love-hate thing going on with Christopher Nolan. I consider him one of my favorite directors working today, yet I’m often frustrated with some of his frequent flawed filmmaking techniques. I love his particular style and his grasp of tone, theme and craft, but I can’t help but think his influence over Hollywood in recent years have only taken the worst aspects of his filmmaking and amplified them to the nth degree. If I hear the words “darker and grittier” one more time, so help me God. I also love Nolan’s adoration and dedication of shooting on film and with as much practical effects as possible, but then you get situations that you may have heard of where certain theaters projecting Interstellar on 35mm or 70mm are having troubles since you’re dealing with projectionists who have no idea what they’re doing and it’s all because Nolan insists on having it available. I love that a director who has only done two low budget independent films (and Insomnia) was given a chance to helm a successful big budget superhero film series where he was given free rein to do his own thing and is now a household name, but I find his overexposure tiring at this point, especially with the people who can’t stop worshiping the ground he stands on, as well as those who just feel the need to express their thoughts on how “so overrated” he is. How Christopher Nolan of all directors seems to be the one who gets people so passionately opinionated for good and bad? My best guess is that’s the double-edged sword that comes with auteurs getting geek cred, just look at how vocal the extreme opinions are for Joss Whedon, Guillermo Del Toro or Sam Raimi. I can’t imagine what people will say of Rian Johnson once his Star Wars films come out.
Now, Interstellar was a film that I have been following pretty much since its inception (I’m sorry, I had to do it). For those who aren’t fully aware, Interstellar was a project initially conceived by producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose theories laid the groundwork for the ideas that they wanted to explore in a feature film. It was intended to be a film for Steven Spielberg who became attached to the project in 2006 with Jonathan Nolan hired to pen the screenplay a year later (which apparently took him four years to write). However, contract issues and studio deals led to Spielberg leaving the production in 2009, which resulted in Paramount looking for a new director. At the recommendation of his brother, Christopher Nolan became involved in 2012 and then officially announced as the new director in early 2013. Jonathan Nolan took four years for his script, and Christopher Nolan essentially did his own draft and re-wrote the final screenplay taking a lot of the set-ups and a majority of the pre-space flight stuff from his brother’s draft and using his own ideas for the second half of the story. The rest is pretty much history, Nolan shoots in a combination of IMAX cameras, anamorphic 35mm and 65mm film with lots of sets and on-location shooting utilizing both practical and CG effects, but with little to no green screen, yada, yada, yada.
The set-up for Interstellar is actually fairly simple. It takes place in the not-to-distant-future where food is scarce and is limited to corn, all while dust storms devastate the land. We follow Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who is a former test pilot turned farmer who lives with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). By following a set of coordinates that seemed to have been created by a gravitational anomaly, Cooper finds a base where the last remaining members of NASA headed by Professor Brandi (Michael Caine) are hard at work on a be-all, end-all mission to get a group of explorers into space and through a wormhole in the hopes of finding a new home for the human race to once again thrive. Cooper decides to take part in the mission, mostly as a way to ensure his family will be able to live in a world that will not slowly kill them the way Earth will in the coming years. He goes on this risky expedition with Professor Brandi’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Rommily (David Gyasi) geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley) and a multi-purposed robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). That is all you need to know.
I’m not going to beat around the bush, Interstellar is a deeply flawed film. I’m going to explore
these flaws without getting into spoilers. The inherent problem is that Christopher Nolan is exploring techniques and sensibilities that simply do not fit his strengths as a filmmaker. Nolan is a calculating, literal, emotionally distant and deconstructive storyteller. However, Interstellar at its core is a hopeful, emotionally driven human drama set within a spectacle meant to induce a sense of awe and wonder. It’s almost the complete opposite of Nolan, in other words, it feels like a Steven Spielberg film. The film at times is battling between hard sci-fi, pulpy conventions and emotionally charged sentimentality. It never quite succeeds 100% in any of those three, the film doesn’t fail by any means in any of them, but they never completely mesh. Looking back, I can’t help but think that had Spielberg stayed on the project, his final product would have been much more consistent and far more effective. A lot of these elements that seem out of Nolan’s comfort zone have affected the writing as well as the directing. Yes, there is a ton of exposition, obviously. I know Inception gets pointed at by many people as an example of heavy exposition, but I think it’s a bad example. The exposition in Inception works partly because it’s formatted and delivered like it would be in a heist film, where a lot of the excitement and intrigue that comes from seeing characters interact, explain, test, banter and theorize with each other, it’s all in the details. You want bad exposition watch the climax on the train in Batman Begins with those two guys at Wayne Towers who we’ve never seen before talking about what will happen if the train doesn’t stop. As far as Interstellar is concerned, the exposition works in terms of the film’s internal logic, but not so much from a dramatical standpoint. On one hand, the dialogue is extremely important to pay attention to so you have a better understanding of what’s going on, but on the other hand there are moments where the characters interrupt moments of awe-inspiring space imagery so they can explain to you why it’s so awesome. This also happens in the end (don’t worry, no spoilers) where a character explains what exactly is going on, and I would have found it much more effective if the film would shut the characters up for a few minutes so I can really absorb everything the film is throwing at me. There is also the way the film goes from Cooper’s space mission to Earth to follow the characters still remaining. A lot of the segments felt inconsequential, and a bit unfocused. Then there’s also the fact that while we do get a sense of the problems that Earth is facing, we don’t get to see it on a global scale. We only really see the Midwestern American setting whenever we’re on Earth. I thought it could’ve been an interesting way of adding more to the scope of the struggle that humanity was going through.
I am a bit irked that Nolan once again uses the dead wife trope, to an even more useless effect than ever before, and continues to struggle with his female characters from a writing perspective. Though I will say he is improving a bit. I’m sure there’s a deep, insightful analysis to how Nolan deals with women in his films, but that’s something I’m not even prepared to tackle. On another point, there have been some questions raised regarding the sound mixing in the film. Nolan seems to really love Hans Zimmer’s work, so much so that he really cranks up the volume whenever the music comes in. There was really only one scene where I seriously could not hear what the characters were saying because the music was so loud, but fortunately it’s not a really important moment and I could still tell what’s going on. It was the drone chase very early in the film that you see briefly in the trailer. A couple other scenes came close, but I was able to understand what everyone was saying. If it makes any difference, I saw the film in IMAX projection, digital not 70mm. It’s the only real technical flaw in the film. Well, that and the jarring cuts between different aspect ratios, in this case (IMAX digital) it kept going from 2:40:1 to 1:90:1. I did question why it seemed like certain mundane scenes were shot on IMAX, but that’s neither here nor there.
So with all these problems that the film has, you’d think I would not like the film. I don’t like it, I love it. Yes, despite the many problems, they never really bothered me or took me out of the movie. The whole Nolan doing Spielberg shtick? While they weren’t seamlessly blended as well as they could, there was still some genuinely fantastic craft involved in all those aspects. When I’m meant to feel awe, I felt it. When I was supposed to be worried, I felt worried. When the emotion was placed to the forefront, it was very effectively done. Sure I may not have cried, which is a bit disappointing, but at the very least I was very engaged. Nolan still understands empathy and how to get you to care about the characters, and this is easily the most human out of all his films. The exposition? Yeah there’s a lot of it, but I was interested. I liked hearing about the various anomalies and phenomena that the crew faced. Hans Zimmer’s score? It was excellent, I thought he did a very good job at being able to pull off what the music needed to pull off at certain points. Be it the ominous use of organs in the void of space or the warm and intimate sounds of strings and piano during the more emotional moments. The edits between different aspect ratios are a nitpick, in fact, I’d say this is some of editor Lee Smith’s best work since Inception, and one of the best edited films out of Nolan’s entire filmography.
What I love about Nolan’s films is how he is able to take certain themes and weave them throughout the narrative as a way to build to a big idea. Despite usually putting in little details in his films, Nolan is more of a “bigger picture” filmmaker; the details are just there to sell it. It’s why The Dark Knight Rises is his weakest film because it lacks a coherent thematic throughline; it doesn’t quite build up to any big ideas. I still find the film very entertaining, but I am comfortable saying that it is his most flawed film. With Interstellar, he explores many themes. They range from the understanding of our place in the universe, the idea of giving something up in order to progress, the motif of exploring time and the consequences thereof, as well as exploring the nature of humanity and what greater purpose we can serve. Love is the key though; it is the one constant idea that is present from the beginning of the film to the end. In a somewhat ironic twist, you end up with a film by a literal, deconstructive and logical filmmaker that manages to literally, logically deconstruct and explore the idea that emotion, specifically love is this metaphysical force akin to gravity that is yet beyond our comprehension. It makes the movie brilliant almost by complete accident. The film practically takes the “love conquers all” notion to its logical scientific and emotional extreme, especially with how it plays into the narrative as the film goes on. And you know what the best part about that is? The film is 100% sincere about it. Yes, it’s obvious and heavy-handed, but the film seems to be aware of it, yet doesn’t care. It doesn’t care because it really means it. It’s the kind of film that really puts itself out there, and yes under a certain mindset you could rip the movie to shreds from a purely logical storytelling perspective with its various contrivances, conveniences, inconsistencies and at points, downright silliness. However, that is ultimately not what the film is concerned with. It’s not the logical and defined narrative clarity that the film wants to resonate with, it’s the emotional truth. That is the goal. It’s what made the ending to Inception as brilliant as it was, and it’s exactly the same reason why I will defend the final act of Interstellar against its detractors. It’s a film about the exploration and journey on an emotional level, in the veil of a hard sci-fi film. Nolan has never been more serious about anything, and he’s never been more romantic in his approach. Yeah, I didn’t cry, but I still felt something. It was deep, cathartic and an impressive artistic feat.
The biggest reason I was still connected to the film on a human level was the acting. With lesser actors, the scenes where I needed to feel something would have fallen completely flat. Matthew McConaughey is absolutely flawless in the film. His committed performance gets you to care for his character very quickly and the emotions that he has to go through brings the film to life, providing some of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve seen in a film all year. In fact, this is probably the one Christopher Nolan film that has phenomenal performances across the board without a single weak link. All the actors, even the ones with limited screen time, do a great job. It’s as if everyone working on the film completely understood what Nolan was going for, and they used everything they got to play up the strengths of those ambitions allowing them to elevate some of the weaker elements of the script. So, even if Nolan struggles with the bringing the emotion with his writing, the actors do a great job at getting those emotions to the forefront. If the actors weren’t able to ground the film on a human level then a lot of those issues I mentioned would have bothered me more.
Christopher Nolan has made a big deal on how he really wants to preserve the cinematic experience in its purest form, and it shows in the final product. Script issues aside, this film is visual perfection. I love that Nolan shot Interstellar on film. Those slight grains, the strong colors, the subtle gate weave, all those miniscule imperfections that give the film a timeless feel, I love it. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema deserves so much credit for what he was able to pull off, especially for being his first gig with Christopher Nolan since he did not use his usual DP Wally Pfister. On top of that, Nolan’s insistence on using practical effects whenever possible is an inspired decision, and brings that sense of awe during many of the sequences in the film. Unlike with a lot of films nowadays where it’s usually safe to assume that a majority of the effects are purely computer generated, it gets your mind rolling wondering how certain moments were done knowing that there is little to no green screen, limited CGI, rear projection and miniature work involved. Even the sassy robot TARS is a mostly practical puppet effect. Nolan has always done a good job at letting you scratch your heads at where the sets end and the CGI begins, and he tops himself with this film. And I gotta give credit to the visual effect team at Double Negative (the same company who did the CG work for Inception) for being able to fully realize ideas and concepts that we currently have no grasp on how it could be visualized. It’s a daunting task for a film already aiming high in its ambition, but they pull of some spectacular imagery, with things that I can’t say that I have ever seen before. The film is beautiful and breathtaking, especially when you’re seeing it on the big screen.
One of the films that everyone brings up when talking about Interstellar is 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I can certainly see why the comparisons are being made, aside from visual aesthetics and a few blatant homages, Interstellar does not share many of the same themes and ideas that 2001 does. I would argue that Interstellar shares more in common with films like 2010, Sunshine, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Right Stuff and (in my opinion the biggest influence) Contact. The film even deals with time in a similar thematic fashion to Inception. In terms of the reactions I’ve seen to the film, it actually reminds me of how people reacted to A.I. Artificial Intelligence (just to get this out there, I love A.I.) While the critical reception for A.I. was overall positive, there was still a sense of divisiveness to it. Most of it has to do with the fact that people thought Steven Spielberg took Stanley Kubrick’s pet project and turned into typical Spielbergian schmaltz. However, the elements people were criticizing were all Kubrick’s ideas, especially the ending. In a way, Interstellar and A.I. are flawed in the same ways. Both feel like films made by directors who are using their usual stylistic choices with properties that have origins which would be ideal for a different filmmaker. Both films were criticized for seemingly betraying their initial set-ups to service a more sentimental, heart over mind payoff, especially with their endings. Personally, I disagree on both accounts and I think the endings were handled fantastically on a thematic/emotional level which planted enough seeds throughout the narrative beforehand to prevent the change in tone in feeling like a betrayal to the initial set up. So there are obviously a lot of influences at play, but there is never a point where it feels like you’re watching a mash up of things that you’ve already seen in a million science fiction films before. The film does a great job at having its own identity that explores its themes and concepts in its own way that never feels derivative at any point. It both pays its respects to sci-fi classics of the past and tries to push the genre forward in ways you don’t see too often in big budget Hollywood films.
Is Interstellar a perfect film? No, and I don’t know why anyone would go into a film expecting that. As far as I’m concerned, Nolan’s masterpiece is still Inception. The question is-do the problems of the film take away from the experience or get in the way of the themes that the film is exploring? I don’t think so. Yes, the film is flawed, most are, but the flaws never distracted me in a way that lessened my experience. It’s all very much an afterthought; most of the issues only jumped out at me after the film was over. I think that is a testament to some of the skillfully crafted filmmaking and the genuine love and effort put behind it. If I were to put my brain into modern-movie-cynic mode, I’m sure there are some logical holes and inconsistent plot stuff, but to me, it’s such a painfully literal and boring way to look at movies. Interstellar gripped me, it moved me, and it made me think, and it has moments that contain some of the most stellar pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen. I’m also a sucker for space movies, things like wormholes, quantum physics, relativity, multiple dimensions, etc. are things I eat up like crazy. As long as you are able to get behind the characters and can see where the heart of the film lies, this film should not feel like a chore. It’s a film that works almost despite itself because there is never a moment where it wasn’t being sincere. It’s by far Nolan’s most personal and intimate film to date (in an interesting little tidbit, Interstellar was filmed under the name “Flora’s Letter,” Flora is Christopher Nolan’s daughter), and while it may not be his best, I think it’s the one that I find the most admirable. I know I said that if Steven Spielberg stayed to direct, he would have delivered something more even and effective, but I’m glad I got the film that was delivered. I’m perfectly fine with a film being flawed as long as it’s ambitious (bet you’re sick of hearing that word in every review for this movie), well thought out and has its heart in the right place. Interstellar more than makes up for its flaws in my eyes, and for the first time in a long time I feel like a filmmaker is practically reaching out to me, asking me to come on a grand adventure. I can’t say no to that.
Side Note: 2014 has been a pretty great year for science fiction films, especially in terms of variety. Going from big summer blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow (oh, I’m sorry-Live, Die, Repeat) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to low budget indies like Coherence or Under the Skin. Other ones I think are worth checking out include Snowpiercer, Autómata, The Zero Theorem, The Congress and Lucy. I’m a hue sci-fi nut, so I like to keep track of all the different movies being released. In other interesting news, Jonathan Nolan is currently developing a series for HBO based on the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov. It’ll most likely be based on the core trilogy of books Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. The series is essentially a sci-fi epic that spans centuries. Beginning with mathematician Hari Seldon who develops psychohistory, which using the law of mass action can basically predict the future on a large scale. He foresees the fall of the Galactic Empire that will result in a dark age that will last 30 thousand years, but he establishes the titular Foundation of artisans and engineers as a way to ensure that the dark age will be shortened to only a thousand years. That’s the basic premise, and the books are formatted in a way that lends itself to television easily. Hopefully HBO will give the show a chance, especially since media based on Isaac Asimov’s stories have not gotten the respectful adaptations they deserve.