Interstellar (2014) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.
Running Time: 169 min.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, Bill Irwin (voice)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Review published November 5, 2014
Ambitious is certainly a good word to describe Christopher Nolan's (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) rambling opus Interstellar, and like most ambitious works, how much you ultimately enjoy the film will largely depend on how willing you are to indulge in the visionary director's plenteous artistic liberties in telling his science fiction-based story. Not many have the chutzpah to try to play in the field of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, either in subject matter or scope, and those that do often crash and burn in embarrassing fashion (see Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars for an example). But Nolan goes for the gusto, and while never reaching the destination, he does give it a good run, enough to make Interstellar an overcooked but still savory enough effort to consume.
The basic premise is that in Earth's not-too-distant future, a global food crisis has emerged that has caused most of the world's agricultural crops to dry up, leaving only a few hearty crops like corn left for people to eat, and even that will eventually fold. Oxygen is depleting, so if starvation doesn't kill us first, suffocation surely will. Former NASA pilot Cooper (McConaughey, The Wolf of Wall Street) is spending his days trying to keep his farm going, along with his two kids and his father-in-law (Lithgow, Love is Strange). Strange patterns in his home library leads him to a set of coordinates that houses a top-secret space exploration mission where Cooper is briefed on how he's basically humanity's only hope, and that he must navigate through a wormhole found near Saturn that may lead us to find a planet that will be inhabitable by whomever is still surviving upon his return.
Stunning visuals and big concepts frame this surprisingly intimate storyline, which may remind some people of another McConaughey vehicle, Contact, in ensconced in the aforementioned 2001 and another Kubrick-scripted project, Steven Spielberg's A.I., with a dash of James Cameron's The Abyss and Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity thrown in. That's a lot of ambition, and it is occasionally successful, such as an emotional moment in which Cooper sits to watch some messages sent to him from Earth, realizing that time has passed more quickly on Earth than they have in their little pocket of the universe. The fact that loved ones have given up hope makes for a heartbreaking scene, and McConaughey nails the feeling we might all have at seeing Earth and everyone we love in it potentially slipping away.
The cast of actors is impressive, but the delivery is spotty, with McConaughey undeniably delivering a strong central performance, but it is amid a cast of supporting actors who sometimes appear to not all be on the same page tonally. Not that it's entirely their fault, as the screenplay, written by the director along with his brother Jonathan, tries to elevate without the quality of the dialogue to support it. Dylan Thomas' is called up several times by Michael Caine (Stonehearst Asylum), each time perhaps more wince-inducing in its pretension than the last. An uncredited Matt Damon (The Monuments Men) also shows up and sucks narrative momentum out of the movie just when it should really pick it up. Casey Affleck's scenes might as well have ended up mostly on the cutting room floor for all of their lack of usefulness.
Famed theoretical physicist Kip Thorne from Caltech serves as the film's consultant, and even gets an executive producer credit, in order to explain the physics of how things work in the film, which is explained just enough for us to understand it, even if it's not always clear how such things as black holes and wormholes work during certain key scenes, but not enough to break the illusion of believability in the space travel regard. What is harder to swallow are all of the contrivances in the story, especially in how an astronaut-turned-farmer happens to be within driving distance of the lone space ship to save humanity, and the ease by which he assumes the role without any need for prep or training. I guess it's like riding a bike? We will buy the space travel and time issues, but the way Nolan puts 'plot wormholes' in his script is asking a bit too much at times. That characters have to talk aloud to themselves in order to clue the audience in on what's going on in the film's climax shows that the story building elements took a back seat to the technical demands.
One would presume that any civilization sophisticated enough to produce a Swiss-Army knife of a robot like Tars, who looks like a mini-monolith that can adapt into a variety of uses, with a free-flowing A.I. that is astonishing, would be able to solve all of its woes in terms of irrigation farming, but we'll happily put that qualm aside for the overall spirit of the piece. Underneath, the movie does grapple with an interesting theme of pursuing love vs. pursuing a scientific approach, and when those themes emerge, the relevancy of the movie excels, even if logic gets put on the shelf for a while.
If there is a major downside to the movie from a directorial standpoint, it's in the lack of the evocation of awe to what's going on that its obvious influences all have. When HAL takes over in 2001, you're riveted. When spaceships begin to appear in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all mouths are agape. Even underappreciated non-classics like The Abyss and A.I. have scenes that manage to transcend, and suggest there's something more at play that mystifies, terrifies, and transfixes. Interstellar certainly tries for these heights, but it feels as if Nolan is trying to shoehorn mystery and intrigue into the mix just because others have done it before. We watch whole scenes play out in a manner that would suggest we're supposed to be on the edge of our seat, but, while interested in their outcome to see where they lead, we never get lost in the moment. It's a remarkably mundane execution for something that seems so fascinating in concept.
Interstellar is nearly three hours long. Does it need to be? Not really, but it's a briskly paced three hours, with enough plot turns to keep from going stale. It's a bit of a rickety ride, with some very high highs, and more than a few surprisingly clunky, overwrought moments, keeping it from becoming the kind of 'masterpiece' label that Nolan fan boys will all-too-cheerfully bestow upon it right after viewing it (and perhaps even before). Like the mission at the heart of the film, Nolan tries to go very far in a short amount of time, willing to make giant leaps in order to get toward the destination, hoping that the rest of us can follow, though there will likely be many left behind along the way by the many fundamental lapses in story logic. Still, while a turbulent ride, it's worth the white knuckles to hold on to for as long as you can.
©2014 Vince Leo