Interstellar (2014)

2015 #110
Christopher Nolan | 169 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Nine months on from its theatrical debut, I’ve managed to remain remarkably spoiler-free about Interstellar, the ninth feature from director Christopher Nolan. “Matthew McConaughey lives on a farm and somehow ends up in space with Anne Hathaway,” is about all I knew going in. That and the somewhat divisive critical reception it had received, leaving what many had assumed could be an Oscar favourite with a disappointing tally of nominations (and its studio to have backed the wrong horse, resulting in Selma’s even poorer showing — but that’s a story for another day). I don’t consider myself a so-called ‘Nolanite’, but I have enjoyed most of his pictures (I didn’t love Inception as much as many, but still placed it third on my top ten that year), and found Interstellar to be no exception.

The story (beyond “the McConaissance spreads into space”) sees a near-future Earth where most of the crops have died and mankind is struggling to survive. The US government even pretends the space race was a hoax, in order to put future generations off attempting such innovations. Former test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) holds little truck with such BS, trying to raise his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (a memorable Mackenzie Foy), to be a mite more intelligent. During one of the many dust storms that engulf their community, strange pockets of gravity in Murph’s bedroom point Cooper to somewhere secret where some people he used to know are doing something secret that, ultimately, sends Coop into space on a mission from which he may never return. Murph is not best pleased.

More plot happens. Interstellar is the kind of film where you could get an awful long way through the story just trying to explain the setup. That’s a certain style of storytelling, and in its own way a positive one — a plot that is constantly moving and updating, rather than one that presents a basic setup, runs on the spot with it for a while, then wraps it up. The latter is how most narratives unfold, which is why reviews can so often summarise said setup and that’s fine. Nonetheless, Interstellar’s first act goes on too long, and could do with a good trim. (For an alternative view on why the first act is in some respects the best part of the film and needed more development, read ghostof82’s review. I don’t disagree, but I do think to give that area more focus would’ve necessitated a wholly different movie.) It’s important to set up Coop’s home life on Earth, as well as the near-future world from which the story springs, but all this could be achieved much more economically than it is here. This is a movie, not a miniseries: sometimes it pays to get a wriggle on. The whole film could’ve done with such a tighten, in fact, not just the sometimes-aimless first act and the flat-out overlong finale.

Flipside: maybe this is a “first viewing” problem. How many great films are there where, on the second or third or fourth viewing, you just wish it was a bit longer, had a bit more for you to see? Last time I re-watched The Lord of the Rings I was amazed how quickly they flew by, and that was in their extended form too. Yes, I’m now one of those people who thinks 12 hours of people walking across New Zealand countryside isn’t nearly enough. But I digress. I don’t know if Interstellar is one of those films that would end up with you wishing there was more of it, but if it is, well, there’s already some there.

Based on a skim through online reaction, some viewers would indeed love even more, while others would despise it. One thing I find interesting about this apparently diverse reaction is that you can find an abundance of negative/semi-negative comments and reviews by people who write such things, but nonetheless the average user scores on the likes of IMDb and Letterboxd remain high. Maybe it goes down better with (for want of a better generalisation) the wider audience than film critic/blogger types?

For many (though not all), criticism/acceptance seems to hinge on the aforementioned final act. Without getting into spoilers, then, “it’s too far-fetched” is one criticism I’ve seen. Of a science fiction movie. I guess it depends what you’re expecting. The rest of the film is grounded in realistic or plausible science, so when it really pushes at the boundaries of the unknown at the end, some people struggle to accept that. But the vast majority of what we see isn’t yet possible — it’s all made-up science fiction (albeit based on real theories and, in some cases, expanded from existing technology) — so what’s wrong with a third act that does the same but in a more extreme fashion? Because it is, at least in part, inspired by some genuine theories. (So much work went into the science that it merited a 50-minute documentary on the Blu-ray. Which I haven’t watched, so I suppose it might say it’s all poppycock. Considering the film has inspired at least two genuine academic papers, though, I’m inclined to say not.) I think it’s very much a case of “your mileage may vary”. For all the people who think it goes too far but only at the end, I’m sure there are just as many viewers who thought the ending was exactly as daft and/or reasonable as the rest of the film, depending on their tolerance level for sci-fi.

From a filmmaking perspective, there is surely nothing to fault. The visuals are incredible. As you’d expect, the IMAX footage looks absolutely stunning. Every time the Blu-ray reverted back to 2.40:1 I was a little disappointed. A sneaky part of me thinks Warner deliberately make these sequences look less good to ramp up the quality of the IMAX footage (I felt the same about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray), but maybe I’m just being paranoid. The effects work is also sublime, once again demonstrating the awesomeness of modelwork for spacecraft and the like. The CGI vistas and space phenomena are nothing to be sniffed at either, mind. There’s also a particularly interesting featurette about how they created zero-G. Impressively, even in behind-the-scenes footage, where you can see the wires, it still sometimes looks like the cast are genuinely floating. (On another technical point, more than a few reviews complain of the sound design, specifically the music being too loud. Either the film has been remixed for home release or it just isn’t a problem on a home-sized surround sound system, because I had no such issues.)

A semi-regular criticism of Nolan’s work is the lack of focus on characters or emotion, often sidelined for an epic scope or tricksy narrative. Interstellar certainly has a… debatable climax, and it definitely has an epic scope too, but it’s also one of the most character-driven and emotional films on Nolan’s CV. In particular, there are strong performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain (as an older Murph); Anne Hathaway is largely understated, but slivers of emotion seep through when appropriate; and Michael Caine actually gets to do a bit of Acting in a Nolan film for a change, rather than just turning up as a wise old dispenser of exposition — though don’t worry, he does that too. One of the stand-outs for me was David Gyasi, getting a role that was subtly stronger and more thought-provoking than several of his more famous colleagues, and executing it with aplomb too. Similarly, the voices of semi-sentient robots TARS and CASE — Bill Irwin and Josh “he’ll always be ‘that guy from Dirt’ to me” Stewart, respectively — are highly entertaining. Apparently they were inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is another mark in their favour, though thankfully they’re not just a rip-off used for comic relief.

Interstellar is a “big” movie — it’s full of big ideas, a big scope, big emotions, big stakes (the entire future survival of mankind!) Some people love that kind of scale; others hate it. Whichever camp you’re in, a bad or good movie (respectively) can sway you away. It’s tough to say which of those Interstellar is with any degree of objectivity, because so many people have had so many different reactions, from outright love to outright disgust. I’d say it’s certainly not perfect: it’s too long, and the qualities of the ending are debatable for all kinds of reasons — not least that any sense of it being a twist (which is how it’s structured) is negated by it being eminently guessable 2½ hours before it’s very, very slowly explained to us.

For all that, though, I loved it a little bit. It’s a spectacle, but a thoughtful one. Even if it doesn’t develop those thoughts as fully or comprehensively as it could, and arguably should, it really tries. If a few more big-budget spectacle-driven movies could manage even that these days, we’d all be better off for it.

5 out of 5

Interstellar debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:15pm and 8pm.

4 thoughts on “Interstellar (2014)

  1. Hmm, fair review. I’ve seen the film a few times now, and for what its worth, a few thoughts-

    1) Focus. I still feel the same way as I did before. The film spreads itself too thin. A longer, two-movie version (one film up to launch, the second everything after) still feels like an ideal. As it is the script tries to be all things for everyone. I think if it had to be a single movie then it would have benefited from the script losing (many) pages. Needed to focus on one character/plot thread. If Interstellar was a book I’d have expected its editor to be utterly ruthless. Whats the real story? Is it the climate disaster on Earth or the space exploration? Imagine if the film centered wholly on Ann Hathaways character, dropped the farm stuff completely. Made it her adventure. Even if she only really went Out There to find her boyfriend.

    2) Awe. There isn’t any. It looks amazing but there’s little joy. The film suffers from a coldness that all of Nolans films seem to suffer from. Funnily enough this is something that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus suffered from too. That film also looked wonderful but come on Ridley, the explorers land on an alien planet and none of them even gaze at the alien sky or comment on the wonder of finding signs of alien life? Ugh. Is space so mundane and boring? Best bit for me in Interstellar is that shot of Saturn with the sound of the rainforest on the soundtrack. Genius, but it feels like its from a different movie.

    3) Its not really as clever as it thinks it is. Certainly no 2001.

    4) its not a bad movie. Its just not what it could/should have been.

    5) I want a sci fi film from Terrence Malick, damn it!

    6) I’m never going to get a sci fi film from Terrence Malick, damn it. Sob!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do agree about focus. It has the same problem The Dark Knight Rises did: too many ideas shoved in, so few/none are given the development they deserve. And I guess I feel a similar way about both films: I like those ideas, so am perhaps more lenient toward their execution.

      I’m of two minds about the sense of awe. I hadn’t thought of it in this way, but you’re right that the characters show none. The water planet, with the distant mountains turning out to be a giant wave, plays into that area a little, but could’ve done more to emphasise the wonder of such a thing. So too the clouds-made-of-ice on the next planet. As with the issue of focus and ideas, this is kind of the film’s entire attitude — Nolan’s almost in too much of a rush to get through the overlong story, not making time to spend on the grace notes. I thought there were a few awe-inspiring space shots, but they’re certainly fleeting and unhighlighted.

      Finally, I think it’s more of a plot movie than an ideas movie. It seems like the latter because, a) the promotion of Nolan films are so spoiler-averse that, in the current “give everything away” climate, it comes across that it’s all a mystery, that there’s Something Big to be spoiled, which automatically confers a weight of expectation on the final act; and b) because people struggle with the logic of the tesseract/bookcase climax (I thought it was quite straightforward; whether one finds that ‘logic’ acceptable is another matter) that I think there’s an assumption it must be trying to be profound, when I think it’s just another narrative-driving device.

      In fact, on the whole, I think Nolan is a “storyteller” kind of filmmaker. Plot is his foremost concern, rather than themes or ideas. I think that’s also why his characters have previously lacked weight and emotion, because ‘character’ is similarly an addition/aside to the plot of a blockbuster story, rather than the core of it. It probably also explains why his oeuvre is rampantly popular with some viewers (just after a good plot) and less so with others (who want ‘more’). I’m generalising again, but I think that’s at least part of it.


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