Review: Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' is Ambitious, Affecting Sci-Fi
by Alex Billington
November 7, 2014
There used to be a time when we would look up at the stars and dream. We would wonder what it was like out there, what we might find out amongst the endless black of space. But then things changed, we became obsessed with ourselves again, with battling each other for money and power, and we forgot how to dream. Along comes Interstellar, an exhilarating science fiction creation that once again reminds us that we can dream, that we get to breathe this fresh air on this beautiful planet, that we get to smile, cry and laugh. And it's those feelings that matter the most. It reminds us that the desire to connect is one of the most important aspects of humanity and that nothing–whether it be time or space or others–can break those bonds of love.
For me, it is a love for cinema. A love for the spectacle, and the incomparable experience of the big screen. While we do get to see hundreds of movies every year, very rarely do modern movies balance both story and spectacle, combining breathtaking visuals with deeply felt emotions. More often than not it happens to be the science fiction genre that combines both sides to perfection, and in recent years this includes work like Avatar and Gravity. For me, it's all about the feelings, the exhilaration, which is achieved through technical mastery and storytelling genius, and with Interstellar we get the very rare, immaculate balance of both. It's as easy to tear up at the beautiful shots of Saturn as it is the moving moments between Cooper and Murph.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Interstellar is almost Nolan's attempt at a re-envisioned modern version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The focus is on humanity, specifically a family, and how they are affected when a father ends up being called on to "save the world". This is only the beginning, as the mission of Endurance leads them through a wormhole to another galaxy far, far away to look for a new home, or at least look for answers or clues or ideas about how to save the human race (stuck back on Earth). It's best experienced without knowing anything beyond this, but for the sake of following up on that 2001 comparison, where it leads is: what is humanity? And what is our place in this vast universe? Yes, Christopher Nolan goes that far with Interstellar. And I love it. I love that he was that ambitious with the script - all the way and back.
Ever since 2001, Hollywood more often than not ends up twisting science and reality when it comes to sci-fi entertainment in ways that often seem false. However, last year Gravity turned things around proving that sticking to science is financially lucrative and impresses critics, even if there isn't any sound in space. I'm so glad we're now in an era where movies set in space do beautifully respect the laws of physics – for the most part (something that astrophysicist & executive producer Kip Thorne is happy about too, I'm sure). And, not-so-surprisingly, giving it that grounded feeling enhances the experience because it allows us to believe this is possible. Within Interstellar, the experience of Gravity is just one scene inside a much bigger story; Nolan takes us on an Apollo program-inspired journey that is truly breathtaking and mesmerizing to behold.
After originally believing we were the center of the universe, this movie once again reminds us to wonder where our place is in an incredibly vast universe outside of the solar system. It's not that we don't already wonder, but that this movie is the realization of our wildest dreams. They brought our "what if we really could?" dreams to life, perhaps just on the big screen, but it's enough to inspire. The scientific details aren't particularly mind blowing, in all truth, and seem somewhat muted just enough for most to be intrigued yet not overwhelmed. The script sets up a number of complex connections, the kind Nolan is known for (think The Prestige) that link back to one another throughout (so pay attention), and his magic trick is making it all flow seamlessly, keeping viewers on the edge of the seat in wonder waiting for the next "wow" moment.
After this first viewing (and I can't wait for my next one) my honest feeling is that the first half has a few minor speed-bumps before launching into the phenomenal second half, which is where the entire experience expands our horizons towards the greatest possibilities of interstellar exploration, for the most part, and what's out there. There are a few twists, however, and one big discovery in the later half is a bit odd even though it helps mix things up, but it's certainly going to be a divisive reveal. Coming in just 11 minutes shy of three hours, Interstellar does run very long and has a few snags along the way but builds to a conclusion that makes us contemplate our potential in this universe. It's an epic, thought-provoking, emotional finale.
"Love is the one thing that transcends time and space." More than anything, Interstellar is an emotional movie, crafted with emotion (Christopher Nolan and his wife, producer Emma Thomas, have four children together) and designed to pack an emotional punch. It's the strongest part of Nolan's sci-fi extravaganza, and it needs to be, as love is such an important part of human life on this very planet that this movie needs something we can all latch onto and empathize with even though none of us have ever been to space (yet). The story is framed around Cooper's relationship with his daughter Murph (but not as much with his son) and it's one of the most vital aspects of the story, very similar to Contact, with the driving force being love.
Continuing his streak of recent outstanding performances (I love Mud the most), Matthew McConaughey carries the weight of this massive emotional adventure on his shoulders and does a fantastic job giving it his all. Everyone else is impressive, with minor roles throughout getting excellent performances from talented actors. One of my favorites is David Gyasi as "Romilly", another astronaut who joins Cooper and the crew on the interstellar voyage. There's one scene with him that got me to shed a tear, and it all hinged on a bit of real science, making it all the more impactful. Even Anne Hathaway gives a restrained performance as the somewhat pessimistic "Brand", however I believe there's much more to her and she opens up a few times in important moments. Mackenzie Foy as Murph establishes the emotion and gives us the strength to hold on the rest of the time. Keep an eye out for Topher Grace and Jessica Chastain in their unique roles, too, plus there's John Lithgow always making us smile, and I must mention Bill Irwin in a key voice role.
"We're not meant to save the world, we're meant to leave it." If I speak honestly, there's so much I want to openly discuss about Interstellar but must hold back in order to prevent spoiling the experience. However, it's a bold and epic creation worthy of vigorous discussion. Not to give away anything big, but aside from an interstellar voyage, this movie has wormholes, black holes, robots, spaceships, astronauts, rockets, drones, NASA, sleep chambers, and some other tricks up its sleeve. I want to talk about why this character made these choices and said these things, and what they were really looking for, and what happens at this point, and why it goes where it goes at the end. I want to talk about the robots, and why Nolan chose to use them the way he did, and how they have a direct connection to some of the most integral parts of the bigger story.
There are a few scenes along the way that seem to skip right over the "scientific" requirements, opting to remain dedicated to time instead moving along without much care for procedure. I'm not sure if this is just my own overly-focused nitpicking or something I shouldn't be concerned with when looking at the overall experience, considering it has an epic story to span starting with establishing the dusty world on Earth before venturing into space. I'm looking forward to taking a second look and giving it another shot without any expectations, hoping that I'm able to appreciate the spectacle and story overall. Even though I know where it ends, I'm unquestionably excited to go back for another ride. Take me through the wormhole again.
Aside from being an ambitious, heartfelt story about exploring our place beyond this Earth, Interstellar also seems like an amalgamation of many of iconic sci-fi films of past: 2001: A Space Odyssey, A.I., The Abyss, Sunshine, Mission to Mars, Solaris (it even has some Rendezvous with Rama in it). But unlike other films such as Oblivion (which was too obviously inspired), Nolan borrows and then re-imagines in a way that is fresh and exciting, and feels more like a nod than a direct copy. He takes the bigger ideas and themes behind these films, in addition to some of the key moments, and puts his own twist on them, wrapping everything around the bigger story of love and human connection. It works. It never ventures towards boring when so much of it jaw-dropping to watch, when so much of it is thrilling and captivating and powerful and exciting (especially when projected in 70mm on a huge IMAX screen - the way this movie is truly meant to be seen).
Speaking of, one of the other invigorating powers of Interstellar is how much it can inspire us to dream through the visuals alone. I've already seen comments saying that one shot during the wormhole sequence or while Endurance is traveling near Saturn put the size and scale of space–us against this universe–into perspective in a way this viewer had never experienced before. Of course, Nolan's spectacle is the reason I love him already, but seeing him go wild bringing us the awesome splendor of space in 70mm IMAX is indeed jaw-dropping. There are a few times I wish the camera would keep rolling like in Gravity, but it cuts between 70mm and 35mm giving it a cinematic feel for dialogue and human moments, and a magnificent experience when it expands into 70mm. This movie is what movie theaters are made for, and Nolan knows that, utilizing every inch of the screen with sound & music that will rattle your bones and make you smile.
The best films are the ones that stir up discussion, that make people of all ages debate and consider what it all means, where these ideas even come from to begin with, and how they pertain to our reality not just the characters on screen. The power of Interstellar is in its ability to create and encourage discussion about the universe we're in, and other ambitious topics like our place in the universe, how science can enable us to progress forward as the human race (beyond planet Earth), and how it might involve something more than science to pull that off. What's out there waiting for us? And when we find whatever is waiting out there, will we know what to make of it? How does it affect us as humans? These are a few questions the movie poses.
In the 24 hours since first screening Interstellar, I've already had at least two if not three passionate debates with friends about the movie and key parts of its plot. They aren't just discussions about the merits of the movie, but theories about what means what, what the Nolans were going for (Jonathan Nolan originally wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg, eventually rewriting it with his brother Christopher Nolan). Just thinking about the possibilities of what's hinted at in this movie kicked my brain into overdrive trying to process the gargantuan ideas so boldly explored and woven into the fabric of this adventure across galaxies. It's as exciting and emotional to think about as it is to watch (similar to Gone Girl), and that's always an achievement. I'm looking forward to the discussions this movie starts much more than the criticisms it will undoubtedly receive. It's the theories, not the complaints, that will be the most eye-opening after release.
When it really comes down to it, the cinematic experience and the emotions it elicits are the most important in informing my own response to a movie. Interstellar may not be completely flawless, but in the end that just doesn't matter, because it's science fiction cinema on the grandest of scales that explores our hopes and dreams as humans in an emotionally affecting yet awe-inspiring way. It is capable of showing us, through love, through hope, that we can look up at the stars again and dream about exploring the cosmos the way we used to. Nolan has reached deep to show us it's still possible to push humanity farther than we've ever been, while never forgetting where we came from as we look beyond this tiny planet that, for now, we call home.
"We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding." -John F. Kennedy