Review: Interstellar

Interstellar
This movie can be so very, very trippy…

“Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

These words by poet Dylan Thomas form a key motif in Christopher Nolan’s most recent film, Interstellar, an occasionally flawed yet ultimately mesmerising paean to humanity’s potential to strive for greatness.

Taking place in a near-future setting where the Earth is increasingly unable to sustain human life, Interstellar follows the story of NASA pilot turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family, particularly his daughter Murphy (portrayed as an adult by Jessica Chastain).

After he and Murphy make contact with a seemingly alien intelligence, Cooper finds himself guided to a covert NASA base. Here he meets chief scientist Professor Brand (Michael Caine), and is drafted to lead a mission crew, including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), through a newly discovered wormhole and into the furthest depths of space, in order to potentially find a planet for humanity to migrate to.

The problem facing Cooper is that by taking part in this mission to save the human race, he seems almost certain never to see either Murphy or son Tom (Casey Affleck, as an adult) ever again.

As you can no doubt guess from the above blurb, Interstellar is an extremely engrossing film. It has an intelligent screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonah that (barring one notable instance towards the end) assumes its audience is smart enough to keep up, and it anchors its cerebral elements with an emotional core that keeps things relatable too.

If the Nolans’ script can occasionally stray from elegance into clunky territory (some of the dialogue given to McConaughey is pretty on the nose, and Hathaway is saddled with a fairly blunt monologue at one point), it redeems itself thanks to the sheer passion imbued into every word (admission time: I actually enjoyed Hathaway’s monologue, in part because it was so unvarnished).

Speaking of McConaughey and Hathaway, the cast in this movie all deliver magnificent performances. By now you’re all aware that we are currently living in the new age of enlightenment known as the McConnaissance, and you either acknowledge Hathaway as one of the finest actresses working today or you don’t, but everyone in Interstellar deserves their share of the kudos.

That said, Chastain and Mackenzie Foy (who plays Murph as a child) deserve to be singled out for their particularly strong efforts. Foy does an excellent job of bringing to life a clever young girl still capable of the immaturity you’d expect from a 10 year old, while Chastain is responsible for many of the most moving beats in the film.

It’s not just the performances that sparkle; Interstellar also happens to be hands-down one of the most visually impressive films released in 2014, and quite possibly of the last decade too.

The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is nothing short of beautiful, the breathtaking effects are virtually seamless, and the production design (including the coolest big screen robots in recent memory) all manage a perfect balance between seeming real and looking interesting.

The visuals are ably supported by Hans Zimmer’s majestic score, which I’m going to go out on a limb and name his best work in a while. The much-debated sound mix also deserves a mention here; some critics disliked the way that the sound effects and music occasionally overpower the dialogue, but I thought it was distinctive, and added to the overall sense of being immersed in the world of the story.

A film with all the quality ingredients mentioned above doesn’t happen without a very capable director at the helm, and Interstellar is an example of Christopher Nolan on fine form. Having brought all these creative components to fruition, Nolan (along with editor Lee Smith) then used them to sculpt a story which moves at a slower pace than modern audiences might be used to, but which never drags thanks to the warm heart beating at its centre.

As I’ve already alluded to several times now, with Interstellar, Nolan has quite possibly crafted his most emotional (not to mention personal) movie yet.

This is worth noting, as in recent years he has commonly been compared to the great Stanley Kubrick in terms of being someone who produces films that please the eye and stimulate the brain rather than trouble the ticker.

Whilst I would debate whether the work of either auteur is as cold some critics claim, it’s fair to say that Nolan’s work can suffer at least partly from a certain aloofness; fortunately Interstellar avoids falling into this trap more often than not.

Without doubt the most heartfelt scenes are those between Cooper and Murphy, and anyone who can watch the scene where Cooper watches video recordings from home without feeling any emotion whatsoever probably isn’t going to be moved by anything cinema has to offer.

All of this isn’t to say that Interstellar is by any means perfect.

Like all filmmakers, Nolan is human, and (as his detractors so eagerly like to point out) his work has flaws. Interstellar is no exception.

For starters, in addition to the sometimes stilted dialogue mentioned earlier, some of the characters seem less developed than they should be.

This most noticeably affects Affleck’s Tom, whose dramatic shift in character late in the film requires the audience to connect the dots for themselves as to the motives behind his jarringly extreme behaviour. It’s not a huge jump, but a bridging scene or two wouldn’t have hurt.

The next major nitpick I had (and this is going to sound contradictory after my last point), is that Nolan holds the audience’s collective hand too much during the film’s wonderfully bonkers climax.

I’m not saying viewers would have understood the ending just as easily without Cooper’s exposition, I’m more arguing that a film that urges us to explore new frontiers might have been better served by leaving its final revelations a little more ambiguous, so that we could tease out its secrets ourselves.

To return to the Kubrick comparison, the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey was far crazier than anything Interstellar throws at us, and Kubrick didn’t bother to explain it at all.

While this perhaps makes 2001 less immediately satisfying in a narrative sense compared to Interstellar, it certainly makes it more rewarding in the long run.

All this talk of 2001 brings us neatly to my final criticism of Interstellar: it probably draws a little too heavily on this 1961 sci-fi masterpiece at times.

To be honest, this doesn’t really bother me too much; after all, as the old saying goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.

I just find myself thinking that at certain moments in the story, whether it was the psychedelic visuals, the operatic score or the aforementioned barmy resolution, Nolan occasionally copies more than he steals – if he’d pushed his Kubrickian influences further, one gets the sense the end product might have felt more fresh.

LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!

Fortunately, Nolan and co. have worked hard to add something new to what came before where the Interstellar’s themes are concerned.

Indeed, Interstellar tells a more humanist story than 2001, and it’s one anchored firmly to the idea of humans having the power to control our own destiny by relying on our intelligence, daring, and crucially, our ability to love.

Yes, at its core, Nolan’s film is really asking us to consider whether we believe that love truly is the most powerful and unquantifiable force in the universe, and strongly encourages us to answer in the affirmative.

The aforementioned monologue by Amelia, which describes love as “the one thing that transcends time and space”, gives a pretty big clue as to what Nolan is driving at, and later on, when Cooper’s love for Murphy allows him to manipulate the fifth-dimensional space library at the heart of a black hole (this may be the best sentence I’ve ever written) in order to communicate with her and save humanity, sorta seems to rule out any other interpretation.

In this regard, Interstellar most clearly distinguishes itself from 2001 in a thematic sense: whereas Kubrick saw potential in humanity, but felt we’d probably need outside help to make the leap to the stars (and beyond), Nolan makes us the architects of our own destiny.

It was humans from the future, not aliens, who created both the wormhole and the black hole, and it was one human being (Cooper) within the black hole contacting another (Murphy), in what only appeared to be alien interference, that allowed us to survive extinction on Earth, essentially creating a time paradox where we save ourselves by eventually becoming those same highly evolved, cosmically inventive humans.

The idea of humanity saving itself, all as the result of love no less, seems like something that the generally cynical Kubrick would have scoffed at. Indeed, when you consider the film’s emphasis on love and family (not to mention an absentee father figure) and its overall optimistic tone, another of Nolan’s influences for Interstellar becomes clear: Steven Spielberg.

While you can draw direct parallels between several films by Spielberg (particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Interstellar based around the characteristics outlined above, for mine the best comparison to be made is with A.I.:Artificial Intelligence, which was developed by Spielberg and Kubrick in partnership, and quite literally fuses their styles together.

For while Nolan has chosen to fill his film with examples of the bright side of humanity via the inquisitive spirit of Cooper and Murphy, and capped it off with an ending so happy it would make even Sir Steve blush, he doesn’t shy from showing the dark side of the human spirit either.

We see this in turncoat astronaut Dr Mann (sidenote: was anyone else all like, “Is that Matt Damon?!”), who jeopardises the mission through his cowardice, self-interest and ego, and also in the adult Tom, who has given up on his father and endangers his family by being violently attached to his small, pathetic existence instead.

From this we can almost divine another, less sunny theme within Interstellar that fits my Kubrick-Spielberg synthesis theory: love might be the most powerful force in the universe, but if we give in to the ignoble qualities we all possess and don’t let love work through us, everything we cherish and hope for will be lost.

THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!

Ultimately, Interstellar is a great film made by top-notch cast and crew at the disposal of an extremely capable director.

True, it occasionally suffers from a sense of familiarity with other classics within the sci-fi genre, but more often than not, Interstellar stands on its on two feet to engage its audience on a cerebral and emotional level, and the overall ambition and craft showcased in its creation make its few flaws easy to overlook.

It celebrates the best in humanity without totally ignoring the worst, and its central message of the immense potential within humankind will leave you determined to rage against the dying of the light.

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Review: Interstellar

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