Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: "Interstellar" is a Heady Trip Through Space with a Few Bumps Along the Way

There is a moment in the first hour of director Christopher Nolan's space epic Interstellar that achieves something awe-inspiring. It is the enviable quality to overwhelm the senses while transgressing story and creating something beautiful. As Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) drives away from his family, who he may never see again, there's focus on him driving away spliced with scenes of his fate, a space shuttle, taking off. The symbolism is rich and covers so much ground without telling too much about Cooper's psyche. The moment is replicated a few minutes later as scientist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) reads a Dylan Thomas piece over the vast empty wasteland of space. Despite a slow beginning and an arbitrary plot progression, the moments became warranted quickly with some of the most beautiful, artistic directions that Nolan has ever gone in. It felt that for a moment like he would make the ultimate space epic, at least since 2001: A Space Odyssey (though probably more lowbrow). The issue is that once the film hit this high, it failed to maintain it and by the conclusion, it turned into something of a mess. The lofty goals that were laid out now served as ridiculous themes unable to be worked out logically. Interstellar is a flawed epic full of wonderful moments that tragically lose sight in the final 40 minutes.

To summarize, Interstellar follows the destruction of Earth. With dust clouds overpowering everything, there's no love for the planet. Cooper is a man with high ambitions who wants to find some place else to live. This doesn't mean moving to Asia or Europe. This means packing up and leaving behind his children for a mission with NASA that will take him to places where time excels at a more rapid rate. He does it for his children, but most specifically his daughter (Mackenzie Foy), who ages (Jessica Chastain) with bitterness before following in her father's footsteps. Between moments of crying and the sense of detachment, the remainder of the film is an exploration of the arrogance of humanity. It is both terrible and inevitable with its prowess reaching to wherever the last breathing human will be found.

Nolan is a master of building a world in which everything feels fresh, thanks mostly to practical effects. He manages to understand scale and allows us to visit planets that are covered in water or ice with a sense of wonder. The former is especially memorable, as it is as close to an action beat as this film gets. It sets the futility motives in play and continues to test the progression of time in new and fascinating ways. If this is what the film was going to be about, it would have been a slam dunk. However, the ice planet is where problems begin to arise with arbitrary and dumb plot beats start to come. 


When landing on the ice planet, Cooper discovers Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), who was part of a failed mission. He is also the lover of Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway). The whole motive of coming to the planet was because of love. However, Mann became obsessed with finishing the mission upon finding out about his new found residents. He tries to kill them and ends up dying in a ball of fire in space. For the most part, he embodies humanity's selfishness and desire to complete what he started. Sure, it brings some interesting plot beats, but it begins the domino effect of overkill that essentially diminishes the overall quality of the movie as a whole.

With damaged supplies, Cooper and Brand are the remaining survivors who must get back to Earth without enough supplies. They end up travelling into a wormhole, where Brand is separated and leaves Cooper to enter alone. Is he dead? Prospects would assume so based on familiar conversations. With it tying into the beginning with young Murphy's belief in ghosts, it only makes sense in an abstract way. Cooper is in the fifth dimension in which he can see a physical being of time. He can see all of his memories and the failed ego of his life. He isn't the hero he thought for leaving. He panics and ends up trying to communicate by tossing books off of shelves. Just be glad that Murphy is a clever girl.

This is where the film loses me entirely. While I was willing to give it points for being a heady sci-fi film full of great themes, it begins to suffer when it tries to emphasize every last detail. At times, it feels like a lazier version of Contact. The fifth dimension is especially annoying because it feels tacked on and depletes any value in the mission at all. With the idea already developing that Cooper's mission was a scam, there's plenty to question why this story matters at all. In fact, this felt like a very stupid way to keep the plot going and make Murphy a more important character. The Earth story isn't all that interesting, as it mostly involves burning crops and angry siblings. 

To say the least, Nolan's strong suit has never been emotional clarity. While he manages to make atmosphere and tones work, he cannot make intimacy work. Yes, he has mastered the ability to make shots of people crying into something powerful, but the twain shall never meet between emotion and logic for him. The logic in this film falls apart and what starts off as a beautiful exploration into creativity turns into a fake philosophical debate. It doesn't even feel like the writing cares what happens by the time that humanity is reestablished on a base outside of Saturn. It realized that it didn't have a third act and ended up improvising everything horribly. 


The one benefit is that the film does feature Hans Zimmer's best score of the past few years. Outside of Inception, he has been turning in half-baked ideas with uninspired work with The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, Rush, 12 Years a Slave and The Amazing Spiderman 2. He has become his own caricature. That is why to hear him come back strong is awe-inspiring, especially as it compliments the visuals phenomenally. With the ominous clangs of the orchestration, there's a hollow sense of whimsy that brings resonance to each scene. It makes you care and while it features a familiar sense of intensity when it's called upon, it serves as the most beautiful depiction of humanity in the film, even more-so than the visuals.

The issue is that the film is too ambitious and it may be because it is Nolan's least realistic film to date. While this isn't necessarily a negation thanks to a career built on superheroes and literal dream worlds, it does show itself. Nolan's penchant for blunt realism where possible has helped his films to have a more creative sensibility. With the third act being highly abstract and at times wafting into nonsense, I don't understand what's so significant about the prospects anymore. The whole story becomes pointless and with some supernatural tie-ins, there isn't much to grasp onto. Speaking as the characters are very surface level too, it is amazing that we were able to sympathize with them at varying points in the film. Of course, that is because Nolan really knows how to make a shot so beautiful and with Zimmer's music, it could easily work as an art installment.

Interstellar has a lot of high ambitions and deserves most of its running time. However, the narrative is a mess and doesn't always leave satisfying answers. There's some decent performances, but nothing that feels definitive. For many, the final act will be hard to recover from as it is laughably confusing. Still, in a world where it's this or a Michael Bay film, I'll applaud Nolan's desire to try new and interesting things. The journey into space works for the first half of its venture, which is enough to recommend. However, it still feels a little shoddy around the edges and never satisfies on all of its promises. It's fun for awhile, but it could have been so much more if it took the time to write a better ending.

Anne Hathaway
To summarize, I come away disappointed from the film for a lot of reasons. It isn't the grand, sweeping epic that it could have been. Also, I just have too much disinterest in the third act, which doesn't logically tie into too much continuity of the first portion. I also felt bad that while there are moments that clicked, it didn't make the characters matter beyond a few key moments that allowed them to be stuck into outer space peril. The third act is a little goofy and features probably way too many cartoonish aspects that ruin the lofty themes that it tried to explore.

With that said, there's one more question to be asked: What Academy Awards should it be up for? I don't believe that anything here is an acting Oscar material. They're all rather surface level performances. The reason that Gravity managed to get a Best Actress nomination was because Sandra Bullock embodied the fear perfectly. Nobody really does that here. The world is corrupted and there's a need for change.

However, this should do pretty well in all of the technical categories. Nolan has once again shown his knack for beautiful imagery and set designs in ways that are unsurpassed. I love looking at the film and feel that Interstellar works best as an art installment. However, I want to see how it does with Best Sound Design, as there are many points scattered throughout this film that mix the score or a voice over with visuals in such an amazing way that it is visceral overtaking at its best. As stated in the opening paragraph, these moments start off strong in the film and give it that extra boost that I wish there was more of. 

Is this Nolan's shot at Best Director? I think not. This is probably more in line with his blockbusters than auteur side of mindset. Sure, I can see this being in the Best Picture race, but the film is too all over the place to be respected in that way, especially with only five slots and a lot more qualified voices to beat him there, including Alejandro Gonzales Iniarittu (Birdman) and Richard Linklater (Boyhood). His film is adequate at best in terms of direction and doesn't have an edge against films like these. If anything, his nomination would seem boring considering who the competition is. It also doesn't help because it is a divisive film and while I come about dead center on it as a whole (great ideas, poor finale), I don't know if everyone will likely see that similarly.

Is Interstellar capable of being the first sci-fi Best Picture winner? Will Christopher Nolan ever get that Best Director nomination? Is Hans Zimmer going to make a comeback after this brilliant score?

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