Wednesday, November 12, 2014

INTERSTELLAR Is a Mind-Blowing Cosmic Odyssey


- Rarely has a major blockbuster movie been as torn down, nitpicked, and hyper-scrutinized as much as Interstellar. But that's par for the course for Christopher Nolan, who has become increasingly divisive over the years. I too have had my doubts about the director. The Dark Knight Rises, to me, was a real misstep, and it was the sort of misstep that only served to shine a bright spotlight on some of the director's storytelling weaknesses. The Dark Knight Rises made some question the pedestal that Nolan had been placed upon prior to its release. But one misstep does not break a career, and I challenge the doubters to remember just how damn good Nolan's still-short career has been. I still vividly remember the sheer awe I felt after first seeing Memento in the theaters. I was blown away. And time after time, I've come away from a new Nolan film with a similar sense of being filled with awe and wonder to the point of bursting. Nolan always swings for the fences, and even when the narrative scope of his movies is small, the thematic ambition is huge. But INTERSTELLAR is huge in every possible way, and it's huge in a way that few current filmmakers outside of Nolan would even attempt, let alone execute on this level. This is Epic filmmaking with a capitol "E." But does it work? The internet would have you believe that it all crashes and collapses under its own weight. But I say screw the mobs of haters jumping on the Nolan backlash bandwagon. In my view, INTERSTELLAR holds up. It's involving and compelling on multiple levels. It's flat-out mind-blowing, and it's a potent reminder of just how damn good Nolan is. INTERSTELLAR is some truly next-level movie-making that demands to be seen, and seen on the biggest screen possible.

In some ways, INTERSTELLAR reminds me a lot of last year's Gravity. It's not just the outer-space setting, it's the central theme of humanity striving to reach its ultimate potential, achieving spiritual rebirth through scientific progress and an idealistic pursuit of our species' furthermost boundaries. In the near-future world of the film, a crop-killing dust has caused food shortages and air quality issues. The earth is on a dangerous path towards being uninhabitable. What's more, in the heartland where our main characters reside, a deep cynicism has taken root that's supplanted the idealistic frontierism that once characterized America and the American Dream. Our central character is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a natural-born explorer who was a pilot and an astronaut before the dissolution of space program. Now, he, like many, is a farmer - tasked with cultivating whatever crops can be grown in the earth's increasingly harsh climate. His son, Tom, is assigned by his teachers to study farming. For most, this is now their assigned lot in life. Cooper's daughter, Murph, is a science-wiz, but her teachers scold her for arguing with them about what's in her textbooks. The books, it turns out, now say the moon-landing was a hoax designed to push the Soviets into a costly, nation-toppling space race. Kennedy-era idealism is officially dead. The Chuck Yeager-esque hotshot pilot is grounded. Earth is dying, and the world clings to what is left in a cynical prolonging of the inevitable. Sound familiar? Poignantly and unflinchingly, the sci-fi world of INTERSTELLAR is a dark-mirror reflection of our own.

However, Cooper eventually learns that, hidden away in an off-the-grid base, a last remnant of NASA still exists, secretly plotting out a plan that could be humanity's last, best hope for survival. Cooper is recruited by the project's leader - Professor Brand (Michael Caine) - a former mentor of Cooper's - to lead the desperate mission he and his team have devised. Years ago, a group of astronauts were sent to find a new planet that would be inhabitable for humans. The great hope lay with the discovery of a wormhole, that by folding time and space would transport any who traveled through it into a far-off galaxy. Each astronaut went to a different planet, and each sent word back whether there's had potential to be a new-earth. Now, Cooper and his crew are being sent to go through the wormhole, and rendezvous with the astronauts who have given them the thumbs-up. What happens from there depends on how things go back on earth. Plan A: figure out a way to transport humanity en masse from earth to a new planet. Brand has yet to crack the code to accomplish this, so it's not a sure thing. Plan B: use samples on Cooper's ship to repopulate on the new planet, leaving everyone already on earth to wither and die out. Suffice it to say, the idealistic Cooper strongly prefers Plan A.

Cooper is fighting for all of humanity, but most importantly for his family. On earth, he leaves behind his son Tom, his daughter Murph, and his father-in-law Donald (his wife died young). And it's those central, familial relationships that drive much of the film. Because time passes differently for Cooper during his deep-space travels (Relativity in action), his mission sees him miss out on decades of his children's lives. The emotional core of INTERSTELLAR seems like uncharted territory for Nolan. His films have often had a cold, Kubrickian clockwork-like logic at their core, rarely dwelling too much on matters of the heart. But here, amidst the film's hard sci-fi braininess and mission-driven storyline, lies a Spielbergian center of sentimentality. No wonder, given that Spielberg himself was once attached to direct the film. But even so, it creates a sort of turn-of-the-corner moment for Nolan, where his big ideas and logic puzzles are intermixed - and indeed overshadowed - by an exploration of human connection and love that lies at the heart of what INTERSTELLAR is all about. No spoilers here, but I will say that Nolan's mix of Spielbergian heart with Kubrickian remove totally works for me in this context. Stories about traveling through space and time inevitably pose questions about life, the universe, and everything. And I think it's fair to go big thematically when you're going to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Some of my favorite sci-fi visionaries - Ray Bradbury comes to mind - were far less interested in the hard science of sci-fi than with exploring what things like space travel told us about what it means to be human. Nolan is 100% interested in the science of INTERSTELLAR, and despite some liberties taken I don't think you'll find many sci-fi or space movies that have science *more* on the brain than this one. But I also don't think there's anything wrong with injecting a bit of Bradbury-esque reflection into the narrative. It's in the genre's DNA, and it's in the movie's from moment one. This isn't some Lost-esque, would-be sci-fi narrative that suddenly and disappointingly finds all of its answers in the spiritual. Rather, Nolan is theorizing that human connection and relationships are as much of a force in the universe as time, space, and gravity. Again, especially as we go on this journey that takes us to the outer limits of human understanding, that sort of train of thought seems, to me, to be fair game.

Nolan tells this story on the biggest, widest, most epic canvas possible. When he made The Dark Knight, Nolan raised the bar in terms of combining blockbuster filmmaking with cerebral and psychologically complex themes. He again raised the bar with Inception - even as the thematics became even more complex, Nolan gave them a thunderous intensity that ensured the film never lacked for momentum. He does this again with INTERSTELLAR. The film is long and sprawling, but it absolutely flies by. It's that same thunderous power here, even more amplified than in Nolan's previous films. In IMAX, the film's cosmic visuals have you-are-there, larger-than-life pop. As per usual, Nolan grounds even the most jaw-dropping visuals in a frighteningly plausible reality, making them that much more breathtaking. When Cooper and his crew land on a watery planet whose entire surface is covered in mountainous tidal waves, you are floored by the scope of it all, but also the reality of it. The visuals of the movie, like the plot, are informed by science and physics - making them all the more effective. Nolan may not be the clean, precise visual storyteller of an Alfonso Cuaron, but he makes up for it with the sheer force and epicness of his visuals. Likewise, the script - by Nolan and his brother Jonathan - can have moments of clunkiness, but what the two lack in understated grace they make up for with numerous moments of quotable, gravitas-infused weightiness.

The film is additionally propped up by the talent of its cast. Matthew McConaughey, as we all know, has been on a tear of late. The funny thing is, what's going on around him in this film is so attention-grabbing that I think the quality of his performance may actually end up being somewhat overlooked. But make no mistake, McConaughey is fantastic as Cooper. Here's the thing - the Chuck Yeager-esque explorer/pilot part of the role is basically second-nature for McConaughey. He pretty much is that guy. But what's impressive is how well McConaughey handles everything else that the movie throws at him. For one thing, when things get really big, weird, and surreal in the film's third act, McConaughey perfectly nails the insanity of it all while not going too over the top. But even more so, the Oscar-winner nails the relationship that Cooper has with his kids - in particular with his daughter Murph. In many ways, Interstellar is a movie about fathers and daughters, and the Cooper-Murph relationship is key. 

Luckily, Murph is played by two outstanding actresses. It's not surprising that Jessica Chastain is great as the adult Murph, who's grown to be the same age as her father while the effects of relativity have slowed time for Cooper. Chastain is consistently excellent in everything she's in, but here she makes the older Murph a damaged but driven woman - a brilliant scientist who, though she has a fraught and complicated relationship with her dad, may have nonetheless inherited some of his can-do idealism. What is surprising is how good young Mackenzie Foy is as the ten-year-old Murph. It's Foy's devastated reaction to her father leaving her for his mission that makes Cooper's journey that much more intense and important-feeling. 

The other interesting father-daughter relationship is between Michael Caine's Professor Brand and Anne Hathaway's younger Brand. To compare and contrast the two would lead to heavy spoilers. But I will say that I was really impressed with Hathaway here. This role lets her be grittier and more mature-seeming than in past films, and Hathaway seems more serious and restrained than usual. She brings a surprising gravitas to Brand that I didn't expect. As for Caine, he memorably recites "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas - a poem that seems like something that Professor Brand must repeat for himself as much if not more so than for others. But that, ultimately, is the mantra of the film. Rage against the dying of the light. It's the recurring theme of INTERSTELLAR, and who better than Caine to deliver it?

The cast is filled with a host of other great actors. There's a crucial role from a key actor whose identity I won't spoil ... suffice it to say he does a fantastic job of playing against type. There's Wes Bentley and David Gyasi as the other crew members on Cooper's ship. There's a badass cameo from William "Rolling Thunder" Devane. There's John Lithgow as Cooper's father-in-law. And there's a standout voice-acting role from Bill Irwin, giving life to the robotic TARS. Yes, every good space odyssey needs a super-awesome robot to make it complete, and TARS is a damn good one. The design on the 'bot is incredibly unique and fascinating to look at in motion. And Irwin's affable voice-work makes TARS one of the film's most memorable characters.

Some have griped about Hans Zimmer's score, but man, I loved it. I think there may have been some issues where the volume of the score is just too high, to the point of drowning out some key dialogue. But the score itself is fantastic. The main theme reminded me a bit of the cosmically-themed song "Contact" from Daft Punk's Random Access Memories. In any case, the future-synth soundtrack is both a bit of a departure for Zimmer and a perfect fit for the film. It's absolutely brimming with ominous intensity and into-the-void atmosphere. Completely dug it, and I think it will go down as a classic film score.

Oftentimes, it's actually the small movies that give us the best insights into life's big questions. Rarely do we get big, epic sci-fi films that have more on their mind than space battles and comic book soap opera. That's all fine and good, but I say you've also got to appreciate the rare film like INTERSTELLAR that actually, 100%, goes the distance. It takes us into space, through the wormhole, and into the great unknown, and it doesn't take any shortcuts in its journey. The film sees things through to their ultimate conclusion - and yes, that means that we get talking robots, fifth-dimensional ghosts, and ruminations on whether love is a scientifically viable universal force. If that sort of stuff makes you come down with a case of the eye-rolls, then hey, INTERSTELLAR might not be your bag. But if, like me, you live for stories that just keep digging and digging in search of the great secrets of the universe and reality itself, then this is what you've been waiting for. Nolan isn't just hurling paint on the canvass here - there's method to his madness, and those complaining about plot holes will find most if not all of the answers in the film, if you pay attention and think things through. As much as some call out Nolan for over-expository dialogue, the fact is that a lot of key details are found between the lines of the film, in quick moments or simply implied rather than said outright. Nolan's ambition also leads to some serious aesthetic risks. As the film crescendos, Nolan furiously cross-cuts between two times and locations. It's another instance where some might simply tune-out and accuse him of overreaching. But by this point in the film, all cards are on the table and there's no slowing down. The result is, to me, a gripping and operatic sequence that seared itself into my brain. Nolan is more a hit-you-with-a-sledgehammer stylist than a subtle storyteller, but here especially, the subject matter warrants this level of cinematic fierceness.

INTERSTELLAR is ambitious as hell, but I think it holds together impressively. Narratively, it takes its time building to the point where Cooper goes on his space mission. Once Cooper and his crew begin their interplanetary exploration, the film takes on a nicely-pulpy tone that plays out like big-budget 50's sci-fi. It's modern-day Twilight Zone told in grand fashion. Eventually, the film becomes trippy, 2001-esque surrealist sci-fi, but Nolan keeps even the film's strangest sequences rooted in an easy-to-grasp emotional core. But what ties everything together is a thematic throughline that I found incredibly resonant and powerful. Because though this is sci-fi, INTERSTELLAR is a story firmly about the here and now. It's a story about how, in a world where real problems get put aside due to politics and economics, sometimes what we need is to channel our human spirit - to reach back and recapture the sort of can-do, yes-we-can, do-not-go-gently idealism that can lead us forward into a brighter future. Accuse Nolan of going soft, but really, Interstellar is his nod to Silver Age optimism, to Kennedy-era, space-age values. He takes us from darkest night to brightest day. From dust to stardust. INTERSTELLAR is a mission-statement of a movie that, to me, is absolutely huge and breathtaking in the best possible way. Nolan backlash? Hold up, people. One of our best directors has just delivered a tour de force. Save the rage, embrace the stars.

My Grade: A

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