Friday, November 21, 2014

Interstellar: A Review


There is a great risk when it comes to looking over any Christopher Nolan film, especially one with such naked ambitions towards greatness as Interstellar.  Nolan is held in such a lofty position among a core group of cineastes that to suggest that he is somehow anything less than a combination Stanley Kubrick/Alfred Hitchcock/John Ford/Orson Welles/Steven Spielberg/Cecil B. DeMille/Akira Kurosawa/Federico Fellini/D.W. Griffith/Satyajit Ray/Martin Scorsese/David Lynch/F.W. Murnau/Werner Herzog is akin to saying Jesus was not the Son of God.  As a result, any film that Nolan is involved with, be it something as avant-garde as Memento or as commercial as The Dark Knight is treated as if it were the Second Coming, and anyone who disagrees or suggests that Nolan is anything less than the personification of living, breathing genius is seen as an idiot at best, an infidel worthy of beheading ISIS-style at worst. 

At this point, the hype and hyperventilation that has greeter Interstellar, a three-hour time/space travel film, has been deafening and in my view, may have caused more harm than good.  The Nolanites had built up Interstellar to be this defining, history-altering picture, something somewhere between 8 1/2 and Citizen Kane.  Interstellar openly quotes from other classic films, most obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I also saw hints of the original Planet of the Apes and last year's Gravity.  None of this should be interpreted to suggest that I thought Interstellar was bad.  Far from it: Interstellar is a good movie.  However, that is what it is: a GOOD movie, not a GREAT movie.

I understand there is something about spoilers, and while spoilers don't generally bother me (here's one: Rosebud is a sled) I think I give a summary of the plot without giving too much away.  The world has turned into one giant dust bowl.  Former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is now a widower and farmer attempting to eke out a living with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), and his two children Tom and Murphy, generally known as Murph.   For plot reasons that might be spoilers, he comes across a secret government project to fly people through a wormhole and seek out new planets that humanity might move to.  It's a secret government project because schools now teach the Moon landing (or Egg landing, if you believe Doctor Who) was all a fraud to bankrupt the Soviet Union. 

Side note: am I the only person who heard in their mind Homer Simpson say, "Oh my god, Lyndon LaRouche was RIGHT!" when the teacher kept repeating that the Moon landing was a fraud?

In any case, the Lazarus Project, headed up by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) prevail upon Cooper to pilot the spacecraft.  Going with him are Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi).  Off they go, and to kind of sum up, two planets are visited, though in the timey-wimey ways of the universe, an hour on one planet is equal to seven years on Earth.  That means while Cooper is out there, his children live their lives: Tom a farmer, Murph (still bitter about her father leaving to save humanity all these decades later) working alongside Professor Brand (who must be well over a hundred by now).  As it stands, we get one final twist on another planet and another twist on Earth where we are led to believe all things are connected.

Somehow, no matter how often I'm told otherwise, I can see where Nolan is going with his movies.  It might sound like bragging but EVERY 'twist' in The Prestige I called before they were revealed onscreen.  They were perfectly logical.  I can't quite climb to that claim with Interstellar only because when we get what might be a logical reveal as to Cooper's place in Murph's life, I thought, "WE are THEY"?  The resolution seems a little too pat, too convenient in regards to what Christopher and his brother Jonathan are giving us in terms of story.

There were also plot points that were either skimmed through (Cooper went into the program rather quickly, and it seems odd that someone who almost just wandered in and hadn't flown in years now had The Right Stuff) or went on far too long for what they were trying for and not achieving (Doyle's fate, Amelia's motivations to go to another planet that seemed to spring out of nowhere).  There were audible gasps when we saw Michael Caine again.  If we are to believe the timeline Interstellar gave us, Brand would (using Caine's real age of 81) would have to have been at least 104 when the story goes back to him and Cooper's still-pissed off daughter.   You'd think she'd gotten over it by now.

Going further into story, Interstellar packs in so much that could have been cut.  The entire "big reveal" about the second planet and what Cooper/Amelia did/didn't know was basically repeated, and I don't understand why Nolan felt the need to tell US the audience and then tell the characters when it meant telling US the audience again what we already knew.  The entire storyline of the second planet seemed to be from another movie altogether (and not a particular clever one too). 

Among Interstellar's greatest sins is Hans Zimmer's score.  His obsessive use of the organ to echo the Opening from Also Sprach Zarathustra (or perhaps Camille Saint-Saens' conclusion from his Organ Symphony) was bordering on the ridiculous.  WE GET IT...INTERSTELLAR IS THE NEW 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY!  You don't have to keep beating us with your music to keep telling us so!  Of course, this isn't when Zimmer doesn't slip into Music From the Hearts of Space territory to make it all so New Age-like.

In terms of story, Interstellar flies all over and never fully lands anywhere.  In terms of both visuals and performances, Interstellar lives up to its lofty pretentions.   This is a film that demands to be seen in IMAX or the largest screen you can find, for the sheer visual splendor of deep space really overwhelms you and takes you as close as one is able to get.  Interstellar is visually stunning as we go from one world to another, and also within the worlds it takes us to, creating a fantastic universe.

Interstellar also has some brilliant performances by Matthew McConaughey (his scene where he sees his children's lives go while reacting in silence shows that he has left the himbo persona behind...mostly).  Equally strong was (spoiler here) Casey Affleck.  Hathaway and Chastain were equally strong as the explorer and lost daughter.  I did wonder what Topher Grace was doing here, and at least he wasn't in the film long enough to ruin it.

Interstellar is ambitious if nothing else, and at times it cannot carry the weight it so desperately wants to.  It may be because it throws too much all over the screen (at times one wouldn't be blamed if they thought they'd wandered into a Ken Burns documentary by mistake).  It may be because most of the characters are a bit thin.  It may be that the curious message we get from the Nolan Brothers (something akin to "Love is All You Need") could be a bit silly.  It could be that the film is simply unnecessarily long and it could have been restructured and other parts cut or trimmed. Still, Interstellar is breathtaking visually and has some strong performances.

However, it is no 2001 or Planet of the Apes. No matter how it tries whenever it echoes those two films, it would have worked better if Interstellar tried to be its own vision.  If it had, perhaps it would have found itself where it aimed to be: among the greatest science-fiction films of all time.  It isn't, but you can't blame Christopher Nolan for trying...     



As a Bonus Feature, I give you the Finale to Camille Saint-Saens' Symphony Number 3, also known as The Organ Symphony.

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