‘Interstellar’ opens on Wednesday, November 5th at Navy Pier IMAX, and Friday, November 7th elsewhere in the Chicagoland area.
I’ve read my fair share of science fiction through the years, the volume of which, I’m sure, pales in comparison to many of my friends and peers. But I think I get around alright. So I must admit that the thing that most surprised me about Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Interstellar (USA, 2014), was its utter sci-fi conventionality. As our story commences, the Earth is slowly becoming less and less habitable, and while the conventional thinkers campaign for good-old-American nose-to-the-grindstone perseverance, without throwing good money after bad on things like science and big ideas, a scrappy team of forward-thinking outliers (the skeletal remains of NASA) look to outer space and the stars for the next chapter of humanity. Once these adventurers actually get Out There, they encounter the practical consequences of the science they know intimately as theory, and even as physical and/or mathematical law, but have never actually, subjectively experienced. Ugly surprises mix with astonishing discoveries, and, inevitably, all of that mystery and otherness and majesty and immensity just circles back around philosophically to an ultimate appreciation of our own seemingly insignificant but profoundly important humanity.
You can probably find bits and pieces of that (admittedly cursory) summary within the pages of hundreds of sci-fi and speculative fiction novels (from E. E. “Doc” Smith and Isaac Asimov to Richard K. Morgan and Alastair Reynolds), and within hundreds of science-fiction films. I don’t want to be too hard on Interstellar because Christopher Nolan (co-writing with his brother Jonathan) has synthesized a lot of disparate ideas here, and shown a great deal of his homework, in crafting what turns out to be a far more straightforward narrative than his previous two efforts, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception. It’s a very good movie and a very good story, rapturously presented (for the most part). Nolan’s successes in conception and aspiration are gratifying; we want filmmakers to tackle big ideas, in big strokes, in visually challenging big-technology ways. But in other aspects, Nolan repeats reductive fundamental mistakes; he’s not good with actors, he never seems to have a consistent overall visual strategy, and he often lets his technical teams run away with his films.
The initial set-up is pretty convincing – North America has returned to its agrarian past in a race to produce enough food to feed itself before the deteriorating climate decimates their last natural options for production. No crop survives, anywhere, other than corn now. “They’re saying this is the last harvest for okra… Forever…,” intones a resigned Donald (John Lithgow) to his farming-former-test-pilot son-in-law, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). There’s obviously no food for livestock (meat) of any kind, but mushrooms? Root vegetables? Soybeans? Not even mentioned – a mixed blessing, since many of these omissions keep the story agreeably streamlined, but are simultaneously chin-scratching in their absence. (In fact, save a brief reference to a bankrupted Russia, the entire rest of the planet – flora, fauna, other countries and/or populations – seems to be beneath regard here.) Aridity, punctuated with massive, inundating dust-storms, is The Weather, and, atmospherically, nitrogen is winning a war with oxygen.
Cooper is a widower with two kids: a son, Tom, and a daughter, Murphy, all living with Coop’s father-in-law on their modest family farm. Young Tom (Timothée Chalamet), we eventually learn, will follow in Cooper’s farming-fatherly footsteps, while Murph (a remarkable Mackenzie Foy, albeit given more to do than Chalamet) will eventually pursue the science-and-big-ideas path. It’s young Murph who points out “the ghosts” in her bedroom – the strange patterns of the dust on her bedroom floor, the individual objects that fall off of her bookshelves – that’s not how gravity’s supposed to behave, is it? -and she and Cooper pursue the mystery, mathematically, from her room and through the fields to a mysteriously fenced-off government installation in the middle of nowhere. It’s here they encounter those aforementioned remnants of NASA, led by a former professor and peer of Cooper’s from his piloting days, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine, lending his reliable good-natured gravity). NASA now has one mission and one mission only – they’re leaving. They’ve already discovered potential habitable worlds on the other side of a wormhole parked just off Saturn – I’ll spare you the details here, but it all makes conventional Star Trek-ish sense – and Cooper’s just the flyboy they need to lead a team of scientist / astronauts into space and establish Humanity’s New Home In The Cosmos. And he chooses to go. Donald and young Tom are sad but philosophical about Cooper’s leaving, but Murph is shattered, and her embittered resentment and sense of abandonment echo through the rest of the film in important ways (through Jessica Chastain in Murph’s grown-up iteration).
And into space they go! – Cooper being accompanied by Brand’s scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and two other scientists, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as their agreeably smart-assed robot-computer TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). They’re pursuing a team of scientists who have already made the same journey they are now undertaking; beacon transmissions locate the three planets the first voyagers have arrived at, but no other relayed information will penetrate the wormhole. This crew must investigate the status of the last crew’s members on each planet. I’m loathe to divulge much about these three worlds which, in one way or another, they reach, other than to mention that along with those three seemingly habitable planets in that galaxy there also resides a black hole, which, if you have a passing familiarity with Einstein, Stephen Hawking or Kip Thorne (the theoretical physicist who served as this film’s adviser), means there’ll be some pretty profound changes rung on our earthbound concepts of gravity, time, speed and distance. For instance, we all know the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun, along with Earth’s rotation, are primarily responsible for the movement of the tides on bodies of water. Nolan has some malicious fun with that idea, among other ideas that aren’t nearly as amusing, but are nonetheless impressive and plausible.
Technically, the film is quite wonderful (with one glaring exception I’ll get to in a minute). I saw the film at an IMAX theater, and, indeed, much of the film was actually shot in the 65mm IMAX format. (the tech geeks may feast at will here.) We visit a planet of dust storms, a planet of water, a planet of frozen tundra, and all of the celestial space and objects and phenomena that surround them, and most of it is as gorgeous and scary, reassuring and challenging, as any watching audience could wish for. I think we see Saturn for less than a minute, but it’s breathtaking (as it should be). Some of what we see is abstracted speculation, but it doesn’t carry that whiff of faux mysticism or overthinking art direction that similar sequences in lesser films sometimes foist on us. The ooh and ahh factor here is high; the talented Swiss cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema does his director proud. Nolan’s visual narrative, however, is so slipshod in spots that if there weren’t explanatory reactions from the characters, we wouldn’t have a blessed clue what our lyin’ eyes just saw, and this happens more than a few times.
But my biggest technical complaint, and, I assure you, it’s BIG, is the sound in this movie. It’s terrible; borderline insufferable. I’ve walked out at the end of previous Nolan movies with seriously ringing ears (IMAX or otherwise), but Interstellar is a flat-out sonic assault, and not in any good way. Many of the sound effects may be interesting, original and/or evocative, but it’s all just so damned loud, and the low end is so overdriven, so sub-sonically intrusive that it’s like having a Harley XL1200 with open pipes restarting itself ten feet from your seat every three or four minutes. Would that they had fussed over recording the actual dialogue with as much gleeful attention, but no such luck. The voice recording here is generally pretty muddy – you’ll actually not hear some lines of dialogue, either because it’s been so indifferently recorded or because Hans Zimmer’s faux-E. Power Biggs / Virgil Fox washes of utterly forgettable musical din drown them out. If any sonic aspect of this film comes within miles of Oscar consideration, you’ll know the inmates have taken over the asylum. God bless Slate’s Dana Stevens for recommending earplugs. (“…because Chris Nolan movies, like death-metal concerts, are best attended wearing some sonic safety gear.”) I wholeheartedly concur. I’m really not kidding. Buy and wear earplugs. Trust me, you won’t miss a thing.
As I’ve mentioned, I have a fair amount of respect for Christopher Nolan’s big, smart ideas, and here he’s created a plausible and involving narrative arc for those ideas to travel along. But scene-to-scene, actor-to-actor, he’s not as successful. McConaughey does pretty well, but he’s given the most to do, and is in-frame for easily 75% of the film. It seems unfair to snip about moments of his that don’t quite come off, but there are more than a few, and Nolan could have helped him more. Anne Hathaway doesn’t fare nearly as well, in part because her character moves in and out of the overall story so intermittently. Nolan doesn’t give her enough to do, or her character enough reason to be in many scenes at all; her few showcase moments poke out in dorky isolation, even those that carry real import towards later developments. I can’t tell if she wasn’t comfortable enough, or not skillful enough, to fill those awkward spaces, but, again, I think that’s ultimately a directorial failure. And Jessica Chastain’s performance here is the real puzzler – her character only works on two channels: the sneeringly enraged daughter, and the driven and ferociously smart scientist. Half of us wants her to get over it already, and the other half wants to know where this entirely different female character came from. The one scene that should serve as the bridge for her is a dramatic confrontation with her (now bleakly disheartened) brother Tom (Casey Affleck), but neither Chastain nor Nolan can dramatically complete the circuit. Contrast this work to Matt Damon’s short but tremendously effective supporting turn – a fully fleshed-out singular human character bringing a deeply internalized sense of who this person is to every moment he’s on screen. Was he lucky casting for Nolan? Or was his part better written? It’s hard to know, but that’s an actor who nailed it in spite of anything else. Of course, expect him to be completely ignored at Oscar time.
Like the majority of Nolan’s films, Interstellar works on a pretty rarefied level of ideas and storytelling resources, and I think it’ll have a far longer half-life than anything Bryan Singer, Michael Bay or the Wachowskis have produced (though I still have high hopes and goodwill for the Wachowskis…). It’d be nice if he tried something a little smaller next time, Memento or Prestige-sized, and really worked on what to do with his actors, worked on visual arcs rather than just the narrative ones, or took a much stronger hand in post-production. But he’s earned the right, I suppose, to ignore me and others, and to just keep cranking out what works and what makes money. But let me leave you with a final question – Would you watch The Prestige again, eight years later? Or The Dark Knight, six years later? That half-life issue is an important one if you want to be in the league to which Nolan’s genuinely aspiring. I’d watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again right now – hell, I’d watch Blade Runner again right now. Or The Godfather, or Apocalypse Now. But how about Avatar? The Dark Knight was a very cool movie, but watch it again, now? Why? The big ideas are admirable, but the details, the depth, are what make great movies great. And until Nolan starts figuring out how many of those details he needs to get right, and how densely woven the fabric really needs to be, he’ll just have to settle for the ‘creative’ freedom to make cool movies we won’t care about five years later.