Tuesday, December 2, 2014

New Release: Interstellar (2014)

Have no fear - there are no spoilers in this review.

Director: Christopher Nolan

It's certainly not a bad movie, but it's one that leaves a few things to be desired.

Christopher Nolan has always loved multi-tiered stories. Whether he's layering experience with memory as in Memento, layering illusion and showmanship with personal desires as in The Prestige, layering heroism and villainy with their own social constructs as in the Dark Knight trilogy, or any of his other movies, his films always operate on a few levels. Interstellar in no different. Unlike his best films, though, this one tries to add at least one stratum too many.

The story is mostly that of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and engineer who is living on a future earth that is slowly dying of a massive and growing blight, a la the Dust Bowl of the 1930s Midwest U.S. This one, though, is on a global scale. In a last-ditch effort to escape the seeming fate of humanity slowly choking to death on its home planet, Cooper is enlisted for a mission through a wormhole next to Saturn, beyond which he hopes to find a habitable alternative planet. Once through the hole, though, things do not go exactly as planned, forcing Cooper and his fellow astronauts to make several extremely difficult decisions that weigh their own beliefs and hopes with those of all humanity.

Many of the themes in the movie are worthy of speculation and make for some solid food for thought. The place of exploration in our society, especially when balanced against far more immediate problems, is one that people have always struggled with. In Interstellar, this makes for a legitimate source of conflict, especially as the success of Cooper's mission is far from guaranteed. Then of course, are the tremendous sacrifices that the boldest explorers must make, and not just to life and limb. When Cooper and his crew near a planet where time is distorted by gravity, they must also consider how their aging will be slowed immensely, leaving everything and everyone they know to age far more quickly while they explore. The film does a very nice job of making these theoretical consequences of space exploration more tangible and impacting on the characters.

I'm no astrophysicist, but much of the science behind the film seems solid; at least, as far as the physical rigors and obstacles which need to be overcome are concerned. These days, there have been so many excellent documentary series done on such topics that we laypeople can have a pretty good idea of what things are like for astronauts, and Nolan seems to have done all of his homework. It helps that the visuals are extremely well done, and several scenes and sequences do an excellent job of capturing the vastness and majesty of the cosmos.

The relationship between Murph and her father is actually
endearing for the first part of the film, but grows a bit stale
as things progress. It eventually comprises what I found to
be one of the biggest weaknesses of the tale.
Where the movie goes astray is with the "human" layer of the tale. Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky made thoughtful, insightful, artistic statements about humanity's probable destiny in space and the collective psyche of our species. Without giving away anything, I can say that I felt Nolan's attempt to weave human emotion into the story was a tad forced, with extremely shaky support. This thin tether is meant to be the link between Cooper deep in space and his daughter, Murph, back on Earth. The connection works at certain points in the movie, but is often either baffling or lacking the desired emotional effect.

Another problem I have with the film is the casting and acting. While Matthew McConaughey has proven himself to be a legitimately excellent actor in recent years, I was annoyed by the constantly hushed drone that he chose to speak in through nearly the whole movie. A tad more baffling was Nolan's choice to cast Anne Hathaway as the fellow astronaut/astrophysicist Brand. She's not terrible, but I found her lacking some of the grit, confidence, and stoicism that I associate with such professionals. I wonder if we're not starting to see Nolan fall in love with some of his own casting choices; what else would make him recast "Catwoman" in such a way? There are a few other casting choices that made me scratch my head, but I don't want to give away too much.

So the movie is a decent one, but I would have to put it towards the bottom of the Christopher Nolan catalog, especially when weighed against its huge ambition and massive budget. Nolan has never, in my view, made a "bad" movie. He has, however, made a few that smack of a bit of pretension and fall a bit short of his lofty goals. Interstellar is one of these. I would recommend that nearly anyone watch it once, but I would caution against expecting a masterpiece. Ultimately, the film just made me want to re-watch Europa Report at the earliest possible chance.