I imagine a lot of people have been comparing Interstellar to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not a bad comparison to consider, though Interstellar is definitely rather more action-oriented than 2001. Interstellar touches on a lot of similar themes, like the vastness of space versus the fragility of human life, man’s relationship with the greater cosmos, and the spiritual and evolutionary journey of the species. Like 2001, Interstellar has given us silent space, and used that silence to great effect much like Gravity did recently as well. And like 2001, sassy artificial intelligences do play a major role–and so does betrayal. (These two are not necessarily connected.)
In Interstellar, the Earth is a lost cause, torn by environmental disaster, and humanity must once again set its sights on the stars if there’s to be any hope of survival. This is made more difficult by the fact that the government of near-future America is now run by moon hoaxers. (And in a scene that alone would make me love Chris Nolan, Cooper reacts with dawning horror and then snarky anger when he’s confronted by people who want to punish his daughter for bringing books to school that talk about the moon landing.) The underground remnants of NASA have found a wormhole orbiting Saturn, generated there by some mysterious “others”, and discovered possible worlds that humans could colonize on the other side. Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, via his brilliant daughter Murph, receives the coordinates to the NASA base due to gravitational intervention by the same mysterious species that created the wormhole. He’s apparently been “chosen” and thus pilots the ship that is sent through the wormhole, to a system where habitable planets orbit the massive black hole Gargantua.
That’s really only the beginning of the plot. I can’t explain much more of it without getting into supermassive spoilers, and this is one where I think I’d rather avoid the spoilers. Which is shocking, for me. But so much of the first emotional impact of the film is created by the slow revelation of the story–and it is a bit slow at times. Interstellar clocks in at just shy of three hours, and there are a few pacing hiccups that feel more like snarls in otherwise smooth fabric than anything deal-breaking. The plot is pretty complex and twisted for a movie (at least one that doesn’t use unreliable narrators) and involves some timey-wiminess; it’s generally well explained, though at times a little over-explained by the characters. There could be fewer repetitions of the (to me) cringe-inducing phrase “we need to solve gravity” and the movie wouldn’t have suffered.
Interstellar is a movie about desperation, and love, and loss, and betrayal, and the commonalities of human experience that reach across insurmountable times and distances. And I think it’s very worth noting that it’s a movie about all kinds of love: the familial, and the romantic, the love for one’s people and even ideas, and the greatest love story in a movie shockingly full of love stories is that for family.
The film is absolutely gorgeous, and that cannot be emphasized enough. The visuals are just stunning, and largely done with practical effects, which is a thing we’ve come to expect from Chris Nolan. If you can find a copy of Empire‘s article about the movie, give it a read. For example, apparently a lot of the starscapes were projected on white screens outside the Ranger set during the filming, so that when the actors looked out the windows, they were actually seeing what we see. And many of the shots didn’t have to go to post-production for special effects because of that. That’s incredibly cool. That’s a reason to hope that perhaps special effects are looping back into a more practical realm, which still looks more real than even the best CGI. The visual effect on watching is just stunning. Vast, gorgeous, and awe-inspiring.
And also, worth noting, the movie contains the best simulation of a black hole ever done. One that will spawn papers for Kip Thorne, who generated the mathematical equations for it. Still not certain, however, about the wisdom of wanting to colonize planets orbiting said gorgeous black hole. (How does that even work?)
I honestly haven’t been the greatest fan of Matthew McConaughey, but he does brilliantly for this movie, going from world-weary and bitter to determined, visionary, and self-sacrificial. There wasn’t anyone in the cast I could complain about. And considering the multiple layers of untruths told in the plot, performance was absolutely key. They all stuck the landing, but Anne Hathaway was particularly good. There’s a lot of love and pain in this film, because the more vast the landscape, the more intimate the emotional framework becomes, and they all nailed it.
Special mention should be made of TARS and CASE, the rather monolith-esque modular robots. The idea behind them is very clever, but the best part is the sassy personality that particularly TARS displays. His humor setting is at 100% at the beginning and very dark; during launch he jokes to the crew, “You’ll all be slaves for my robot colony.” TARS was a highlight of an already excellent movie.
Which is not to say that the movie is without flaws. Already mentioned were the pacing hiccups and some rough parts with the plot. While the Cooper-as-the-chosen-one gets explained in a way that didn’t make me want to chew on things, there were some other moments that knocked me out of the film. One was Romilly, who is one of the scientists, saying “There’s some things that aren’t meant to be known.” Considering that the topic in question here was the inner mechanics of a black hole as opposed to, say, evil genetic experiments on humans, that made my inner scientist shriek in rage. And while the themes about love and distance were important, Amelia trying to justify her intuitive feelings fueled by love as valid or perhaps better than science was also pretty frustrating.
On a technical note, the score was Hans Zimmer good, because Hans Zimmer. But I’m not sure if it was due to me seeing the film in 35mm, or if there was something off on the sound system, but there were times when I could not hear the actors over the score. And perhaps that was intentional, and meant for dramatic effect, but man it was kind of frustrating because you could hear people speaking but not quite what they were saying.
The plot, while interesting, definitely has flaws that can be picked to ribbons the minute the movie lets go of your tear ducts and gives you a moment to breathe. Particularly if the picking is scientific in nature, it can easily go down to the bone. But this reminds me of the argument I had during the Skiffy and Fanty episode on Snowpiercer: it seems particularly unfair that movies that take chances (and there’s a lot about Interstellar that qualifies in this, from the lack of a main romance, to the scope, to the number of questions it asks) tend to get judged much more harshly than those that are just out to have a good time, so to speak. The sheer ambition and scope of the movie, the fact that it’s not trying to posit easy answers or simple concepts, is what makes it special and incredibly worth seeing. If anything, I’m forced to wonder if Interstellar would have benefited from offering fewer explanations to the questions opened by its plot and been a bit more like 2001, where it’s left up to us to draw our own meanings.
Go see this movie. Even if you don’t really like McConaughey. I still would have enjoyed it even if it had been Tom Cruise. If nothing else, it’s good to see the point made, and made beautifully, that space exploration is important, and not something that should be put off as frivolous.