Film review by: Gordon K. Smith
In the decades since STAR WARS, ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER made science-fiction epics viable box-office commodities, the genre has largely been identified by slimy aliens, super heroes, violence and lots (and lots and lots) of things blowing up real good.
What’s gotten lost too much of the time is the science-fiction of ideas, the kind that fueled the classic novels, television shows like “The Outer Limits”, and landmark movies such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, a film that’s still hotly debated 46 years after its release and 13 years after its future setting.
The same reactions are likely to attend INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan’s three-hour homage to Stanley Kubrick’s milestone, which will likewise be hailed as a mind-boggling masterpiece by some and pretentiously incoherent tedium by others.
It’s somewhere in the near future, where environmental disaster has resulted in a new dust bowl that has destroyed much of the world’s agriculture and will eventually doom the human race if some solution is not found. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a mechanic in the dusty heartland, is lured into a top-secret NASA project to rescue mankind by exploring and re-populating habitable planets in another galaxy. Entry to that galaxy scores of light-years away has been made possible thanks to a black hole created by – who? – near Saturn; a previous mission sends back signals from the other side indicating hope for an interstellar relocation. Masterminding the project is Professor Brand (Nolan muse Michael Caine); his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) will lead the USS Endurance (it ain’t called that for nothing) expedition with Cooper. But to possibly save mankind, Cooper has to leave behind his daughter Murph (who’s played by different actresses at different stages of life). Can he place the needs of nothing less than all humanity over those of the kids he leaves behind? Or is that the very reason he’s become The Chosen One, The Neo (to quote from another sci-fi franchise)?
Nolan, who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, with inspiration from the writings of physicist Kip Thorne (whose work also inspired the book and film CONTACT), combines his trademark complex moral dilemmas with many references to 2001 – both films involve a long space mission to the outer reaches of our solar system to investigate signals that could affect the future of earth, with a sentient computer, delayed communications and suspended animation playing crucial roles. And both climax, after unexpected mishaps, with transition into an alternate reality. 2001’s groundbreaking air-lock scene gets paraphrased here (and by the way, in INTERSTELLAR and the other space epics that have riffed on that scene – wouldn’t a sensible spaceship safety design simply not allow that to happen?) The unforgettable scene in which HAL, Kubrick’s neurotic computer, has his “brain” dismantled by a floating astronaut gets a visual nod here too, in a contextually different sequence designed to tie everything together for those who are still hangin’ in by that point.
That particular scene would have been intriguing in 3D, something Nolan has resisted, just as he has resisted going completely digital. He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who has a distinctly different look than Nolan’s usual DP, Wally Pfister), shot INTERSTELLAR on 70mm film and are releasing it that way in select theaters. As you might expect of Nolan, the film’s craftsmanship is on a staggering level. He achieves a different look to this outer space, not the candy-colored one of a standard-issue space opera but one based on the actual lighting and subdued color schemes of NASA footage, with a minimum of green screens on the set. The brilliant sound design emphasizes the dead silence of space better than any movie since 2001 with some startling audio transitions, but points off for the number of unintelligible lines of sometimes crucial dialog; that doesn’t help in a plot as difficult to follow as this one, even for the techno-babble savvy. Likewise, the time-hopping pacing and structure is not quite like any previous film’s, thanks to ingenious editing by Lee Smith.
McConaughey and Hathaway do good work under the circumstances, and Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn are outstanding once again, as the older incarnations of Murph, with Matt Damon solid as always as an interplanetary Robinson Crusoe. A day later I’m still figuring out Nolan’s Big Message here (other than Love Conquers All), but see INTERSTELLAR for its artistry, and see it in 70mm.