MOVIE REVIEW: Interstellar




Some film genres are cut and dry in terms of their purpose and interpretation.  Horror and western films are incredibly simple to identify and drama is easily discerned when present.  In this writer's opinion, the two genres that are the most open to wide-ranging and wholly different personal interpretation from one person to the next are comedy and science fiction.  For comedy, what is funny to one person is dumb to another and the effect multiplies.  That too is simple, but the differing opinions are tremendous.  For science fiction, the divisions get thicker and more complicated, making the personal taste for that genre equally difficult to gauge. 

Science fiction, unlike comedy, has a far more fragile balance in play, especially when the goal is entertainment.  Any point of view on science fiction starts with one cinematic cardinal rule that is forgotten by too many people.  The rule is this.  A suspension of disbelief is an absolute requirement for admission to all science fiction.  The genre is built, top to bottom, from the best to the worst, to necessitate that proverbial grain of salt each and every single time.   Some can do this and others cannot.  That means one person's fantastical journey is another person's hokey sideshow.

Once you can cross into the proper mindset, you will find a measured struggle in the genre of science fiction to merge the truthful science we want to believe with the fiction of good storytelling.  Infuse too much brainy science and you lose the fiction.  Veer too strange, implausible, or existential with the fiction and you negate the thought-provoking science that you were trying to sell.  In science fiction, logic is at war with spectacle, science duels with sentiment, and brains brawl with emotions.  Like wine tasting, all of this is up for different palettes and different interpretation.  

When you combine the swaying balance of its genre elements and the required suspension of disbelief, no other film genre is set up to be more polarizing than science fiction.  The same people that try to poke holes in something like "Gravity," will relish like a pig in slop over something like "Star Wars" which is far less plausible.  Smart movies that flex emotional heft like "Contact" and "Deep Impact" make less money than the mindless and heartless spectacles of Michael Bay like "Armageddon" or the "Transformers" franchise.   Once again, it's all about personal tastes and the gaps here are larger than those of other film genres.

In that same vein of struggle and debate, we arrive at Christopher Nolan's new film "Interstellar."  Like all truly ambitious science fiction of the highest order, "Interstellar" pushes the limits for personal interpretation of both the science and the fiction.  Both genre elements are wildly heightened to a bold and epic scale to address the internal opposites between logic and spectacle, science and sentiment, and brains and emotion.  Each of those ideals have their soaring high points and matching low points across the board in "Interstellar."  It all comes down to your taste, which makes "Interstellar" easily the most polarizing film of the year.  You will either love it to the core or hate it to the bone with very little room for a middle ground.

"Interstellar" depicts an Earth in the not-too-distant future where climate change and human excess has led to a worldwide blight where food crops are failing to grow.  This has created a Dust Bowl like environment akin to the Depression-era 1930’s.  All societal resources have been sunk into farming to get the most food possible to combat the potential starvation of millions.  Cooper (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot who now puts his engineering talent to automated farming.  He’s a widowed father of two children, a diligent son named Tom and a headstrong daughter named Murph, who gets help raising them from his father Donald (John Lithgow). 

Cooper and Murph come upon mysterious coordinates that lead them to a secret NASA facility.  There, Cooper learns the real truth from the scientific team led by Dr. Bland (the always welcome Oscar winner Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway).  All agricultural efforts will slowly fail and the human race will be extinct in a matter of a generation.  The one shining hope is a monumental discovery of a wormhole near the planet Saturn that leads to another galaxy with a dozen potential planets that could sustain human life.  With the remaining government resources, NASA has developed a Plan A and a Plan B of the “Lazarus Project.” 

Plan A is to follow previous secret expeditions with an astronaut team through the wormhole to find which planet is most suitable to begin planetary evacuation and relocation.  Plan B is delivering an enormous stockpile of frozen fertilized human embryos that can be used to recolonize humanity from scratch.  The hitch is the challenge of time and relativity.  To make this journey to Saturn alone, it takes two years, once across the wormhole that bends time and space, hours become years back on Earth.  If too much time passes, his children will age without him (played in adulthood by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) and the Earth may be dead by the time they return (a big “if”) and Plan A becomes lost.  Cooper takes the great risk of time and loss to leave his family and home behind to lead this last ditch effort to save the human race.

Even though Nolan's film is unique all its own, the closest genre comparison to make could be Robert Zemeckis's tepidly received 1998 blockbuster "Contact," based on the novel by renowned astronomer Carl Sagan and starring Jodie Foster and, coincidentally, a younger McConaughey   Nolan enlisted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, a former collaborator of Sagan's, as a science consultant and executive producer on "Interstellar."   Both films have extremely lofty and heady ideas of science and pushed them to a fantastical scale of high-end moviemaking.  Both films are layered in sharp commentary on larger societal and human issues that are boiled down and funneled through a single family's emotional connection of love, survival, and reunion.  There is an equal emotional climax in “Interstellar” that matches that symbolical walk on the beach in “Contact.”  Both films offer equal amounts of affirmed stances on some of those big issues and narrative elements and side with ambiguity on others, allowing for personal interpretation depending on the audience.  “Contact” was loved and hated.  “Interstellar” will likely share the same division of appreciation and affinity.

There is not a single technical aspect of “Interstellar” that is underserved or underwhelmed.  This film is as technically superior to its peers as “Gravity” was last year and that film won seven Academy Awards, five of which were in technical categories.  “Interstellar” could be poised to equal that haul thanks to its throwback and practical approach.  Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hotye Van Hoytema (“Her”) shot “Interstellar” on 35mm and 70mm IMAX film instead of digital, a rarity nowadays.  Unlike “Gravity,” zero green screens were used as background effects were completed first and digitally projected for the actors to react to instead of completed in post-production.  Everything you see is a constructed, functional set and a real physical location.  Not many blockbusters can tout this authenticity nowadays.  The cherry on top is an enthralling and atmospheric score from the great composer Hans Zimmer, a frequent Nolan collaborator.  No one who watches the film is going to question its astounding visual, artistic, and technical merit.

Where the questions are going to come up are in the story.  “Interstellar” was started by Christopher’s screenwriter brother Jonathan over five years ago as a potential project for Steven Spielberg.  Christopher took over after studio complications removed Spielberg from consideration.  Much of this feels like a film Spielberg would have made, which is definitely new sentimental territory for a cerebral guy like Nolan. This film is almost three hours long in pacing and nearly lecture like in exposition.  It takes its dear sweet time to build the heavy passage of time involved which will bore some and absorb others.  There’s a mix of scientific mumbo-jumbo and poetic scripted epithelial mantras that is going to cause head scratches and flyovers on one side and illuminate light bulbs on the other.  Some characters are richly developed and others are not.  In true Nolan fashion, there are some dropped bombs and twists that will test your tolerance and suspension of disbelief, including an awful character heel turn that will elicit groans for plenty.  There are flaws here and tough pills to swallow that cost this film its chance to reach a future masterpiece-level of stature and significance, even in staunch support such as this.

All in all, the clinching element that will either sell you or lose you with “Interstellar” will be love, the most unscientific of all ideas.  The big question will be to what degree you can accept emotion, heart, and love stirred into your bowl of science fiction soup.  Nolan was unashamed to call this a family film within the science fiction genre and he is extremely correct.  This borders on being a personal and passion project for him and not just another blockbuster.  It is within these themes that McConaughey gives the meat of his powerful lead performance.  There are anguishing and powerful levels of familial emotion that swell and power “Interstellar.”  In the science fiction genre, that can be a hard sell.  Some are calling into question this film’s emotional heft.  Remember, some folks want more logic and plausibility and don’t want messy human emotions to smear their science.  This element of love becomes the peak of this film’s polarization.  You will either embrace it and be swept into its weight or you will feel hindered by it and call it a wasteful distraction.  One person’s profound experience is another person’s cynical rouse.

A month ago in reviewing "Gone Girl," this movie writer had Christopher Nolan on a short list of directors who could do no wrong.  As polarizing as “Interstellar” is and how vastly different it can be interpreted, Nolan does not lose his spot on that list, not for a second.  “Interstellar,” even with its flaws, does little to tarnish the talent of the director as one of the best of his generation.  He is still on another level to his peers and the ambition of this epic film only adds to his reputation and resume.  This won’t be the film that wins him his overdue Oscar, but it will add to his legend.  The technical effort and the artistic and scientific hubris of what “Interstellar” accomplishes is worthy of appreciation and admiration.  Moreover, the unflinching personal investment of its stirring heartfelt tone was an inspiring development compared to Nolan’s usual cold sense of calculation.  For all its value and distinction, “Interstellar” dwarfs so many of its recent science fiction peers with these qualities.  Big movies with big ideas are supposed to be this brazen and bold.  This was supposed to be a challenging, envelope-pushing, and limit-exceeding film and it succeeds in those goals with grand fashion.

LESSON #1: THE SCIENTIFIC CHALLENGES OF TIME AND SPACE IN SPACE TRAVEL—For as much as this film employs a distinguished physicist as a consultant, “Interstellar” is still science fiction, but some theories get some thought-provoking airtime and data-driven engagement.  The challenges of time and sheer distance in space travel, the unknown nature of black holes, the notion of multiple dimensions beyond the three we know, the power of gravity, and the theoretical existence and behavior of wormholes that connect, bend, and fold time, space, and gravity are highlighted and wrestled with as major plot points.  Many filmmakers involved with “Interstellar” hope this film can inspire a new generation of thinkers, scientists, and astronauts the way films like “The Right Stuff” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” inspired them a generation ago.  So often, the love of science starts with the inspiration of science fiction.

LESSON #2: DETERMINING THE FATE OF MANKIND IN THE FACE OF EXTINCTION—On its largest scale, “Interstellar” is a vast disaster film and space adventure about planetary extinction and the possibility of human countermeasures to offset and prevent such a cataclysmic catastrophe.  Scenarios like these movies make us ask if we have the means, capability, and resources as a society or as a planet to handle the possibility of extinction.  They pose big questions and force difficult decisions for preserving society, dignity, and humanity.  Movies like this make us ask what we would do if we were faced with this threat of survival and the choices we would have to make. 

LESSON #3: PARENTS ARE THE GHOSTS OF THEIR CHILDREN’S FUTURE—On its smallest scale, when you strip away all of the science and spectacle from the science fiction in “Interstellar,” this film, as intended, is a very family-centered journey and drama.  The central lens of the emotional aspects of “Interstellar” is a strong father-daughter relationship that becomes strained by distance and the challenges of responsibility against greater needs and threats.  This lesson is a quote delivered by Cooper and constitutes one of those aforementioned poetic epithetical mantras.  What he’s trying to say is that our children are meant to outlive us and that our influence on them remains long after we are gone. Parents are their children’s first inspiration and first role models and play the largest role in shaping the adults they will eventually become; no matter how active or absent they are or were in one’s life.  

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