Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar (2014) – Review

Review: Interstellar is magnificent – a marvelous display of technical and aesthetic splendor on a massive scale built around the deeply moving and emotional story of a father and daughter.

The film takes place in the not too far away future. The Earth’s crops have begun to die out, leaving the world in a state of hunger, humanity’s population gravely thinning out. The environment too has become more severe, dust storms engulfing towns and cities, resembling the Dust Bowl crisis during the Great Depression. Man’s time on Earth has come to an end. Meanwhile, former NASA pilot Cooper has become a farmer (as Earth needs food, not pilots), raising his young son, Tom, and daughter, Murph, after his wife passed away. Mankind has become a race of farmers and caretakers, desperately trying to cling to what the Earth has left, giving up what they now believe to be the wasteful and childish ideas of exploration and discovery. Cooper still believes in progress, however, as an engineer. He raises his children to think critically and not be content with their place (putting him and them at odds with the general population). Tom, however, is content to be a farmer when he grows up, but it is clear that Murph has the spirit and imagination of an explorer and/or scientist. She discovers a gravitational anomaly that leads her and Cooper to a secret NASA base (they have gone underground due to their public unpopularity). Cooper learns that NASA is working on a last ditch effort to save humanity (certain that Earth’s last substantial crop, corn, will too soon die out). A mission through a newly discovered wormhole (which appeared around the same time as many other strange gravitational anomalies across our solar system) to search three potential habitual planets in a new galaxy that would otherwise be outside the reach of mankind. If one of these planets can support life, maybe mankind has a chance. Cooper agrees to go on the mission, piloting the spacecraft, knowing that he will likely never see his family again, leaving his daughter Murph heartbroken. Cooper feels he must go. He along with three other astronauts are humanity’s last, best chance (and Cooper’s only chance to save his family). Like any review, there are going to be some spoilers in the discussion of the film. Be warned.

Interstellar begins on Earth, which has become an almost uninhabitable planet, slowly killing off mankind as crops are one-by-one overtaken by blight. Writer-director Christopher Nolan (who co-wrote the film with his brother Jonathan Nolan) takes something very much rooted in reality – the fact that humans are devastatingly altering the Earth’s environment – and projects it forward to an apocalyptic climax. People living in this wasteland talk about the past (our present) with distain – our greed and carelessness put us on the path to our own destruction. There is also a clever nod to the idea that seems to be popular today that space exploration is a waste of our resources. In Interstellar’s grim future, people believe that space exploration was all an elaborate scam, perpetrated to bankrupt the Cold War era Soviet Union, as they tried to match the U.S. bomb for bomb and beat them to the Moon (and beyond). It was a waste of resources, exemplifying the decadence of the past. Their textbooks have been altered to teach this to students, now believed to be the truth.

Nolan, with Interstellar, seems to be trying to once again spark interest in space exploration, in discovery – something that was very much a part of our culture (at least for those alive during the U.S.’s NASA missions). Growing up in the 1960s-1980s, every child dreamed of being an astronaut, exploring the wonders of space, leading to the overwhelming popularity of science fiction (films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars – all of which are big influences on Interstellar). But something changed within our culture, within us. We no longer look up to the stars and dream. Technologically speaking, this is a grave tragedy, as NASA’s scientists greatly pushed technological advancement forward as they frantically worked to conquer the great unknown. The majesty, grandness and beauty of Interstellar will hopefully reignite our imaginations, our drive to explore (something that seemingly has always been a part of what makes us human, but has somehow been lost) and our willingness to take risks – to make our dreams into reality. Nolan screened The Right Stuff to invigorate his crew with this spirit of discovery.

Technically and aesthetically, the film is utterly spellbinding. The visuals are unlike anything else in modern cinema (greatly trumping last year’s Gravity by comparison, which I thought was fantastic as well on a visual level, but this film is on an entirely different level of beauty and grandeur). I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX, as the film has over an hour of footage that takes advantage of the formats expansive 70mm film stock (here is a list of IMAX theaters, for real IMAX look for theaters with the 15/70mm screens). Interstellar is a marvel alone for its technical and aesthetic achievements (most of which were created in camera – which is very uncommon today).

Yet, to sustain the audience for the film’s long runtime, there must also be substance. Many have accused Nolan’s work of lacking emotion in the past (something I do not agree with, but it seems to be the general consensus among critics). Interstellar is different. It is Nolan’s most emotional film. The story is very simple. It is about the relationship between Cooper and Murph. She feels betrayed when he leaves. He has left her to grow up without parents, abandoned to die on the Earth while he potentially restarts humanity on a new planet. Nolan mines this relationship for all its dramatic emotion. Due to relativity caused by a black hole called Gargantua, Cooper loses twenty three years in only a few hours, watching his children grow up through a series of video messages, unable to send return messages. This scene is tragic, as Cooper realizes what he is giving up. His motivation is to get back to his children, but visiting each of these potential planets advances time greatly for Earth relative to the short amount of time he has spent on the planets. Cooper realizes that he may not be able to see his children again, which crushes him.

Nolan’s character development is very good as well. The first act stage setting, detailing the relationships between the characters, goes a long way, paying off profoundly as Cooper and Murph’s relationship develops. We understand why Cooper must go, but also the loss felt by Murph. Seeing Cooper’s children age (and grow up without him) and his devastation at the very real realization that he will likely never see them again also crushes us as well.

Cooper and Murph are also mirrored by Dr. Amelia Brand and her father Professor Brand. Amelia leaves on the mission while her father stays behind working on a solution to save the people on Earth. There is a plan A and plan B. Plan A sees humanity rocket off the Earth on a massive space station (Professor Brand just has not solved the equation allowing it to be possible, but he is confident he will), while Plan B sees Cooper, Amelia and the two other astronauts repopulate humanity on a new planet with hundreds of embryos that they have brought along. Murph is devastated by her father leaving and Amelia is also devastated when she learns the truth that plan A is a lie, enacted to bring people together, to work together supporting plan B. Professor Brand had already solved his equation long ago, but it was a dead-end. It was his intention all along for plan B to be humanity’s salvation. Amelia cannot believe that her father would betray her by lying to her and Murph, learning the truth as well, is consumed by the idea that her father knew and left her to die on Earth. Here again, Nolan achieves real emotional resonance, drawing the audience further in. Seeing Murph’s anger towards Cooper is heartbreaking for us as well. We care deeply about these characters. We want to see them succeed. Thus, the action plays on a much more emotional level for us. We are completely engrossed.

The action is thrilling. Interstellar has a number of grand action sequences that are very entertaining, both on a visual and dramatic level. Nolan is a master of building tension; and this film has a number of agonizingly tense moments that grab you and do not let go. The film also uses the idea of evil very well. The film postulates that there is no evil in nature, only in what humans bring with them. Thus, in a new galaxy, untouched by mankind, the only evil is that of man. This plays out wonderfully through the character of Dr. Mann. He is described by the crew as “the best of all of us”. Dr. Mann is one of the twelve scientists who left ten years prior to Cooper’s mission to scout potential planets and relay the data that they find. Dr. Mann has sent back his data with the message that his planet has incredible potential. Yet, things are not as they appear on his planet when Cooper and Amelia arrive. Dr. Mann is overcome by his own mortality, prioritizing his own survival over anything else. He falsified his data so that the team would come to his planet to save him. Nolan again does a great job of creating characters that seem to mirror each other. Both Cooper and Dr. Mann are presented as heroes who sacrifice everything to save humanity; however, when everything is on the line, their true natures take over. Cooper proves himself to be selfless while Dr. Mann is selfish. Mankind’s drive to survive makes him able to be either selfless or selfish, good or evil, hero or villain, brave or cowardly (and sometimes both). Dr. Mann is the film’s villain, but he is not really a villain in the classical sense. More so, he is just a man who has given in to his own weakness.

Getting back to the narrative, Nolan is well known for his plot twists. Interstellar, as said above, tells a very simple story on a massively grand scale. While it does contain a number of plot twists, they are not the point of the story, and honestly they are not really big twists to those paying attention (as well as those with an understanding of film structure – or those who have just seen a lot of movies). Everything is clearly telegraphed to the audience (generally a staple of good storytelling). Again, Nolan has created a film that seems to transcend what we typically think of as a blockbuster. While it does have similar elements (big action sequences, plot twists and a grand scale/scope), Nolan seems to have a much higher ambition. He wants to make a sci-fi epic that is visually compelling, emotionally engaging and thought provoking, along the lines of classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he fantastically pays homage to through some great tongue-and-cheek dialog from the astronauts' robot companion TARS) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These types of films are almost completely non-existent in today’s cinema (which is sad). I think Nolan succeeds in his ambition.

The science of the film is also a big element in its construction. The Nolan Brothers worked closely with physicist Kip Thorne (who serves as an executive producer) on the script, the feasibility and look of the film. Interstellar relies on the audience’s understanding of wormholes, black holes, relativity, and other scientific principles and theories. It sounds like a tall order to get all this information across without the film being bogged down in its science. Nolan, here, succeeds spectacularly as well. The film is paced wonderfully to keep things moving. The exposition and science are woven expertly into the dialogue, leaving the audience informed and never bored (something Nolan probably learned writing and making Inception, a film in which he creates the character of Ariadne just so everything can be explained to the audience). Everything is also shown visually as well, taking advantage of the majesty of the film’s beautiful imagery.

Interstellar, however, is also a film that is likely to prove to be somewhat decisive for viewers. There are elements that can potentially feel very hokey (mostly stemming from Murph’s ghost and the twist involving what it actually is). It is again a film about a father and daughter; thus, its resolution is going to be about these characters, their relationship. The film takes such big risks with its narrative in the third act that they are not going to work for everyone. Yet, it is these risks that also create the film’s most emotionally captivating and powerful moments. Thus, if they do feel overly hokey, the film will possibly leave you disappointed; but, if they engage you on the intended emotional level, the film works beautifully.

Nolan is an optimist. While the film begins with the potential end of humanity, it ends with hope, a confidence that we can be better, that we can once again reach for the stars. It is Nolan’s most beautiful and touching film. Interstellar is grandiose due to its striking imagery and ambition; but it is a film that exceeds its blockbuster label, resonating on a much more emotional level, getting at the core of what makes us human – our ability to love, to endure and to look up at the stars, imagining our place among them, seeking out the unknown.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Christopher Nolan has now made nine feature films. Nolan began his career with the micro budget (a sparse $6,000) crime drama mystery/thriller Following. Despite the small budget, the film foreshadows the narrative themes and storytelling style that Nolan is now famous for. He then made his breakthrough film, Memento, a mystery thriller that stormed the world of independent film and made Nolan a star overnight. He came to Hollywood, first making Insomnia and following it up with his brilliant The Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), representing the heights to which genre (superhero/comic book) filmmaking can achieve. Between his Batman films, he made a wonderful film about dueling magicians, The Prestige, and a massive action thriller that assumes that the audience is actively engaged and not just a passive, distracted observer waiting to be cheaply entertained with Inception. That brings us to Interstellar. Nolan’s films have operated on a massive scale (especially the last three), both narratively and physically – Nolan integrating more and more IMAX footage with each film. He is a director who makes spectacles in the classical sense – grand epics that thrill us while also challenging us dramatically and emotionally. He is an auteur in the truest sense of the word; and yet unlike most other auteurs working today, he makes films intended to be blockbusters. He does it better than anyone else right now. It is his gift to take on such an immense scale and scope with his films and not lose their dramatic and emotional cores. While his films are blockbusters, his characters are just as rich and well developed as any in cinema. Interstellar is both his most ambitious and his most personal (shooting under the title Flora’s Letter, named for his daughter). It is also maybe Nolan’s most polarizing film, stemming from the narrative risks he takes. I think Interstellar is a masterful work, daring to be a blockbuster that aspires to be original and thought provoking (similar to the grand epics of the past, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) when Hollywood cinema has become reductive, constantly recycling the same ideas over and over, afraid to take risks because missteps today are too costly. Nolan worked his way up with his marvelous films, Inception probably being the key stepping stone, allowing him to aim high and swing big. I, for one, am glad he did. Interstellar is an incredible cinematic experience.

As stated many times above, Interstellar is a wonder of aesthetic and technical majesty. Composer Hans Zimmer’s score is breathtaking (it very well might have been my favorite part of the film). It is different than anything else found in other current blockbusters. Zimmer’s music is grand and beautiful, completely emotionally engulfing the viewer (here is the main theme). It resonates incredibly well with the striking visuals, creating a full emotional experience (I wish I could go back and see it again for the first time and hear the music again for the first time). Filling in for Wally Pfister (Interstellar is only Nolan’s second film not shot by Pfister, the other is Following), cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema delivers stunning work. The photography in the film is astounding, arresting and wondrous. Nolan’s characters and their emotional journey are the core of the film, but Hoytema’s photography is just as big a part of Interstellar’s power and grandeur. Production designer Nathan Crowley does a wonderful job as well. Although the film does take place in the future, his work feels very much rooted in the past, representing a society that has suffered a grave setback. His spacecraft designs are very utilitarian, looking like they were put together in a hodgepodge fashion using many eras of technology (with digital and analog options). Earth does not look very futurist either (matching the idea that humanity is on the decline), as if technological advancement came to a halt and maybe even regressed.

The cast of Interstellar is very good. John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck, and Wes Bentley are good in small supporting roles. David Gyasi plays Romilly, one of the four astronauts on the mission. His role is fairly small, but Gyasi does a lot with it, showing the emotional and physical toll that the mission takes on his character. He is excellent in the film. Bill Irwin plays TARS one of the robots that accompanies the astronauts on their mission. Irwin gives TARS a wonderfully sly wit, providing the film's best comedic moments. Michael Caine plays Professor Brand (possibly a surrogate for Kip Thorne), the principal scientist at NASA and the chief engineer behind the mission to save humanity. Caine brings a weighted gravity to his performance that is very effective. The reveal of his grand lie is one of the more powerful moments in the film. Matt Damon plays Dr. Mann, an astronaut/scientist who puts himself ahead of mankind’s survival. Damon does not often get to play the villain, but he is very good at it. Dr. Mann does terrible and cowardly things. Damon is so good at being overly self-justified and sleazy, creating a great character in Dr. Mann. Mackenzie Foy plays Young Murph. She is very good, showcasing Murph’s intelligence, wonder and absolute devastation when her father leaves her. Foy sets the stage for Jessica Chastain who plays the character grown up. Chastain plays Murph as a character who has been hurt. She is still haunted by the decision her father made, unable to forgive him. Yet, it also makes her determined to do her part in saving humanity, as she works with Professor Brand on his equation and preparing for plan A’s success. Chastain’s best moments come when she discovers that plan A is a lie, reigniting the heartbreak she felt when her father left, but also strengthen her resolve to find a way to save humanity even more. Anne Hathaway plays Dr. Amelia Brand, also one of the astronauts. Hathaway plays Amelia with a certain naivety that when crushed opens her up to becoming stronger as a person (to some extend mirroring Murph’s resolve in the face of plan A being revealed as a lie). Hathaway is very good, transitioning from her naivety to real strength. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, taking on the responsibility of being the audience’s surrogate in the narrative (their way into the story). It is very difficult to play the everyman and still create a full character. McConaughey does this particularly well (he is having a fantastic year – winning an Oscar, giving what might be the year’s best performance in HBO’s True Detective and now delivering yet another fine performance in this). He is likable, yet does not pander. He is a rebel in the classical sense, yearning for something more than being a farmer. He gets his wish, but at a great cost. The audience feels for him, cares about him and wants to see him succeed – all key elements to the film working. His performance achieves all these things and more.

Summary & score: Interstellar is a monumental achievement of acting, aesthetic and technical triumphs. It is a blockbuster that dares to be so much more, filled with rich characters, moving drama and real emotional resonance. 10/10

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