Sunday, November 9, 2014

Time, Space, Gravity and Love: Interstellar, Reviewed

You probably already know more about Christopher Nolan's latest movie, Interstellar, than you really need to, but I will do my best not to talk too much about the plot. I do this because the less you know about the story, the greater the likelihood you will enjoy the film; the themes of discovery and loss run hand in hand through Interstellar, and the more you can share in those sensations, the fuller your experience is likely to be.

For my part, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I think it lacks the coherence of Nolan's greater works, such as The Dark Knight or Inception, but if it does, it is not due to a lack of talent or focus, but because of the scope and sheer ambition of the story.

The opening of Interstellar paints a bleak picture of a damaged earth slowly losing the ability to sustain human life. Crops are failing, airborn topsoil paints everything with a patina of grimy dust, and humanity is so focused on feeding itself, it has wholly given up on space exploration. In fact, the school curriculum teaches the main character's children that the Apollo moon landings were faked in a ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

Former engineer and astronaut candidate Cooper, played with laconic intensity by Matthew McConaughey, is a single father and reluctant farmer who does his best to maintain his corn crop and raise his family in the face of an uncertain future. A series of strange occurrences shared with his daughter Murph leads him to a place where he learns that time is indeed running out for humanity, and Earth will not be habitable within the next 40 years.

The first of several hard choices comes soon after: lead an expedition through a wormhole placed close to Saturn by an unknown intelligence, or stay on a dying earth with his young family. The trip to Saturn alone will take almost two years, and while travel through the wormhole should be practically instantaneous, the proximity of a black hole on the other side will also increase how much time passes back on earth.

Suffice to say that Coop believes the dire circumstances on Earth merit his participation, despite the fact that he may not only never see his children again, and if he does, he will have missed their childhoods, but also in spite of the fact that his willingness to leave is enough to critically damage his relationship with Murph.

Eventually our perspective shifts from another galaxy back to Earth, where a frenzied search is underway for a means to move the masses of humanity out of the gravity well on the off chance a sanctuary is discovered for them to escape to. But that is enough about the plot, frankly; the filmmakers have done a great job locking up details about what happens on the far side of the mysteriously generated wormhole, and as I said, the more there is for you to discover, the more likely you are to enjoy the movie.

So, should you see Interstellar? Is it a good movie?

Well first, let's remind ourselves that the failure of one does not preclude the other. I've seen tons of films that I cannot consider to be "good" by any objective standard, but have enjoyed them greatly nonetheless. Having said that, I think Christopher Nolan (and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the screenplay) have made a good movie, and furthermore, it's the most ambitious mainstream movie I've seen in years.

The story deals with some big ideas, like the best science-fiction should; not just the effect of gravity on time and space, but the ability of love to transcend both these things. Ways to guarantee the survival of humanity as a species, and the challenge of maintaining our humanity in the face of harder and harder decisions we might feel compelled to make in pursuit of that goal. This is a great film, not in the sense of quality, but because of the scale of the ideas it plays with, starting in the human heart, and travelling into the fifth dimension.

Comparisons to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey are inevitable and understandable, given that Nolan cites it as the single biggest inspiration for Interstellar. There is a lot of overlap: the sense of exploration, the pervasive questions about trust and forgiveness, dutiful attention to the practical details of life in space, and using creative visuals to illustrate ideas that are almost unfathomable. Even the robot companion TARS echoes a bit of HAL 9000, although his dialogue is aided quite a bit by What we are assured is a 75% humor setting.

What else is there to like? Well, the production design is first rate. Nolan is a big fan of practical effects and having a set that looks like it has been lived in. The Endurance, the ship/habitat that takes the crew through the wormhole, is not always CGI but a model in many shots, giving it a texture that feels very familiar to old school film buffs, and suits the near future, NASA-style design, as well as the shots that go with it. The robots are evocative of current design concepts we see coming out of MIT and DARPA, but combine that simplicity with imaginative ideas for movement and interactions with some of the sets.

The visuals are as sharp as you would expect from the maker of Inception, but the audio design is an even more compelling reason to see this movie in the theatre. The space travel is exceptionally engaging, but the wormhole transition sequence could be an amusement park ride for blind people, and Hans Zimmer brings yet another imaginative twist to film scoring with his work here.

The acting is likewise top shelf. Anne Hathaway's Dr. Brand combines a scientific disposition and flinty diligence to her mission with the acknowledgement that love is the primary and best motivation for their mission. Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine (in his fifth collaboration with Nolan!) turn in excellent performances, full of nuance, but it is Matthew McConaughey's Coop that the story hinges upon, and he delivers admirably. He plays Cooper with a laconic intensity and the calm reserve that we associate with real-life astronauts, but really shines in the sensitivity he displays during scenes with his family.

The movie is not without its flaws, and ironically, the greatest of these is probably its ambition. The scope of ideas and concepts being bandied about in places often require a lot from the audience, and not just getting across theories of relativistic time dilation, or some of physicist Kip Thorne's thoughts on superluminal travel through an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Even more challenging are the ideas about 'Them', the creators of the wormhole, who potentially use gravity as a medium for communication, and who might live in the fifth dimension. Some of these ideas take a significant amount of exposition or setup, and even then, there are going to be audience members left scrambling to keep up.

The size of the story and the concepts contained within also increase the running time to a staggering 2 hours and 49 minutes. It's not an inappropriate length for a movie built around themes like loneliness and isolation, and how true exploration often begins with a significant journey just to reach that frontier where the adventure actually begins.

It is possible that there are problems with the math regarding the time dilation, but I'm a liberal arts grad, so I am not going to wade into that nonsense. It is enough to me that they address issues like hibernating during a two year trip to the outer planets of our solar system, the dangers of explosive decompression, and the realpolitik associated with a potential planetary evacuation; don't disregard such matters, but don't waste too much time working out all the bugs onscreen. Mention them, try not to insult my intelligence, and get back to your story, that's all I ask.

The further I get from the film, the more I appreciate it, and I would very much like to see it again, perhaps in 70mm IMAX, since so much of the film was shot in this format. Nolan is often criticized for making films that look amazing but lack an emotional core, and those who feel that way may be similarly unmoved by Interstellar. As a parent though, I found Coop's motivation and regret extremely accessible; as a romantic, I found Brand's assertions about the possible quantum basis for love to be compelling.

Interstellar is not a movie for everyone, to be sure. Who is it for? Well, if you enjoyed 2001, or similarly Kubrickian sci-fi films like Spielberg's A.I., or Moon by Duncan Jones, it is more likely you will enjoy yourself. Those who saw the theatrical version of James Cameron's The Abyss and thought the somewhat disappointing destination didn't diminish the enjoyment of the journey up to that point, and those who are able to look past a director's grasp to see what he is reaching for? You are in for a treat.

Fans of cinema should go to this movie regardless of whether or not they feel confident they will like it. Why? Because it is the only way to assure that directors like Nolan continue to get the ability to make ambitious, original films about big ideas, as opposed to endless adaptations and sequels. And you might like it, flaws and all.

Like the characters in Interstellar, we must feel encouraged to explore, to move away from where we have begun, to get outside of our comfort zones in order to discover new ideas and experiences. In this regard, Nolan has given us an allegorical movie that cleverly reminds us that stagnation is death, and that hope will always remain out of reach, until we find new ways to extend our grasp.


  1. Kelly and I saw this today and loved it. I found Interstellar had an intensely emotional pull that worked hand in hand with its tremendous spectacle and scope. Great review Stephen. I would happily join you for a second viewing at the IMAX,

    1. Thanks, man! I'm gratified you enjoyed it; a lot of the criticisms I've read have been pretty harsh, and range from plot holes and questionable motivations to 'keep your mushy new-age metaphysics out of my sci-fi', but I honestly think those last folks are missing out.