“Interstellar” – A Review

10 Nov

interstellar-01The Earth is dying. We killed it. We took it and used it up without thinking. We were callous and indifferent and now we are all going to die. Or our children or grandchildren are going to die.

That could easily be the premise of the film entitled The World We Live in or Soon Will Be Living In, Thanks Big Oil, but is actually the premise to Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s big, bold, ambitious, flawed, confounding, rollicking, sci-fi romp. Whatever is killing the planet in Interstellar is never fully disclosed. It’s termed “the blight” and has killed wheat and okra and is now going after corn. The Midwestern farm owned by Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is reminiscent of images from the Dust Bowl, except for the Indian Air Force drone flying overhead. Cooper is not really a farmer, however. He’s a pilot. But there are no more pilots. No more armies. No more NASA. Even the textbooks have been rewritten: we never went to the moon, we faked it to bankrupt the Soviets.

This sense of quiet despair is palpable during the early scenes of the film. This is, as one character puts it, a caretaker generation, one not interested in moving forward, only in not moving back. Cooper is a man out of his time. A widower raising two children (boy Tom, girl Murphy), he dreams of what might have been, and within him is a quiet anger at the resigned attitude the world has taken. And when Murphy speaks of a ghost or poltergeist in her room, he dismisses it as the imaginings of a precocious ten-year-old.

But that ghost – or something?!? – is real. Within the windblown dust of her bedroom is a code that leads Cooper and Murphy to a secret governmental site. There they find the remnants of NASA, led by Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), a scientist who believes the only way for humanity to survive is to find another planet that can sustain life. Cooper is recruited to pilot a ship through a wormhole to another galaxy.

Leaving Earth, leaving his family, Cooper knows that – because of the laws of relativity – his children will age at a faster clip than he will. He may never see them again. On the other hand, he might be able to save the entire human race.  

Of course, it’s not called Interstellar because he stays on Earth. What follows…well, it’s simply something you have to experience for yourself. The film clocks in at about ten minutes shy of three hours, but rarely does any element of Interstellar feel extraneous or overindulgent. Indulgent, yes, because the film is a cornucopia of the very best of science fiction: simultaneously hopeful and fearful at our future prospects, filled with thrilling action, and set in a near future with near future tech that is easily conceivable. At heart, Interstellar is a sharply pro-science science fiction film. Not that you will necessarily understand the science, and not that the science actually works (the Internet is already rife with scientists talking about how some of it is bullshit), but that doesn’t really matter. Most sci-fi, from Star Trek to Asimov is really just speculative fiction. What if? What if a wormhole to another galaxy existed? What if there was something out there trying to help us? What if we had an AI voiced by Bill Irwin?

Interstellar is pro-science because scientists are the good guys and they use science to try to save the world. And the film is great science fiction because it embraces one of the very best elements of that genre, spoken by various starship captains over the years: to boldly go where no one has gone before. Indeed, the hero of Interstellar is not necessarily Cooper and his team of explorers, and the villain is not necessarily the blight (or any other villainy that may or may not show up). It’s boldness vs. apathy. It’s trying something – anything! – as opposed to resigned fatalism, which is best exemplified by the Dylan Thomas poem quoted (overmuch) by Caine’s Dr. Brand: “Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Christopher Nolan tends to be regarded as an emotionless filmmaker. Take this partial list of his films: Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight movies. No doubt there are at least two or three films in there you love. But they are dark, brutally cynical at times, and tend to stay as far from human emotion as possible. With Interstellar, however, Nolan has channeled his inner-Spielberg. Yes, at times the film travels too close to the singularity known as “bad schmaltzy Spielberg,” but it is always able to pull away at the last moment before being sucked into its gravity well. The core of Interstellar is not a cold, scientific one, but a fully-realized emotional one. The relationship between Cooper and Murphy is what keeps the film grounded even as it soars ridiculously high. The only minor missteps are characters spouting about the power of love. Love, as anyone who has experienced it knows perfectly well, is best expressed wordlessly; once that undefinable feeling is actually defined, it begins to lose its power.

Equal to its Spielbergian emotional wallops, Interstellar borrows from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in its visual depiction of space travel and all those things that lie “beyond the infinite.” Nolan tends to prefer in-camera effects, resulting in a look and feel that feels much more realistic, more original Star Wars trilogy and less prequels. Adding to this is a score by Hans Zimmer that can be as quiet as a pinprick and as bombastic as an ocean wave.

There will be naysayers. The science doesn’t work. There’s a major plot hole. It’s too long. It’s too full of itself. It’s simply too big.

Yeah, the film is big. But why shouldn’t it be? Nolan is arguably one of the most ambitious filmmakers working today, and what is wrong with ambition? Why should artists restrain themselves? The story within the film – the boldness of a few in response to apathy of the many – mirrors somewhat what great artists do. They try harder. They may fail, but they do not fail to dream big, to take chances. Too many movies nowadays are risk-averse. The Marvel films are a perfect example of big budget films playing it safe. J.J. Abrams, a talented filmmaker in his own right, has a habit of not flexing all of his creative muscles. His Super 8 also borrowed heavily from Spielberg, but where Interstellar is its own animal, Abrams’ film was derivative and unoriginal.

The best of movies – indeed, the best of art – is forgivable. You know you’ve experienced something pretty damned amazing when you can say, “Well, this part didn’t really work for me, but I don’t care. The movie still fucking rocks.” And Interstellar fucking rocks. It may not a perfect film, but when you throw as much on the screen as Nolan does, perfection is a black swan. While it is flawed, it is also representative of the very best of a much-maligned and misunderstood genre: science fiction. Where sci-fi used to be as much about ideas as fancy gadgets, nowadays science fiction has been mostly taken over by big budget shoot ‘em ups, superhero flicks, and giant monsters. It has become a more digestible genre, easier to market to the masses, but sorely lacking in ideas or the potential for controversy. Sci fi has been neutered. Interstellar is a throwback: an old fashioned story of scrappy heroes who use their brains far more than their brawn, a film whose imagination is in the heavens, but whose heart is planted firmly on the ground.

Final Grade: A-

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