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Josh Reviews Interstellar

When it was first announced that Christopher Nolan would be making an original science-fiction film as his next project, featuring a top-shelf cast and utilizing a blockbuster-sized budget, I was quickly atwitter with visions of a masterpiece.  After much anticipation, Interstellar has arrived, and while it might not be quite a masterpiece, it is a delightfully ambitious, smart, and entertaining piece of filmmaking.

In the near future, a terrible blight has destroyed crops world-wide, shattering the status quo and pushing much of the world back to the levels of subsistence farming.  Coop (Matthew McConaughey) was once a test pilot, but now he’s a farmer and a single parent caring for his two kids, Murph and Fox, with the help of his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow).  But when Coop and Murph stumble across a secret base in the desert that houses what remains of NASA, their lives change forever.  Coop’s former mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is spearheading a project that could represent humanity’s last hope.  They’ve discovered a wormhole in orbit of Saturn, and have been secretly launching expeditions through that wormhole in search of habitable planets to which they could relocate what’s left of humanity.  They have one ship left, but no one to pilot it.  If Coop accepts, he might be able to save the lives of his children who would otherwise likely perish on the sickening Earth.  But if he goes on the mission, the effects of relativity will cause his children to be grown by the time he returns.

There is a lot to love about Interstellar.  First and foremost, I am always thrilled to see an original piece of science-fiction that isn’t connected to a franchise.  I’m even more excited when said science-fiction, rather than being an action-adventure shoot-em-up, tries to be a more serious-minded piece of speculative fiction.  Interstellar is 100% in that mold.  Christopher Nolan and his team have set out to create a smart piece of science fiction in the best tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Smart is the key word here.  Not only is the film aimed at smart audience-members (this is not a dumbed-down fantasy), but even better, the film’s whole story is about the importance of science, and of smart people continuing to push the bounds of exploration and human knowledge.  I love that about the film.  Shockingly, in this day and age, so often it seems that intelligence and science are seen as things to be mocked or dismissed.  Interstellar will have none of that.  One of the most striking scenes in the film come fairly early on (long before we get to the incredible outer-space sequences in the film’s second half) in which Coop stops by his kids’ school for a meeting with his kids’ teachers.  His daughter Murph’s teacher is upset that Murph brought one of Coop’s books into school, which contradicts their textbooks which have been revised to state that the moon landings were faked.  The teacher is concerned that Murph won’t learn the important lesson of setting her sights low and not allowing her to be distracted by the myths perpetuated by scientists and eggheads.  Coop, meanwhile, is flabbergasted at the ignorance embraced by the people responsible for educating the next generation.  It’s a staggering scene, one that I think makes the film’s central point with true power.  This is not a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, friends, this world is closer than we might think.

Speaking of science, that’s another thing I love about Interstellar: its effort to portray space-travel with realistic science.  There is science fiction here, for sure.  This movie features wormholes and other worlds and robots and lots of other crazy stuff.  But it is all presented with what at least appears to me to be a realistic approach.  The science and tech in the film looks and feels like what we could reasonably achieve in the near future.  There’s an effort to pay attention to the scientific realities of interstellar travel — such as the effects of relativity which are so central to the film’s story — that many films choose to ignore.

I mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, and much has been written comparing Interstellar to that film.  Both are big, heady sci-fi films that also attempt to make broader statements about humanity itself, where we have been and where we are going.  Both build to the investigation of a mystery in deep space, and both feature a turn into weirdness in the climax.  (I had a lot to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey here.)  I’ve also read some articles that also compare Interstellar to 2001′s sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, both because of similarities in the plot (both stories focus on a trip to investigate a phenomenon in orbit of Saturn) and in the way that both films give the audience concrete answers at the end in the way that 2001 defiantly refuses to.  (Click here for my thoughts on 2010: The Year We Make Contact.)  Personally, I found that Interstellar reminded me a lot more of Contact (which is one of my very favorite films — click here to read more).  Both films are very smart stories that try to realistically follow how people would investigate the emergence of an intriguing and tantalizing outer-space phenomenon, and there is a certain similarity to both films’ third-act developments.  (Both also feature Matthew McConaughey!)

But while I was watching and enjoying Interstellar, what I kept thinking about was Arthur C. Clarke.  The film felt to me like a faithful adaptation of a story that Arthur C. Clarke might have written but didn’t.  Interstellar takes a leap into science-fiction and wraps it in real-world science and thoughtful extrapolations of what we know today in the way that I always loved about Mr. Clarke’s books.  And both are a little bit cold, a little bit more focused on plot than they are on character.  (This is Interstellar’s biggest flaw in my mind, which I’ll get back to in a moment.)  And so, I guess I return to that initial comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, though while most people making this comparison were thinking about Kubrick, I am thinking about Arthur C. Clarke.

The cast is great.  Boy, Matthew McConaughey has taken an incredible leap with his skills this year.  I was bowled over by his work in True Detective (click here for my review) and he’s pretty great here.  There’s a scene in the film’s second half in which we see Coop watching a series of recordings made by his aging-before-his-eyes children, and Mr. McConaughey is absolutely astounding in the moment.  Jessica Chastain plays Coop’s daughter Murph as an adult, and she’s great, but it’s the actress who plays young Murph who really bowled me over.  Her name is Mackenzie Foy, and this is one of the finest child actor performances of recent years.  Ms. Foy has to play some really tough, wrenching emotional moments in the film, and she absolutely killed in every one of them.  The relationship between Coop and Murph — and between McConaughey and Foy — is the beating heart of the film.

The rest of the ensemble is strong.  John Lithgow brings exactly the right mix of kindness and steel as Donald, the father of Coop’s deceased wife.  Christopher Nolan must love working with Michael Caine (who wouldn’t?) and so the great Mr. Caine pops up in yet another of Mr. Nolan’s films, here as the scientist Professor Brand who hooks Coop into NASA’s interstellar mission.  Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi (so great in Cloud Atlas) and Wes Bentley do strong work as Coops’ fellow astronauts on his mission in the second half of the film.  They all make the most out of fairly thinly-written roles.  Several other famous faces pop up in the film’s second half.  I didn’t know any of them were in the movie, and each appearance was a fun surprise, so I’ll protect that surprise for now.

The film’s biggest weakness, as I alluded to above, is that other than the Coop-Murphy relationship, the film is missing the type of strong emotional through-line that it needs to elevate it to a work of true greatness.  (Contact is a great example of a very smart sci-fi film that is heavy on plot but that nails that emotional core that really engages the audience.)  To be honest, none of the characters in the film are all that fleshed out.  This is particularly a problem in the film’s second half, once Coop’s mission begins.  We really needed to know and care for Coop’s fellow astronauts far better than we do.  As an example, it’s supposed to be a surprise late in the film when we learn that Anne Hathaway’s character Brand is in love with someone, but when that is revealed in the film I was puzzled as to just who she was in love with — was it someone we’d met already in the film?  At first I thought it was David Gyasi’s character.  I was confused.  It’s super-weird — this is a huge plot point in the film’s third act, but we the audience have absolutely zero investment in that love affair and don’t know at all who the guy is who she’s in love with.

This is a problem for all the characters.  Even Coop, the main hero of the story, is pretty one-dimensional.  There’s really not much more to him than a guy who loves his kids but loves the idea of being an astronaut more.  I am oversimplifying, but not much.  (I expected Coop to struggle a lot more with the choice of whether to leave his family to go on the space mission or not, but once Michael Caine’s character offers it to him, he’s in pretty much immediately.)  The strong cast are able to make these one-dimensional characters work, but this would be a much stronger film if these characters and their relationships were more fleshed out.

I haven’t mentioned TARS yet.  I don’t want to spoil too much, but this A.I. really stole the second half of the film.  I wasn’t sold on the low-tech design of the robot when we first meet him, but the design and the character really grew on me.  One of the best emotional moments in the film is at the very end, when we see Coop tinkering with the damaged TARS’ systems and re-setting his humor threshold.  TARS is voiced by Bill Irwin (Mr. Noodles!) and he is perfect.  His voice has an “every-man” quality to it that is just right for TARS.  It also helps that TARS gets some of the best lines in the film.  TARS was the biggest surprise of the film for me.

Hans Zimmer’s score for the film is incredible, very unusual for this type of sci-fi film.  The building crescendos of music were a terrific accompaniment to the film’s extraordinary vistas, particularly in the second half once Coop and the film leave Earth behind.  The visual effects of the deep-space sequences are phenomenal.  Seeing Interstellar on a huge screen was a delight; the film is loaded with absolutely gorgeous imagery.  (And also, in the film’s first half, some truly terrifying imagery of Earth’s possible future.  The way that Mr. Nolan and his team recreated the look of the “dustbowl” of the Great Depression was profoundly affecting.)  Mr. Zimmer’s music works terrifically with Mr. Nolan’s imagery.

The only problem is that I have to concur with the growing complaint that there is some sort of sound-mixing problem in the film.  I felt the soundtrack was mixed too high, to the point that it sometimes makes the film’s dialogue hard to hear.  Sometimes I can believe that this was intentional (like the scene in which we see Jessica Chastain’s message being delivered to the Endeavor, after the crew has already departed).  But other times it seems like it must be a mistake — I can’t, for example, believe that Mr. Nolan wanted the audience to have a hard time hearing the elderly Murph’s final lines in the film.  I’ve done some reading about this, and it seems like I am far from alone in taking issue with the film’s sound levels.  As skilled and attentive as Christopher Nolan is, this is very weird, particularly as it follows the brouhaha over Bane’s difficult-to-hear dialogue in The Dark Knight Rises.  (When the first ten minutes of that film were previewed in IMAX, Bane’s muffled dialogue was impossible to understand.  Though Mr. Nolan and his team insisted that they thought everything was fine, Bane’s dialogue was adjusted when the film was released in theaters.)  Why are there sound issues in two back-to-back Christopher Nolan films, each of which were big-budget, high-profile films?  I am mystified as to what exactly went wrong here.

Overall, I strongly recommend Interstellar. This is a big movie, and it’s worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.  This is a smart, adult film with a lot on its mind.  I was delighted to see Mr. Nolan tackle an original sci-fi tale, I wish there were a lot more movies like this.  The film has some flaws, but I respect it for its ambition and its epic scope.  Its reach slightly exceeds its grasp, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless.  The message about the importance of science and exploration, about the hope for mankind’s future that exists out among the stars, is one that speaks to me deeply.  This is a film I look forward to revisiting.

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