Interstellar Dir. Christopher Nolan

[Paramount; 2014]

Styles: science fiction
Others: Inception, The Prestige, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, Solaris, City Lights, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Armageddon

Christopher Nolan is a maddening filmmaker. He’s a brainiac who loves technology and big spectacle, yet he avoids digital film and CGI special effects. His films are involving in part because they do not insult the audience’s intelligence, yet his scripts insist upon reams of expository dialogue and redundant parallel storytelling. All the hallmarks of Nolan’s work can be found in Interstellar, a multi-generational, multi-galaxy science fiction odyssey. Nolan looks forward and backward for inspiration: he draws from cutting edge theories to create genuine awe in his audience, then creates stirring emotion with techniques that were popular in the silent era. Like last year’s Gravity, the success of Interstellar is directly proportional to the size of the screen on which you see it, and not for the reasons you might expect.

In term of world-building, Nolan and his brother/co-screenwriter Jonathon envision an Earth that looks like a dust bowl nightmare. Between references to the end of war and overwhelming drought, this is a planet that’s mid-way through its death rattle. Everyone, including the former pilot/engineer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), works as a farmer because food is that scarce. Cooper’s son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) sees farming as a noble profession, but his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) looks to the sky for inspiration. Under mysterious circumstances, Cooper and Murph discover a top-secret NASA bunker where a professor (Michael Caine) and his daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) have a complex plan to save humanity.

Right around this point is when Nolan’s characters patiently explain everything to the audience via Cooper, and it works because the script weaves genuine science with gobbledygook. There is just enough to pique our curiosity, yet not enough where we can see the holes in the Big Plan. When I first learned about the premise of Interstellar, my first question was, “If Cooper leaves his family and Earth for another galaxy, how exactly will that save mankind?” To the credit of the Nolan brothers, they manage to weave the answer to that question into the intricacies of the plot.

Before saving the world, Cooper and the others travel to the far side of Saturn in order to enter a wormhole — one that leads to potentially habitable worlds. The wormhole sequences are among the most visually compelling in the film: we see Cooper’s craft in an abstracted context of Saturn, and the wormhole distorts time and light into something both unknowable and frightening. I had the privilege of seeing Interstellar in 70mm film stock on a screen that’s nearly six storeys high, so the wormhole looked like breathtaking, unwelcoming void. IMAX is the best way to experience this movie precisely because those dimensions give Nolan and his production team an opportunity to depict the vast blackness of space, and to then distort that infinity on a macro scale. Lurching forward in my seat, I was literally afraid to blink.

But the greatest success of Interstellar, one that makes it more involving than Nolan’s other work, is that the camera brings the same careful attention to faces. There is a scene midway through the film in which Cooper experiences profound loss — one that’s connected to Murphy, of course — and Nolan has the patience for a protracted close-up. With nowhere to turn, McConaughey selflessly drops the artifice of his cocksure adventurer character and lets emotions overwhelm him (Caine and Hathaway have similar, powerful moments). As filmmakers from Chaplin onward have demonstrated, this shot is the simplest, most effective way to engage with an audience’s emotions. There are several intense close-ups throughout the movie, and their lack of dialogue is a gut-punch, setting human stakes for what’s to follow.

Cooper and his crew visit two planets after traveling through the wormhole, and deal with disasters at both of them. The first is a simple, brutal set-piece, one that rises above its essential simplicity with the help of TARS (Bill Irwin), a utilitarian robot with a sense of humor and more depth than we initially thought. The second planet, predictably, is where Nolan slackens his grip. He cross-cuts between the distant planet and Earth, where Jessica Chastain plays Murph as an embittered adult, and the abundant foreshadowing oversell the tension. Nolan makes big points about the folly and inscrutability of man with techniques that would be found in a middling horror film. Had he used shrewder editing, the two sets of characters would experience similar tension on the same timeline, but instead it’s as if Nolan hits the brakes when he should hit accelerator. The suspense culminates in a spectacular scene where Cooper performs a near-impossible feat as a pilot, yet it’s more of a technical marvel than an emotional immediate action sequence.

There are moments in Interstellar when it seems that Nolan cannot wait to advance his story. One of the best choices he makes is early in the film, when he overlays voiceover of the shuttle countdown clock with a take of Cooper leaving his home. Not only does this choice advance the story quickly, it creates an infectious momentum where Nolan implicitly trusts us to match his level of excitement. This trust continues to the aforementioned expository dialogue, which grows more abstract because the emotional foundation is now what sells his universal themes (the bombastic score by Hans Zimmer has an organ as its chief instrument, which is both a callback to the classical score of Kubrick’s 2001 and also somehow sonically rich in a modern way).

All this outstanding filmmaking grinds to screeching halt in the middle of a near-disastrous third act. Nolan hints at a mystical element throughout Interstellar, and then reveals it with a tedious, all-too-literal stretch of action that falters precisely because the previous narrative leaps got our mental gears churning. The disastrous misstep, one that nearly upends the whole thing, is the misguided idea that the script needs the same solution that a puzzle might. With such cinematic powers at his disposal, Nolan should know that the power of movie logic trumps any detailed explanation. Given that this is the guy who made The Prestige, it’s ironic that Nolan has yet to learn that film’s lesson about the disappointment of learning the whole damn trick.

Interstellar begins with quasi-documentary footage of talking heads, and the snippets of dialogue suggest that Cooper’s mission is a success. The best thing about the film is there is a significant stretch, one that lasts the plurality of the film, where it’s easy to forget the promise of that resolution. While the aforementioned misstep is what stops the film from greatness, its staggering successes are a reminder of why ambition is sometimes more worthwhile than taut storytelling economy. This is a visual epic punctuated with moments of simple, acute emotions like regret, terror, and (at long last) relief. After it was over and the flaws of Interstellar drifted away, the film’s ideas made it difficult for me to fall asleep. All I wanted to do was look skyward.

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