What makes a Christopher Nolan movie so entertaining is the fact that he demands quite bit of participation from his audience. He’ll put lot of complicated ideas on the table with the belief that audience is paying attention. He gives them a lot of credit. It’s quite a notion: that people might actually be entertained by the delving head-first into tough concepts they’ve never even thought about before. Movies are not just about the simplicity of whether or not someone is worthy of wielding Mjolnir: movies can be explorations of some pretty remarkable concepts. With Inception, he plays with the idea of how time seems to work at different levels of consciousness. With his new film, Interstellar, he explores how time can seem different based on the Theory of Relativity.
Yes, indeed: the Theory of Relativity, the same concept that even scientists struggle to get a grasp on, and Nolan is somehow hopes that casual film-goers to grasp even any aspect of it. Yet, here he is again, unafraid to give the audience more credit than a lot of other filmmakers out there would. As a film, Interstellar is a full, ambitious and ponderous work. Because Nolan swung for the fences on this one, not every aspect of it works, but we thank him for trying. He’s unafraid to push his own limits; after all, his films have often been considered a little cold on the emotional side – eh rarely ever touched on love directly and never quite figured out how to write a female character. With this film, he is bold enough to try to correct both of these faults. And while he might aim higher than he ever has before, he also has stepped back a bit. Thanks to using some older (but tried and true) techniques, this film feels like it came form they heyday of blockbusters rather than today’s bold yet sadly formulaic cinematic climate.
There is a great scene very early in the film, long before any mention at all of space travel, wormholes, black holes, time dilation, and tesseracts. While driving his children to school in his beat up pickup, Coop (Matthew McConaughey) spots an automated drone flying overhead. Even with a flat tire, he pursues the drone, plowing his truck through thick cornfields as he and his kids keep the drone within view. Hans Zimmer’s most poignant leitmotif is heard during this scene, and we, the audience, are wondering what will happen. Will they catch the drone? Will they find out its purpose? We’re not in any hurry to find these answers, because the music, the way is blocked, the way it’s edited, they way it flows, allows us to wonder again. It’s filmed with the same joy a father filming his child chasing after a stay balloon in afield. This was the kind of moment Spielberg would have let into one of on his early blockbusters, a unique combination of whimsy mixed with intrigue that is so lacking in popular cinema today.
The film maintains it’s intrigue for much of the first act, as Cooper regrets having to limit what his children can do in their lives because of the pressing need for farmers in a near-future of an awful environmental blight. Growing corn, however, won’t save the human race, but, soon enough, Cooper and his daughter discover a secret base in the middle of nowhere, and that idea of saving the human race is what’s keeping the wheels turning in that compound.
Coop, as a former test pilot, is tasked by NASA (which must run in secret because the government has publicly focused all of its attention on growing corn and dealing with dust storms) to go on what is essentially a planetary survey mission. With some mysterious help a decade prior, we were able to launch some astronauts to distant worlds, and one such solar system has three planets that could potentially support life.
We can only hope James Cameron has seen this movie. During his heyday, he created some of the most awesome worlds – ships and planets – that were effective because they always felt real. While Avatar pushed a lot of boundaries, it seems much too clean and polished next to those older films and certainly very tacky next to Interstellar. The spacecrafts look lived-in, dirty, and functional, the journeys between planets are long and dull, and space itself looks unimpressive. What’s more: all the points made in that last sentence were intended to be compliments to the film. Space is dull, after all, and as a ship rotates and the sun keeps going in and out of view, it resembles the repeating shadows that kids tend to notice when riding in the back seat of the car late at night. Nolan rarely provides wide shots or beauty shots of the vessels in this film. Instead, he chooses a total of maybe three angles (one of which will be the point of view of the camera tied to the hull, facing forward) and shoots all of the sequences from only those few options. The result: a far more visceral experience than one might expect, as the viewer is forced to put himself or herself in that very spot on that ship, with a limited idea of what is taking place nearby. T=By making outer space a cold, unromantic place, Nolan has also made it seem much more dangerous. This isn’t the storybook of Guardians of the Galaxy.
The challenge that Cooper faces throughout the film is that, as his crew performs the surveys, there is an extreme time differential and time must be considered as valuable a resource as air, fuel, and consumables. The planets in the system orbit a black hole named Gargantua, whose powerful gravity distort the very fabric of space-time. On the closes planet, the gravity is so strong that for every hour they spend on the planet, seven years will have passed on Earth. His his children growing older and with the blight worsening, we really feel the gut-punch of emotion as Coop sobs watching transitions from home.
So much in Interstellar is so remarkable – things like how space travel is depicted, or how stunning Gargantua looks (it’s the best black hole ever committed to film) – that the aspects that don’t work tend to stand out more in relief. How could the chinsy drop ships leave the atmosphere of planets with higher gravity than our own planet when the mission began with a three-stage Apollo-style rocket necessary for escaping Earth’s own gravity? Why would Nolan cast a major movie star for a surprise, plot-twisting cameo, when stunt casting is the last thing a hard sci-fi movie needs? But, even with an ending involving a strange concepts of multiple dimensions (which somehow Nolan nearly succeeds in pulling off) the most pressing question might be about the mission itself. Why did they need to go to the surface of these worlds to see if colonies could be established there? Even today, we have a good idea of which exoplanets are viable for life even gazing at them from thousands of light years away. Gargantua might be in another galaxy, but surely once Cooper’s ship, the Endurance arrived, it would be pretty easy to surmise which of the three planets might be ht most viable to life. There’s just no way that setting up camp on a drenched world so close to Gargantua would ever seem practical.
There’s a lot more to Interstellar than the planetary surveys, however. There’s an intriguing conversation about the very limits of human empathy, and the idea that it’s easier to care more for this generation and the next than it is to feel anything for generations hundreds of years down the line. There is the notions of love as a scientific concept, notions of broken trust, regret. Basically the entire spectrum of human condition. What is ending mean, and even if everyone did see it coming, does that mean it doesn’t work?
That might not matter. If just for the discussion alone, Interstellar is worth checking out. It’s bold visuals serve a touchtone in our times: can space be cold and wondrous again?
There is a scene where Coop is on the porch having a beer, while trading dialogue with what is no doubt the film’s most interesting character. Watching these two characters chat, we realize that Nolan isn’t as cold and calculating as he seems, that he does have a healthy sense of humor. He shares a similar moment with seasoned actor John Lithgow as well, who is also a pretty funny guy, but that’s not the scene. Sometimes pondering the mysteries of the stars and what the future of humanity might have in store, having beer and a good laugh is not only conducive to birthing deep thoughts, but it may be just as necessary as having food and air.
My rating: 4.4/5