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Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar: Brilliant but Baffling, Beautiful yet Boring (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 23, 2014 | Add Comments

Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) pilots a space mission to find habitable planets in InterstellarWhen talking about Interstellar, you have to talk about Christopher Nolan, a director as singularly imaginative as any working today. With his latest daringly original blockbuster, he’s created what might be the most Nolanesque of all his films; an interplanetary mixed bag of all ideas, tones, and imagery that have filled his work, as well as plenty of new ones. It may reach farther than it can manage, but how many films even try to reach this far, crossing galaxies, traveling through wormholes, and touching on the big questions of life and death within the confines of a Hollywood budget?

Interstellar is set on a near-future Earth but Nolan cleverly sidesteps sci-fi cliches with a frightening yet familiar Dustbowl-like vision of our fate. Unpredictable weather, droughts, and famines have been causing the human population to dwindle for years; remaining families now hide from dust storms in their rickety houses and rely on corn, the sole remaining crop. One such survivor, Cooper (Mathew McConaughey, affecting but unconvincing) was once one of NASA’s most promising pilots, but he now runs a farm with his father in-law, while caring for his kids. His daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), thinks there’s a ghost in her room; that “ghost” leaves coordinates that lead father and daughter to a hidden NASA base led by Cooper’s former boss Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

When NASA’s small board reports that a past space mission has discovered a wormhole, and there are three possibly habitable planets orbiting a nearby black hole, you know what’s going to happen (even if you haven’t viewed the trailers). Brand wants Cooper to pilot a mission, find us a new home, and, if successful, save the human race. “I’ve got kids, professor”, Cooper reluctantly answers (McConaughey’s Texan drawl feels a little laid-back when delivering speeches about humanity’s fate). “Get out there and then save them”, answers Brand. Cooper agrees, but not before promising his enraged daughter that he’ll make it back. And so begins a mission which, depending on your tolerance for science-speak and improbable jumps in narrative, is either a thrilling intergalactic adventure or a plodding, patience-testing slog.

It’s a journey that quite literally reaches to the ends of the universe, and you’ll leave breathless, with your head spinning. There’s filmmaking ambition here that rivals anything with a big budget you’ll see this year, or any other.

Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) comforts his daughter in InterstellarInterstellar might be the ultimate manifestation of Christopher Nolan: his qualities as a filmmaker, his unique fascinations, his favorite themes, his flaws. All of the little parts that combine to create his signature style can be found here, and he indulges in each and every one of them: a walloping, all-consuming Hans Zimmer score; jaw-dropping IMAX cinematography; an almost purely expository elderly father figure played by Michael Caine; bladder-busting running time; plot holes that will anger film fans; worm hole holes that will anger Neil DeGrasse Tyson; and an ending that will satisfy some, disappoint others, and confuse everybody. Some of these are one-of-a-kind pros, others frustrating cons, but they all form a wholly distinct (though aided by some influences) whole.

Classifying Christopher Nolan is a tough thing to do. Is he an exacting, flawless technician or an old-fashioned storyteller? Do his special effects-laden films make him another CGI-hack or does his love of film over digital make him a nostalgic man of the past? Is he a boundary-pushing innovator or a tireless recycler of better films? Does his heart lie in the expensive, expansive Hollywood productions he devotes himself to, or the microscopic indie films he began with? The answer is not a yes or no; what makes Nolan himself, after all, may be his spot as the enigmatic conundrum. One interesting analogy can be found in Interstellar’s pre-production phase, when Nolan took over the project from Steven Spielberg. That act could easily be read as a metaphor for Spielberg passing down the torch to Nolan, allowing him to join the exceptional and highly coveted ranks of Hollywood directors who use big-budgets to make original, personal projects. It’s a torch that few other directors have held (think of Nolan favorites like Hitchcok, Kubrick, David Lean) as Nolan has respectfully acknowledged. In his own words: “I think that Hollywood has always had and will always have tension between the desire to do something original and fresh, and the fear of alienating an audience and the commerce of it all. When you look at big budgets, it’s rare that filmmakers get the opportunity to pursue their passion and do something original, so when I get the chance, as I have a couple of times, I really get the chance to use that opportunity because it’s an opportunity that a lot of other filmmakers would kill for.”

Aside from links to cinema’s past, it’s not hard to connect the seemingly disparate dots in Nolan’s oeuvre. Take familial love, especially of the fatherly kind. It’s one of his defining obsessions, and it’s permeated throughout his work even if it’s never been as obvious or important as it is here. Like The Prestige’s magician Alfred Borden and Inception’s dream-stealer Dom Cobb, Interstellar’s Cooper spends the entire film trying to get back to his kids. Luckily, Nolan spends time developing the father-daughter on Earth to give Cooper’s mission some poignant personal resonance. Worm holes slow time (on one planet, each hour equals seven years back on Earth), which means Cooper’s kids are growing old while he’s still traveling through outer space. In the film’s best scene, Cooper watches decade-spanning video messages from his children. McConaughey underplays the scene, sitting quietly as tears stream down his face, while Nolan’s gives the scene a real, raw power that manipulates the audience in the best possible way.

Moments, like that one, of true emotional strength feel all the more precious amidst the rest of the film. Nolan’s script, while relatively clever and occasionally captivating, is a muddled mess. Many scenes (such as a subplot involving Jessica Chaistain as an adult Murph) feel forced and functional for the sake of plot, just so the story can move right along. Other sequences (one including a cameo from a famous actor) make me picture Nolan’s directing job as similar to that of a writer trying to cram in all of his thoughts into one long essay, only to give up and exclaim “Whatever, I’ll throw it all in” (not unlike me writing this review). Other than McConuaghey’s Cooper, the characters are broadly-drawn cliches (wise old man; young but spunky daughter; selfish partner) uttering bland, predictable dialogue.

One of the many extraordinary space visuals in InterstellarThat said, there are moments of big-screen brilliance and beauty. Stepping in for longtime Nolan-collaborator Wally Pfister, Hoyte Van Hoytema crafts some of the best shots in a Nolan film yet (no easy feat). Shooting on 70mm IMAX cameras for much of the film, Hoytema gives Interstellar a tangible grit and grain that only film could provide.  Aided by countless technicians, he gives each of the space worlds a distinct, distinguishable feel. And his equally impressive camerawork on Earth brings a dusty, desolate, dejected beauty to the future.

Even if the film’s science may not measure up to fact (to those who nitpick both science and plot: it’s a movie) the visuals of blackholes and icy, barren planets makes an IMAX trip worth it. In what might be the most impressive scene, Cooper and crew make their first attempt at traveling through a wormhole. This is stunning cinema: vast, almost magical, and sensational in a way only movies can achieve.

Look up in the sky...it's InterstellarStill, one can’t help but one wonder if Nolan had achieved something greater. Imagining the film with a smarter script and tighter length makes me sigh in disappointment. And yet, if press interviews are any indication, it does seem like this is the film Nolan wanted to make. While Interstellar may be far from a great movie, it does reaffirm the power and possibility of a big Hollywood spectacle. And I can’t wait to see which corners of the cinematic galaxy Nolan brings audiences to next.

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