Review: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar

Rating

Director
Christopher Nolan
Screenplay
Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Length
169 min.
Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, Timothée Chalamet, John Lithgow, Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Ellen Burstyn, Andrew Borba, Topher Grace, Matt Damon
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language

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Review
The fate of humanity hinges on locating a habitable world somewhere in the galaxy and it falls on a small team of explorers to locate this new home in Christopher Nolan’s science fiction adventure Interstellar.

Set in the near future, we are treated to a world where climate change has irreparably damaged the world, creating dust bowl-like conditions that threaten farmers and civilization alike. Matthew McConaughey plays an ex-pilot whose scientific expertise has enabled him and his children, Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy) to survive when many others have failed. When he unravels a mystery that leads him to a secret aeronautics program run by his former mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he reluctantly agrees to embark on a space mission that threatens to separate him and his children forever.

McConaughey reminds the viewer that he’s no stranger to the genre, having appeared in the iconic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s seminal Contact, but this time he gets to be the hero, traveling across light years in hopes of finding one of a group of scientists who left to find a new home, but have not yet returned. McConaguhey isn’t at his most convincing, but has some very delicate, sensitive moments that work within his narrow repertoire of performing capabilities.

Faring better, but with a few questionable scenes, Anne Hathaway follows up her Oscar-winning performance in Les Misérables with a considerably less challenging performance as McConaughey’s would-be romantic interest, a devotee of Prof. Brand. She provides equal parts passion and incredulity and even gets a moment or two to break down at the thought of losing McConaughey’s Cooper. John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Topher Grace and Wes Bentley all deliver expected performances with little emotional resonance while Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck deliver the film’s best work as Cooper’s two grown children.

This is the kind of film that allows for the director’s ego to show through, exacerbating the worst perceptions of them. Nolan’s complex plot twists often mask shallow characterizations, making the situations and not the characters the most compelling part. While something like Inception has to build itself off of characters, Interstellar let’s the narrative, the visuals and the machinations of the plot dominate over weak characters of limited mental depth.

Nolan is also one of a handful of directors who try to write strong, capable female characters, but forget to give them the level of depth one would expect from a fully realized woman. Anne Hathaway’s Brand is an intelligent, well-reasoned woman, but when she’s faced with the possibility she might be wrong, she almost breaks down in hysterics, refusing to believe she could be wrong. When her faith is proven to be misplaced, she dissolves into a background character who doesn’t have much choice but to accept the fate being handed to her, rather than forging ahead with a new one.

Chastain, as the adult Murph, is treated more capably and provides a slight counterbalance to the Hathaway character. When she fails to convince her brother to leave the homestead because his family’s lives are endangered, she takes matters into her own hands. While she enlists a male friend’s help in keeping her brother at bay should he return home, it’s she who convinces his wife to take their child and flee while then discovering the crux to the whole affair with the tesseract.

While her character doesn’t absolve Nolan of his poor treatment of the character Brand, it shows that he doesn’t always have faith in his female characters to find depth where there isn’t much. That none of his film’s heroes have ever been women speaks a lot to his inability to find a place for them in his work.

That aside, Interstellar is a surreal, trippy homage to Stanley Kurick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, exploring notions of fate, science and the meaning of life, Nolan’s vision is notably less philosophically deep and while the gorgeous special effects are more than enough to smooth over some of the plot inconsistencies, the technical aspects of the film are too overbearing in places and to limited in others.

The best example being Hans Zimmer’s beautiful orchestral score for the film, which dwarfs the events in several scenes, overwhelming the audience with sensory theatrics without necessity. Subtlety can go a long way in regardless to music in film. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity showed that a clever balance of silence and soft music can elevate a scene while punctuating action and drama with swelling scores takes the audience to another place. Misplaced or overburdened compositions, no matter how aurally lovely, undermine some of the simple joys of filmmaking and film watching.

I give credit to Nolan for trying to craft a treatise on human frailty, environmental destruction and the pursuit of solutions, but Interstellar isn’t just about these things. They are often left as footnotes to grand visual splendor and sometimes cheap narrative “gotchas.” This style of filmmaking may have worked on something like Inception, but the director of the brilliant The Dark Knight has begun sliding into his own ego, causing his films to founder under the enormous weight it puts on them. This film, along with The Dark Knight Rises exemplify why Nolan is slowly becoming like Ridley Scott and James Cameron, two directors who have done tremendously as entertainers, but whose philosophical creativity has been subsumed by a desire to have too much control over too little content.

Review Written

March 16, 2015

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