Interstellar (2014)
By: Stuart Giesel on November 24, 2014 | Comments
Interstellar (2014)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithgow
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Country: USA
Interstellar wants to be an event movie so bad, it's like co-writer/director Christopher Nolan is doing all he can to convince you that this is our generation's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's not, in case you were wondering. Hoo-boy, it's a bit of a mess. The sort of mess that's impressive in its devastation and one you can remark upon a few years down the track as a pretty memorable story, like, say, a lactating grizzly bear broke into your kitchen. It's just that everything's SO BIG, especially in IMAX – themes, sets, locations, ideas, music, monologues, endings, running time – that it actually weakens you.

You have to give the man credit for his chutzpah. Instead of being another generic comic book movie or sequel, he's given us a thoughtful, often impactful epic science fiction film that, at its best, is as thrilling as anything in Gravity. Unfortunately the film is undermined by some unfortunate – not to mention weird – storytelling decisions which we won't dare go into detail here. Suffice to say, Interstellar is an extremely odd hodgepodge of space and science-y bits that don't work as a whole. Honestly, I wanted to like it more than I did, but in saying that I wouldn't be surprised to find myself running particular moments and scenes through my head over the next few months. Personally, I hope that Nolan returns to the simpler days of Memento and The Prestige. Though not necessarily simpler films in terms of construct, theme or complexity, they weren't nearly as po-faced, and whilst they were clever and tricky, they were also hugely entertaining. Nolan's gotten caught up with such immense end-of-days themes in Interstellar that he's imparted this deadly, earnest seriousness into every fabric of the film's production, from the acting to the overwhelming enormousness of the cinematography to Hans Zimmer's overpowering, chamber-music score, with the sole purpose of selling this singular vision of grand importance.

Without getting into any spoiler territory, the bare-bones of the plot is that the Earth is dying, basically turned into one giant dust bowl thanks to some thing called "the blight". The population is at risk of starvation or suffocation, and corn is basically the only thing that can be grown, and even that is at risk of dying out. Mankind needs to find a new home. Cue Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his Lazarus Project, aiming to find a planet beyond our galaxy that can support life. Ex-NASA pilot Cooper (McConaughey) is a farmer – because the world doesn't need any more engineers and pilots, apparently – and is a widower (naturally, because this is a Nolan film) and lives with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and genius-in-the-making daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Cooper and Murph follow a trail of leads and stumble across the site of the Lazarus Project and its team, which includes Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). After some coaxing, though not as much as you might expect, Cooper is enlisted to pilot the mission to find a habitable planet, following the clues left by other astronauts who have gone before him. However his decision absolutely crushes Murph, effectively destroying their relationship. Cooper, along with Amelia, Doyle, Romilly and the robot TARS – essentially a man-sized block of lego – head into space, leaving the people of Earth to fend for themselves over the years, including now-adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck). And that's only the start of what happens, because I haven't even covered tricks with gravitational time dilation, wormhole travel, alien worlds (not alien in the creature sense, alien like strange) and more. Like I said, Interstellar is enough movie for two or even three movies, so you're in for an absolutely exhausting experience.

Interstellar doesn't feel like its own beast. It emulates the rah-rah joyousness of space travel and exploration, a'la The Right Stuff. It's tried to cram in the thoughtful meditation and mood of Solaris (Tarkovsy's, not Soderberg's). There are also sprinkles of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact (also with Interstellar lead Matthew McConaughey) and Sunshine for good measure, not to mention, of course, Kubrick's 2001 and Ken Burns' documentary The Dust Bowl. And because it hearkens back to so many other similarly themed movies, not necessarily through fault of its own, Interstellar struggles to establish its own identity. And at a mind-numbing three hours, it groans under the weight of its own hubris. It may have, in fact, worked better as a four-part mini-series, where the film would have had more time to breathe, wrestle more deeply with the big issues it presents, and not have a finale that intercuts between different places in that typical Nolan fashion that he's particularly fond of doing. It's one of those movies which feels overlong by at least a good half-hour, but on recollection you struggle to think about what could have been cut out – perhaps one of the numerous false endings?

Interstellar stumbles because it wants to be SO IMPORTANT. It mistakes seriousness for actual drama, and substitutes spectacle for genuine wonder. For all the intriguingly designed shots of space travel, wormhole traversal and visiting foreign worlds, and the dramatic moments punctuated at every opportunity by a thunderously loud score and ear-raping sound effects, I recalled how I was more engaged and affected by Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity on a standard cinema screen than by all of Interstellar's IMAX might. I'm not saying it has to be the rollercoaster ride that Gravity was – which obviously shares some cinematic DNA with Interstellar thanks to its setting alone – but Interstellar is so ponderously self-important and serious that it causes the film's few attempts at light humour to really stick out. The "humourous" moments, mostly thanks to robot TARS, created a weak chuckle from the packed audience I saw the film with. Seeing Interstellar the way the director intended, in mighty, eye-glistening IMAX (I saw it at the Melbourne Museum), is quite the experience, but the film's excessive length and other flaws ultimately overcame its technical achievements. Interstellar's sound mix has come under some criticism, but in my experience almost all of the lines of dialogue were clear, and I didn't mind that Nolan brought Zimmer's score to the forefront. Zimmer's unique score, by the way, is one of his best in years, doing a lot of the emotional lifting in the same way that Steven Price's Oscar-winning score for Gravity had to due to the lack of sound in space. As far as the look of the film is concerned, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has produced some dazzling shots, and Nolan's use of practical effects and sets wherever possible is clearly beneficial. However the film is not as eye-catching as one might hope, with close-up shots appearing extremely blurry (intentional?) and some outdoors shots lacking dynamism (although you could argue this too was intentional because of the dust scenario). Even the so-called "money shots" and scenes on other planets lack that certain something. And in what is presumably a bid to silence his detractors about how his films are usually emotionally cold, Nolan has instead overplayed the emotions in this one. Where one scene of raw emotion works (McConaughey's response to seeing video recordings of his children, for one) there's another soon to follow that is overwrought.

Much has been made of theoretical physicist Kip Thorpe's involvement in the scientific aspects of Interstellar and…yeah, sure. It all sounds plausible enough, but I admit I didn't really understand all of the scientific mumbo-jumbo. However the plot itself was simple enough to follow. But then a late-game moment occurs that effectively makes you go: "Wait, hang on a second…what? So…okay, I get it but…what? Seriously?" It's like Contact, in a way. Contact took pains to underpin its story with a solid, scientific base, before jettisoning it out the window at the end. Not that what happens in Interstellar is really all that similar to the end of Contact, but it's like the film takes great pains to present everything with a good amount of scientific detail (if not absolute hard science) but then throws the rulebook out and goes "whatever" in a bid for a satisfying ending. Ah, you might say – so it's speculative fiction we're talking about, and because no one really knows for sure what happens when you go through a black hole or whatever. Sure, I'll give you that. But that doesn't still mean that the ending has thrown us a curveball that undermines a lot of what's come before it. Interstellar doesn't finish up as a quasi-science piece so much as a speculative-quasi religious-deus ex machina science piece.

Gripes aside, you have to hand it to Nolan and his cast and crew. They may have bitten off more than they can chew (and the ending is sure to polarize) but holy hell is Interstellar ambitious. Too ambitious for its own good. The cast are all fine. McConaughey is always an engaging lead, and he keeps the chunks of Interstellar glued together like a particularly agreeable adhesive. Hathaway's role is much more thankless – in part due to a mid-movie discussion about love which caused many an eye-roll – and the supporting cast all have their moments, even if characters are for the most part underwritten. Jessica Chastain as the middle-aged Murph has a crucial role but not too many opportunities to really shine, but Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph steals the show, demonstrating that she is an incredibly natural and likeable performer.

So, yes, Interstellar is uneven, but when it clicks it really clicks. Nolan isn't playing it safe here; like Inception, this has a show-off structure and lofty ideas wrapped up in a blockbuster package. Nolan and his crew are delivering films quite unlike any others, and for that they should be commended. If Interstellar is not exactly an outright success, then it it certainly is a noble attempt at reaching the same lofty heights as the best of its inspirations. That it ultimately feels too wonky and insufferably long doesn't mean that it isn't filled with moments of greatness, just that those particular moments are invariably brought back down to earth due to some misguided choices. In the film, man reaches for the stars and actually succeeds; with Interstellar, Nolan's reach is equally ambitious, and if he can't quite get there he's at least trying his damndest. So whilst Interstellar doesn't live up to (half) its namesake (it's not really stellar, ho ho), it's bold and brazen in its embrace of some extremely lofty themes. Worth a watch? Absolutely. But I'd be lying if I said I plan to ever watch it again.
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