The vast openness of Space has inspired some of the greatest works of art known to mankind. Whether it is in paintings, or literature, or film, contemplating the cosmos has driven people to dream big and that ability to dream in turn inspires others to go further. Jules Verne’s classic novel From the Earth to the Moon conceived of a journey to the moon out of a capsule fired from a giant cannon. This imaginative story of exploration then inspired French artist and filmmaker Georges Melies to craft his own take on the story with 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, which was one of the early benchmarks of silent cinema. Melies imaginative film has since become one of the first of a whole new genre that we now know as Science Fiction, and it’s a genre that continues to inspire not just the minds of other like-minded storytellers, but also those in the scientific field who work hard to create fiction into fact. Jules Verne probably never would’ve believed that only 100 years after his novel was first published that it would become a reality, but that’s exactly what happened when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the lunar surface. But, even after conquering the achievement of landing on the moon, mankind still has a thirst for further exploration of space that is very much reflected in the art of the 20th century and beyond. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) took the boldest step forward in theorizing where mankind would head next in our quest to learn about the fabric of Outer Space, and his movie continues to remain influential to this day. And just like how Verne inspired Melies to carry the dream of Space travel further, Kubrick’s masterpiece has inspired other filmmakers to look to the skies and imagine even greater tales to tell. And one such filmmaker who has taken up that challenge is Christopher Nolan with his new grand scale picture, Interstellar.
Interstellar is unmistakably inspired by Kubrick’s 2001, with many references throughout the movie; some blatant, some subtle. It’s clear that Nolan is particularly fond of Kubrick’s movie, and Interstellar may in fact be the biggest and most expensive fan film ever made. But, although Nolan’s directorial mark is all over this movie, it actually didn’t start out as one of his projects. The script was initially written by Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan (whom he has shared writing credit with on 2001’s Memento and the films in the Dark Knight trilogy) with Steven Spielberg attached to direct. Spielberg remained involved in the development of the project for many years, but ultimately he dropped out in order to pursue other projects. Jonathan hoped to have another prestigious director pick up his ambitious script quickly thereafter, and luckily his own brother became available soon after the completion of The Dark Knight Rises (2012). After a rewrite with both Nolans involved, the project moved ahead towards completion. What’s interesting about this collaboration is that it marks a significant departure for both Christopher and Jonathan. Most of their work up to now has been grounded in reality, with maybe The Prestige (2006) being their only previous work of Science Fiction, and that one still had a very earthbound footing. Inception (2010) had it’s flights of imagination, but it existed in the realm of dreams, which helped to place the film in a still realistic place and time. Interstellar departs significantly from previous Nolan films in that it takes us beyond the natural world that we know and understand and explores the unknown, albeit in a very scientifically minded way. Did this departure create something bold and new for the Nolan brothers or was Interstellar a gamble that didn’t pay off? Like the movie itself, the answers are not all that simple.
Though the movie has an original story-line, it’s concept is actually based on the writings of theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne, who has become a leading voice in the study of Wormhole and Black Hole physics, and the developer of the “warped space-time” theory. Thorne has theorized that Wormhole anomalies in Outer Space are capable of transporting matter across great distances, essentially by folding time on itself. If mankind were to cross through the threshold of a black hole, they would come out on the other side in a part of space that would be far out of reach in the short life-span that human beings exist within. It’s a theory that opens up many possibilities about what and where human beings in the future may explore and that is the central basis that Interstellar follows through most of it’s plot. In the near future, the Earth is slowly becoming inhabitable because of climate change, and the remaining humans on Earth are running short on time. What remains of NASA hopes to explore possible livable worlds that exist in another galaxy that has become accessible to them through a wormhole sitting next to the planet Saturn. Expert pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is selected through an extraordinary set of circumstances to lead the expedition. Accompanying him is physicist Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of the head scientist (Michael Caine) who conceived the overall mission in the first place. Cooper leaves behind his life and family in the hopes of finding a way to save the future for all mankind. The mission takes them to the limits of Space, testing both their resolve and their grips on reality, especially when one visit to a planet cause time to accelerate to the point where one hour to them equals ten earth years. At one point, Cooper watches the life of his family forward in an instant, and the daughter he left behind has now become the same age as him; played as an adult by Jessica Chastain.
The movie definitely creates the scenario laid out by Dr. Thorne perfectly, making the exploration scenes the real standouts in the film. Unfortunately, the movie also suffers from an unfocused main plot, as it tries to be to many things all at once. I think that this is mainly due to the transition between this starting out as a Spielberg project and then turning into a Nolan project. There’s no doubt that some of the grittier, more information driven moments are perfectly handled by Nolan as a director, but they are interspersed with sentimental moments dealing with Cooper’s relationship with his daughter. The sentimental moments in the film would’ve been absolutely nailed by someone like Spielberg, who has become a master at sentimentality in movies. In Nolan’s hands, they seem a little less effective. Not that he does a bad job with them, but in Interstellar, they feel a little disjointed from the rest of the movie. I believe that when the movie went from one director to another, there was an attempt to try to preserve what was there before, and unfortunately Christopher Nolan just can’t do sentimental the same way that Spielberg does. The moment when Cooper says goodbye to his family, in particular, feels rushed and less realistic than it should be, especially given all of Nolan’s attempts to make this movie feel as authentic as possible. Though none of these moments completely derail the experience, they nevertheless make what could have been a great story feel more like an okay story-line, and that’s somewhat of a letdown for a director like Nolan who has become such a groundbreaking storyteller over the years with unconventional plots found in movies like Inception and Memento.
But, what the movie lacks in story, it more than makes up with it’s visual experience. Nobody out there right now does epic scale better than Christopher Nolan, and Interstellar is a visual experience that is unlike no other. Believe me when I say that you will be taken on a ride with this movie, especially if you watch it in IMAX. Christopher Nolan has been a long time champion for large film formats, and Interstellar is no exception. Filmed in true 70MM IMAX, Interstellar must be seen on the biggest screen possible in order to get the full experience. When you see the vastness of the outer reaches of space depicted in this movie, it will take your breath away. And Christopher Nolan deftly handles the huge scale of this production with incredible precision, whether it is the quiet cruising past the orbit of Saturn (which feels very Kubrickian) or the harrowing perils that the explorers face as they investigate each new world. The scale of the movie is as massive as you would expect it to be, and really only the IMAX format can capture the true experience that Nolan was trying to convey with this picture. If you thought the city-scape folding in on itself in Inception was breathtaking, than wait until you see tidal waves the size of mountains or clouds frozen in midair, which Nolan vividly brings to life here. Even if the plot is lacking in some areas, there are going to be very few complaints about the visuals in this movie, and it will deservedly be up for many technical awards at the end of the year. What’s more amazing is that Nolan tried to use as little digital effects as possible, instead shooting as much as he could with physical elements. This is very impressive work, especially in the scenes within the cockpit of the space ship. The aural experience of the movie also helps to heighten the overall film. Believe me, many theaters across the world better have a good subwoofer in their auditoriums, because it will get a workout with this movie. Pretty much everything you can say about the look and feel of this movie can be summed up as massive.
But at the same time, the movie does manage to give us characters that we can care about. Apart from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, his movies haven’t been really driven by the characters that exist within them, but were instead defined by the actors that portrayed them. Interstellar is no differently, featuring a well-rounded cast of A-List stars all holding their own against the vast scale of the production. Coming out of his recent Oscar-winning past year, McConaughey continues his recent resurgence with a very restrained performance as the main protagonist Cooper. Within this role, McConaughey makes Cooper more than just a good pilot, but also a very thoughtful and intelligent human being who is more than capable at getting the impossible done. It may not be Christopher Nolan’s most standout character, but he doesn’t need to be. He doesn’t have many demons to overcome and his strength is more in his unwillingness to give up, which McConaughey delivers perfectly. One particularly powerful moment that the actor nails is when he watches videos of his family captured over the last 20 years that he had missed during the exploration. There were very few dry eyes in the theater that I was at when this scene played. Even better though is Jessica Chastain’s wonderful performance as Cooper’s daughter Murph in adulthood. The character is a tiny bit underwritten, but Chastain makes the most of her time, delivering a performance that really in fact balances the whole movie. Showing us what’s going on back on Earth, her story works perfectly in conjunction with what’s going on in space.
There are also a pair of robots that help Cooper’s team on their mission, both of which were clearly inspired by Kubrick. Sort of combining the artificial intelligence of HAL 9000 with the stark rectangular shape of 2001‘s enigmatic monolith, the robots are interesting characters of in of themselves. The most notable one is named TARS, and he is programmed with a sense of humor setting, which makes him a much needed comic relief in the movie. Voiced by actor Bill Irwin, TARS is the exact opposite of HAL 9000, being resourceful and good-natured as opposed to homicidal. The other robot CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) is less defined, but works off of the wise-cracking TARS perfectly. Nolan regular Michael Caine is perfectly fine in his limited role, and actress Ellen Burstyn delivers a memorable moment in the film as an elderly Murph near film’s end. There’s also an appearance from a big A-List actor half-way through the movie that took me by surprise, as this person remained un-credited through most of the production. Unfortunately, the actors who seem to get the short-end of the stick are Cooper’s fellow crewmen. Anne Hathaway does her best, but her character is the most thinly drawn of the whole film. The same goes for the other members of the team, who are obviously being set up as the casualties. But I think the fault is more in the writing and less in the actual performances, as every does the best they can. Overall, the performances are excellent and help keep the movie grounded, which is impressive given the scale of everything.
So, the movie overall is a solid effort, if not an absolutely perfect one. I still had a extraordinary experience watching this movie, and I strongly recommend it for that alone. But the movie is already starting to have it’s detractors out there, and I would be lying if I said that they weren’t making some valid points. The story-line is a little shaky and it is less assured than some of Christopher Nolan’s other movies. I still view Inception as his masterpiece, and his Dark Knight trilogy is still a monumental achievement. But even if it is B-grade Nolan, that still means that it is far better than most other movies out there. I think that Nolan has just become a victim of his own high standards and for some good enough is not nearly good enough anymore. But even still, the movie is a visual wonder and is still an expertly crafted piece of cinema. Like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, it portrays the emptiness of space better anyone had before, and perfectly portrays mankind’s tinniest controls over it. Whats more, it also inspires that same sense of wanting to explore further that has also inspired the likes of Verne, and Melies, and Kubrick. Space is definitely the final frontier for mankind, and hopefully a film like Interstellar inspires other to take that next step forward as well. It’s amazing to think that a dream imagined on cinema could become a reality in the span of less than a century, but we saw men walk on the moon, so hopefully Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar will inspire the explorers of tomorrow as well. If that can be possible, Interstellar could end up being Nolan’s most important film in the long run. Regardless, it still stands as an impressive, albeit imperfect, cinematic experience that has to be seen to be believed.