Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: "Interstellar"

Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 169 minutes

How do you solve a problem like Christopher Nolan? So much expertise with complicated plotting, yet such a mechanical approach to flesh and blood characters. The answer is at once simple and daunting: outer space. The characters of Nolan's latest, Interstellar, journey into the cosmos for solutions to problems facing mankind on Earth. Meanwhile, Nolan takes his characters into the beyond while looking for answers of his own. Interstellar is not perfect, nor is it the sort of flawed masterpiece that initial hype and a thrilling marketing campaign promised. Instead, it's a honest step forward for Mr. Nolan as both a director (where he was already far stronger) and as a writer (where he tends to flounder). 

One of the big complaints lobbed at Nolan has been his impersonal touch with characters and his reliance on exposition in the form of dialogue. Interstellar sees more progress with the former than the latter, but both show an improvement that was missing from Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. Better yet, he has evolved without going too far to the opposite end of the spectrum. Interstellar is the first of Nolan's films to get a genuine emotional reaction out of me, and it's nowhere close to being schmaltzy. Turns out, Nolan himself is capable of feeling human emotions (or at least, his programming has finally allowed him to understand and communicate them).

Nolan's previous films have touched on familial relationships before, but they've never really registered until now. Though Insterstellar still relies on Nolan's love of Dead Wife Syndrome, it still connects as a story about a family against its epic narrative canvas. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) spends the majority of the film's three hours away from his two children, but the bond between parent and children is effectively conveyed through juxtapositions with the main story line.

Plus, it's not like Cooper doesn't have a good reason for heading off into space for an unknown amount of time. Set somewhere in the future (40 - 100 years), Earth's population has dwindled, and a plague known as Blight has wreaked havoc on crops. Terrifying dust storms are a regular occurrence, and the entire world is living in conditions that vaguely resemble the Dust Bowl. While Cooper maintains a living as a farmer (corn is the one of the few crops not wiped out by Blight), his real ambitions lie far off of the ground. So it's a mixed blessing when, thanks to his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), he pieces together a series of coordinates left behind by unexplained phenomena. Those coordinates lead him to a secret NASA base, where the space-faring organization is mounting a desperate mission in hopes of saving mankind, without necessarily saving the Earth. 

It's not long until Cooper's old mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) lays out exactly what's at stake with NASA's clandestine operations. Earth is becoming increasingly incapable of supporting human life, and the time has come to look beyond for a new home. Either through coincidence or some higher design, a wormhole has appeared near Saturn, opening a gateway to a galaxy with several planets that may be the solution to humanity's dire situation.

The arrival of the mission, with its explanations of relativity, wormholes, and disruptions of the space time continuum, should be the point when Interstellar starts to stumble. There's a lot of detail to cover, and the initial stages seem like the perfect moment for Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who co-wrote) to drown the viewer in scientific blather. Yet unlike the overbearing explanations of dream layers in Inception, the details of Interstellar come across as far more valuable. The tendency to explain story-oriented details over character development is still present, but it feels more focused, streamlined, and more confident in the audience. Inception covered so many little details of Nolan's dream world logic that it became ludicrous. Minor aspects were explained away just to make sure that everything was most definitely thought out by the screenplay. The Nolan brothers may not leave much to the imagination, but the explanations doled out by the talented cast are mostly worth hearing. Space is an incomprehensibly large and terrifying place, so the details of how a black hole affects time is not only valuable, but critical in raising the stakes of the mission.

Interstellar is built on a race-against-the-clock foundation, which ultimately serves the story quite well. The film taps into plenty of very real concerns about the future of our species, and ties them in to an epic adventure full of white-knuckle intensity. Nolan's space sequences are rarely flashy, but there remains an awe to the execution. Even with the presence of Hans Zimmer's towering, pipe organ-driven score, the crushing silence of space is still a thrilling and disturbingly neutral antagonist. Watching Cooper and Dr. Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) try and dock a landing vessel to an out of control hub unit is both graceful and chaotic. Nolan is an uneven director when it comes to staging action sequences, but his zero-gravity set pieces here are never less than thrilling and nerve-wracking here. More rewarding is when Nolan ventures outside of his visual comfort zone. The scene where the main crew (which includes Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, and a robot voiced by Bill Irwin) passes through the wormhole has a level of visual imagination that's been sorely missing from Nolan's previous work. 

Just about everything in space is so powerfully rendered (the visual effects work is so good that I never even thought about it), that it's slightly disappointing when Nolan jumps back to Earth. Though the return trips to our pale blue dot end up being important to the film's universe-spanning endgame, they tend to let the wind out of Interstellar's sails. The plot complications that arise from the Earth scenes, which feature Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck as the adult versions of Cooper's children, are a mixed bag. Affleck's initial appearances, in video messages to his father, are lovely, but later scenes turn him into a hardheaded jackass for no real reason. Chastain fares better if only because her character's actions are germane to the plot. Having joined NASA despite her resentment toward her father, Murph's actions salvage the Earthbound material, though this has more to do with Chastain's abilities as an actor than the material she's been given.

Nolan's work with his space explorers fares much better. McConaughey refuses to let his current winning streak die, and his work here fits right into the role of the typical blockbuster leading man through Nolan's gloomier lens. Cooper's position as lead pilot of the mission represents a chance to fulfill a life long dream, but at a potentially terrible cost. McConaughey wears that struggle beautifully, flipping between hard-nosed strategist and homesick parent without missing a beat. Hathaway is quite strong as well, and her interactions with McConaughey provide some of Interstellar's emotional highlights. The actress even manages to sell a slightly gooey monologue about love transcending time and space, which says a lot about her talents. Though Bentley and Gyasi are stuck in pretty dry roles, Bill Irwin's voice work as robot aide TARS is surprisingly effective. TARS' programmed attitude helps ignite a few moments of humor, which keeps Interstellar from being crushed by its space opera severity.

From a technical standpoint, the film is mostly aces, although a few areas are in need of some polishing. Cinematography is noticeably rougher, which actually works in the film's favor. Too often, the future is presented in bright and sleek shades of color. The dingier look of Hoyte Van Hoytema's lighting is a smart change of pace from Nolan's recent, overly polished aesthetic. The art direction reflects this as well. The interior of the space vehicles is futuristic, yet has the look of technology that hasn't been cleaned or updated too recently. Zimmer's aforementioned score is absolutely beautiful adding extra doses of wonder and terror when needed. And, despite one prolonged bit of overbearing cross-cutting between Earth and space, Lee Smith's editing keeps the adventure moving along over the course of the film's butt-numbing three hours.

Interstellar gets off to such a strong start, yet it's almost a relief to see Nolan go for the conclusion he delivers here. Intentionally or not, Interstellar's climax will provoke lots of discussion over whether or not it imploded during its landing. Given the mind-stretching nature of the adventure, finding a properly balanced ending was always going to be a tricky prospect. Instead of trying to please everyone, Nolan has unapologetically made the movie he wanted to make, regardless of all the references that may be present. For the first time, one of Nolan's movies is inviting legitimate discussion, drawing some further into his orbit while pushing others clear out into space. It's the Nolan movie we deserve, whether or not it's the one we all wanted, and at the end of the day, that's something to be thankful for, flaws and all.

Grade: B+

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