It starts out as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, morphs into 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then devolves into Contact by the end: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, one of the most anticipated films of 2014, is not the masterpiece some may be expecting, but this kind of visionary head-trip is so rare that it can be appreciated for sheer ambition alone.
It’s a dizzying, dazzling film – especially when seen in 70mm IMAX, which offers up approximately an hour of footage shot using IMAX cameras. The visual element of the movie is its strongest asset, and Nolan is smart to keep things as realistic as possible: the incorporation of camera shots and angles that we are already familiar with from actual space shuttle footage – but have never seen in such detail – was a genius stroke.
I thought last year’s Gravity did a good job of simulating space travel, but when Interstellar finally takes off it tops even that film: scenes in outer space – shot in silence, with no light from stars in the background – and aboard the spacecraft featured in the film are so realistically rendered and vividly realized that we are transported right up there among the astronauts.
But it’s a while before the film takes off. Opening scenes take place in a thinly-sketched future, where a small Midwestern civilization, struggling to grow crops in a barren, dust-stricken environment, is our only glimpse of life on Earth. It’s odd that for everything else that the screenplay explains to us in painstaking detail – even when we don’t want explanations – that this future society is left so undeveloped (what, for example, has happened to the rest of the world?)
It could be 2146 or it could be an alternate 1964, and maybe that’s the point: as technology has abandoned society and growing food is now a primary concern, mankind has been set back a few decades (centuries?) Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is now a farmer raising children Tom and Murph (played by Timothée Chalamet and Mackenzie Foy, respectively) after the death of his wife, with the help of her father (John Lithgow).
In what can only be described as a Close Encounters-like wild goose chase, a series of seemingly unconnected events – Cooper’s cornfield capture of an Indian drone plane (one of the film’s early visual highlights), the magnetic-like attraction of a number of tractors to the Cooper ranch, and a “ghost” that Murph has been communicating with through her bookshelf – leads Cooper to a top-secret location: the site of NASA development, long-thought disbanded.
After NASA fell out of favor, the rest of the world apparently believes that the Apollo moon landings were faked to induce Soviet overspending (one of the few deft injections of humor into the screenplay). But instead of NASA being shut down, they’ve been tirelessly working away underground under the supervision of Cooper’s old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine).
The future of humanity doesn’t lie on Earth, which will soon become desolate, but elsewhere. Of course, to save mankind, Brand needs Cooper to abandon his children and head into outer space, alongside his daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), and a pair of robots apparently modeled after the monolith from 2001: the wisecracking TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and level-headed CASE (Josh Stewart).
The robots, by the way, steal the picture, and are nicely contrasted with 2001’s HAL, who is referenced by TARS. Here, they get a more heroic spotlight; the portrayal of robot technology in the films just might reflect how things have changed between 1968 and 2014.
To avoid spoilers, their mission involves wormhole theory, black hole theory, gravitational theory, relativity, rifts in the space-time-continuum, mysterious beings who apparently exist in a fourth (or fifth?) dimension outside of ours, and alien planets that can potentially support life, wonderfully realized via two worlds covered by ice and water.
It’s a slam-bang ride for the most part, filled with top-level cinematic flair (Nolan’s climactic intercutting, as various storylines in different times and place reach their zenith, is truly something to behold), gorgeous visuals (including a generous use of practical work), and heartfelt acting, particularly by McConaughey, who carries the film during his career resurgence.
Still, as pacing lags during certain sections of the film, one wonders if Nolan really needed nearly three hours to tell this relatively simple story.
And then there’s the ending, which spells everything out to us in almost-laughable fashion. And still doesn’t make any sense. Now, 10 minutes of silliness can’t ruin 2.5 hours of top-level filmmaking, but they do keep Interstellar from ranking among the all-time sci-fi greats. The easiest way to explain it: imagine the mind-bending ambiguous ending to 2001. And then imagine the protagonist ‘figuring it all out’ and narrating it to the audience, leaving no room for interpretation.
If you can get through the fifth-dimension craziness, Interstellar does recover for a genuinely emotional finale. And leaves some room for ‘what-now’ ambiguity. This is certainly something to see, in the biggest, loudest cinema you can get to. And it will certainly inspire fervent discussion, not just about the overall quality of the movie but of the scientific ideas contained within (one scene comes dangerously close to a similar moment in Event Horizon). I only wish a little more care had been taken with the script.