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Review: Interstellar

Michael C here with your weekend review...

With its plot about humanity taking the next step of evolution into outer space, it was inevitable that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar would be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But despite surface similarities the comparison is a poor one. Nolan has never shown any inclination towards the kind of mind-expanding abstractions that constitute Kubrick’s version of the infinite. It is no coincidence that Interstellar’s plot centers around Jessica Chastain’s quest to complete an equation. Nolan movies demand answers. Even when his films appear to be ambiguous they pull back to reveal an underlying order. The mysteries of The Prestige are shown to be a complex web of interlocking secrets; the infamous spinning totem from Inception’s ending isn’t an enigma so much as the precise punchline to an elaborate riddle. Even the blazing anarchy of the Joker takes the form of moral conundrums with tidy binary choices.

So to complain that Nolan is no Kubrick is both accurate and something of a non-sequitor. Nolan is not going to stop being Nolan and whether that qualifies as a good thing will vary according to viewers’ willingness to ignore the persistent groaning sound of the plot buckling under the weight of ponderous exposition. Interstellar is no different than Nolan’s other films in this regard, but it’s also the same in that its peaks are so amazing they justify wading through all manner of shortcomings to reach them. Interstellar may be overstuffed and clunky and it crosses the line into silliness more than once, but every so often it will lay a fingertip or two on the sublime. How many films can make that claim? 

Interstellar delivers one of its most potent images right at the start: a shelf of books disappearing behind the accumulating dirt that drifts relentlessly through the air in this grim picture of the future. The meaning is clear. Earth is finished with us and the air itself is shoveling dirt over our grave.

In a distant, unspecified year the environment is in its final death throes, as Earth’s plant life fail one by one until corn is the only crop left (we join the story just in time to catch the last glimpse of okra). People console each other with the feeble optimism that “next year will be better” although the signs only point to worse. Only a small fraction of the Earth’s population remains, most of whom have turned to farming to try to maintain viable levels of food production. Matthew McConaughey delivers a terrific leading man turn as one such farmer, a decommissioned NASA pilot and widower named Cooper who spends his days putting on a happy face for his son and daughter and lamenting humanity’s vanished capacity to look at the skies with wonder.

As luck would have it, he need not despair. NASA still exists as an underground organization, and when Cooper stumbles upon their secret headquarters led by his former physics professor and his professor’s scientist daughter (Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway) they enlist him in their Hail Mary pass to save the human race: a mission to find a new inhabitable planet to start over. Cooper is the natural choice to lead the mission, although it would not only risk his life, but on the slim chance the mission is a success, the realities of intergalactic travel mean his children could grow old and die by the time he returns.

“We must think not as individuals but as a species,” says Michael Caine’s NASA physicist. “We must confront the reality of interstellar travel.” The film would have benefitted from Nolan following through more ruthlessly on this idea. Interstellar does find frequent moments of grandeur, but the imagination of the script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan doesn’t quite keep pace with its scope. It is more than a bit deflating when McConaughey reaches the brink of something truly awe-inspiring, a place where the film promises to reach the limits of human understanding and crash through to the other side, only to have the script reveal one more twist in its clockwork plot. In Interstellar the vast expanses of space are no match for the bond of love between father and daughter. It’s a moving sentiment but also disappointingly small one when placed against a backdrop of such unfathomable scale.

Nolan is such a gifted creator of images that stick in the viewers' imagination that I found myself wishing Interstellar would stop hammering us with how important every beat of the story is and trust the visuals to carry the meaning. One gets more from the sight of their spacecraft glancing off a low hanging bank of frozen clouds than from minutes of urgently mapping out the plot on a white board. It requires so much breathless explanation to keep the various threads of the story straight that the film often doesn’t have time to pause and enjoy the dividends of all that world building. There is a moment where characters become separated on different temporal planes and one character ages decades in what for the rest is only minutes. It should be one of the film’s emotional epiphanies but it barely registers as the plot hustles along. 

I would be easy to continue dwelling on the film’s flaws like how punishing Hans Zimmer’s score is (and I enjoy BIG scores, including Inception) or how I’m 98% certain the logic of the story doesn’t hold up to mild scrutiny (such are the pitfalls of over-explaining), but even with these failings the bottom line is that that anyone who skips the film will be missing out on some incredible cinema. I don’t think a film should get credit merely for having ambition but respect is due for getting within striking distance of transcendence.

Grade:What do you give a film that hums along at a C+ for most of the running time but spikes up to an A-/A during those moments when all the elements align? Since I can't pull out the white board and explain how it achieved a singularity of all grades simultaneously let's call it a B. 

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Reader Comments (27)

Nomination chances? With the current reception, I'd say...4 at most, but 0-3 is the likelihood. Director, Picture, Production Design and Editing are certainly gone, but I'd also argue that Cinematography is all but gone and, in a year like this where there are SIX VFX epics above 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, VFX and Sound Categories are dicey for it as well.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Hey guys, I hate to do this but I'm just starting out blogging, inspired by this website but I wrote a detailed blog about the symbolism of the Alien in Alien and how it adds to the terror and I was hoping you guys would check it out. I have a few other stuff on there such as Top 5 lists and reviews of loads of movies, a new one is Godzilla for example! It would mean a lot if you just saw it

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLuke Bellamy

Overstuffed is the right word. Found it too long, too incoherent (the script). Beautiful to look at at times but that´s about it. Also, Anne Hathaway seemed miscast for me.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLuca

Have you seen it, Volvagia? I think it's got its eye on at least four TROPHIES. Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Cinematography. Good chances in Score and Editing too. I don't think mixed reviews will stop the tech categories from nominating it, and are there really other technical dazzlers in the mix? I think it's Nolan's best-looking and -sounding film.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJake D

Oh. And VFX is a shoo-in too.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJake D

Jake D: Getting seven nominations? That would be one of the highest nomination counts ever given to a movie that, at this point, probably has no shot at either a screenplay or director nod. (Sci-fi with good but no where near great reviews? Yeah, no.) We won't know exact count until the announcement, but, yes. More than three nominations would surprise.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

So, no, I haven't seen it, but it would take a 10-15% higher RT score for me to think seven nominations was plausible.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I agree with this review. If you think about the film, the plot holes are bigger than the wormhole. All the people who have given it a 10 in imdb votes are much more forgiving of it's flaws than I am.
The other planets looked great and these are likely enough for a cinematography nomination. I am not confident about sound nominations given the number of people who have said there were problems hearing dialog. Even if the sound professionals get the best mix, they are probably aware that audiences had problems.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVaus

I didn't like this film, the best part about it was Matthew's performance. Long, boring, and corny dialogue. Gosh, that Hathaway monologue about love was the worst. And the sound was fucking atrocious.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterT

OK, I have to say that I absolutely do not agree with the seemingly ubiquitous criticism of "too much exposition", even though I generally find myself in that camp when it comes to other movies.

In hard science fiction, IMO, the emotional core is (or should be) located in the science itself, which means that getting the relevant facts/characteristics/dimensions of any given thing or occurrence is crucial -- you want to be making calls about these things right there alongside the characters. If this movie is indeed (as Nolan claims) a call for renewed passion for science, then shouldn't it fuel a hunger for scientific inquiry in its audience, and make them hunger for data and more data? I never hear people fault a detective story for obsessing over the minutiae of a criminal case, then why must a story that is actually about staggering, mind-boggling things like time dilation on a planet orbiting a black hole skimp on the details?

Also, as for letting the visuals carry the meaning, aren't such marvelously counter-intuitive things as wormholes, higher dimensions and singularities actually lessened by being presented merely as inscrutable images? Don't they need to be described at length in words and/or numbers for their beautiful oddity to even come into play at all?

Sorry, I'm completely in love with this film and the unexpectedly harsh critical reception has put me a bit on the defensive, but I hope my main points are coming across.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMikadzuki

I read that some screenings of the movie in IMAX had sound mixing issues which made it hard to hear dialogue in some key scenes. My screening was audible for the most part but a couple of scenes in the third act were barely audible, which was incredibly frustrating. I had the same issue with The Dark Knight Rises as well.

Just a heads up for those that are planning on watching it in IMAX.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

I was surprised by the mediocrity of the story. Bad pacing, bad plot contrivances, cliches. I'm going to spit-take if this gets an editing nom. That 169 minutes had a LOT of filler and crap.

Except for the visual effects, I just didn't care for it.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

I just love it,
yes, the story gets confusing at times, but everything else is top-notch,
especially the acting, damn I evem cry 2or3 times,
thr scene with Burstyn broke my heart!

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

I didn't think it was confusing... I just expected when the credits rolled to see that it was written by M. Night Shyamalan. "Wait! The "ghost" was who?!"

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Travis: Stable time loop ghost powered by love. HARD SCI-FI, ladies and gentlemen!

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Travis: Also: What a Twist!

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I give it a B+. But I don't need to see it again.

November 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Excellent review, Michael. I agree that it's definitely flawed in some aspects of the story, but I liked what it was trying to do and I've found that ambition is one of the things that best helps a movie to age well. Once I forget all the details and quibbles I had with a movie, if its general spirit inspires wonder, I regard the movie well.

The unevenness also extended to the acting and score for me. McConaughey was spectacular in some moments (I'm thinking of the videos from home, in particular) but caricaturish in others (why was he whispering so often? He even did the weird hand thing from his Lincoln commercials!). The score was deafening, but the main theme ("Final Frontier") is astounding.

There are definitely numerous Oscar noms and statues in store for this one. I sure hope that sound mixing isn't one of them though. I missed A LOT of dialogue due to the score and action.

November 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Just wanted to add that I loved this quote from Mikadzuki:
"I never hear people fault a detective story for obsessing over the minutiae of a criminal case, then why must a story that is actually about staggering, mind-boggling things like time dilation on a planet orbiting a black hole skimp on the details?"

I'm not sure it's quite gets at the root of the criticism (the film doesn't explain the science all that well verbally, if you ask me), but it does highlight some unfair issues that people have with this film.

November 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I was on board for most of it but the last 20-30 minutes totally lost me. Those last few minutes felt incredibly rushed and really hard take seriously.

When it comes to space films, i actually much, much, prefer Gravity.

There was some great moments from McConaghey (especially with the videos) but Chastain gets Best in Show for me.

November 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

And to think that I would take my "Sci-fi-hating" boyfriend to Interstellar because "Christopher Nolan is a different territory". I am not so sure now. He may murder me after three hours of 'The chosen one", "You can save the world" and the other usual lines :D . I ma not even sure that I want to watch it now. The writing of The Dark Knight Rises was bad and here we go once again :(
Meanwhile - Interstellar #11 on IMDB.

November 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel B.

This film has had global comments that the Sound Mixing was horrible. You can't understand key dialogue throughout the film and it just to god damn to LOUD. Anyone that would think this will see nominations and or a win for Sound Mixing is CRAZY

November 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I was surprised at just how bland and uninteresting I found Interstellar. I absolutely loved Inception, so I was hoping that this would be at least as good, but it was certainly not! Bad dialogue, inconsistencies (why did nobody else in the film have an accent to match Matthew McC's?), corny acting, music which sounded surprisingly, this wasn't for me.

BTW, was I the only one who was hoping that Damon would knock off MMcC?

I didn't see it in Imax, so there was only one scene where I had trouble comprehending the dialogue (the one with Brand in the hospital bed).

I don't know if I'll bother to see this one a second time (and I saw Inception twice in the first weekend).

November 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Great point, Mikadzuki, about the comparison to detective fiction.

I would counter that in a detective story the exposition involves the twist and turns of a case, not in the basic defining of what a private detective is and how they operate. We are expected to pick that up through action and context. With Nolan he is often defining the rules of his universe well into the second half of the film. Like in Inception (which, for the record, I like a lot) the experts are still explaining the rules of a dream to each other late in the film when all the risks should be well established. There is a certain gracelessness to the way he squeezes in big chunks of info. His screenplays feel as if they are cut down from a 6 hour miniseries.

Compare that to some sci-fi like Blade Runner or Moon where there lay out "here's what a replication is" or "here's what Sam Rockwell's mission is" early on and spend the rest of the film exploring that idea. Sure there are some twists and turns along the way, but we know where we stand.

I don't think this is a fatal problem, but I think it detracts from films like Inception and Interstellar. It's probably why I think Memento remains his best film. Because the need for constant explanation was baked right into the premise.

Also, when I say let the images carry the story, I don't mean complex scientific concepts like wormholes. I mean character and emotional story beats. LIke how the image of McConaughey cutting through the farm after that drone eliminated the need for a big clunky monologue about how we have lost our capacity for wonder. Or instead of a hokey monologue about love being the strongest force in the galaxy, simply show father and daughter connecting across the limits of space and time. Nolan is great at finding these images but I wish he trusted them to stand on their own.

November 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

This movie made me think about the current characteristics of Nolan´s visions. I think he failed on every front when directing this movie. It is boring, it is too long, too complicated (the story does not make any sense, just check fans reviews that already started explaining all the plot incoherencies that are in the movie).
I still understand why many people like it. It has beautiful imagery and the camerawork is fabulous. But it is not for me. In terms of complicated story, I prefer Game of Thrones with its way to deal with story twists. And I prefer José Padilha over Nolan. In my opinion, he deals better with moral dilemmas and the narrative.

November 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B.

Nice review Michael C.

I agree on some of the parts you mentioned about Interstellar, and disagree on many. I don't think Interstellar is Nolan best film (this would go to his three masterpieces: The Prestige, Memento & TDK 2008), it has some flaws, but what surprised me in second viewing is the film still holds up very well, and its ambition and the experience it gave me, made me overlook some of the flaws (that Eureka scene!! it's so UN-NOLAN). and except that wormhole explaining, and some of the dialogue in the third act, I really didn't have any problem with the exposition, like what Mikadzuki said, this film is a hard science in the first place that deals with many scientific ideas, a narrative that is more dense that Blade Runner or Moon (BTW this film is his most simple in term of plot!), and it was logical in the situations especially considering that Cooper is a NASA test pilot and not a scientist, biologist or physicist.

Now lets talk about Nolan In regard to his four films. the ones I mentioned as his masterpieces + Inception, because they display great strength and a great way on using exposition to function not just as a character development but as a tool for self deception or deception to the characters and the audience themselves, thus, his expositions mystifies rather than illuminates. and it's here where I want Nolan to "not going to stop being Nolan "

Nolan movies demand answers. Even when his films appear to be ambiguous they pull back to reveal an underlying order.

His answers brings more questions, which makes the reveal more ambiguous and mysterious.

The mysteries of The Prestige are shown to be a complex web of interlocking secrets;

Indeed, but how concrete is the secrets to begin with?, Because The Prestige is a film about truth & illusion, and the diaries plays a big part in shaping the narrative construction in the film which inform most the events that we see or the exposition that we receives from both diaries. But are these events "truthful?", considering the diaries were used for the purpose of deception, and even with their nonfiction nature, "the diary lies just as much or more than any other art form. The seeming truthfulness of the diary form stems from the absence of an explicit audience, but without an audience, no one would write anything. The actual audience for the diary is the ego ideal that the diarist imagines looking on and measuring the words. Because it is hidden, the ego ideal, as the implicit audience, has the effect of making the diary form more deceptive than other arts, not less so".

the infamous spinning totem from Inception’s ending isn’t an enigma so much as the precise punchline to an elaborate riddle.

You could say this as well to many of Kubrick films such The Shining with that film concluded with a similar thematic punchline that extends to the viewers, but what is a riddle without the full pieces put together?

Even the blazing anarchy of the Joker takes the form of moral conundrums with tidy binary choices.

The Joker is an ambiguous entity himself (telling different stories about himself), shifting looks, shifting gender, shifting decisions, and even with shifting moral conundrums choices that we get to see his character do in the progression of the film or in the comic as well, think about the two boat at the end and how The Joker programmed the detonators, you have the rules as he tell them: 1-If Boat A & B cooperate, He will blow them both. 2-Boat A blowup Boat B. 3-Boat B blowup Boat A. And as I mentioned about The Joker twisted humor, therefore you'll have also 4- Boat A blowup Boat A & B, And 5-Boat B blowup Boat A & B.

And even TDK ending are full of moral ambiguity, Because is the film support that form of action that Batman and Gordon makes or dismiss it?. By doing that we questioned the dark action of the hero, the society which is built on lies. are lies the foundation of society?. who appointed the Batman to be above the law and lie & act on behalf of Gotham citizens?.. is this a heroic act?. in doing so, Nolan positions the resolution as incomplete, full of explosions and confusion as it is unclear who falls in to which category, his refusal to create a concrete, or traditionally uplifting ending, so it fits nicely in his portrayal of identity.

Which finally brings me to Inception again and its use of exposition in an innovative ways. While of course many have problems with the exposition dialogues that are persistent in the whole film and I understand if people felt that they lessened or ruined the experience for them. But for me I enjoyed it, especially that this is a heist film, and in a heist film exposition are part of the entertainment.

I think Inception showed us that Nolan is not always interested in the conventional notions of storytelling, and the usage of exposition dialogue Indicate that. I really liked how Nolan experiment with the exposition continuously, which is something unconventional, even in a heist film. The continuous stream of exposition becomes central & elemental key in developing not just the plot but also the characters, as Kristin Thompson noted "The implication here is that the audience becomes involved in the plot not through learning about the characters’ backgrounds and traits, as most spectators seem to expect in standard Hollywood films—even blockbusters. Instead, our relationships with the characters (apart from Cobb) come through learning new information along with them and being attached so closely to them while they work through the mechanics of the plot".

Nolan conveyed his story in an experimental manner, even if people disagree with the result, it's extremely effective in achieving its goals, that is to build a very complex and coherent plot that the conventional way would not allow it to happen.

November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCRAM1

And I apologize about the italics, it seems I can't re-edit my post.

November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCRAM1

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