Larger than life allegories, and often extraordinary visuals. Director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception”) seems like he was trying to make his greatest film with Interstellar. It is not a perfect film to me. It would be generous to say that I understood more than seventy-five percent of it – it demands to be viewed a second time since there are brisk shots and alludes in dialogue that wanted me to rewind it. I do feel, with all my senses, that it’s still pretty great. If you’re the kind of person that can plunge into areas of outlandishness and accept that you won’t understand everything, than you can appreciate the beauty and splendor, and abstract ideas, of Nolan’s film.
Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of Nolan’s favorite films, I understand. This is no copy of that film. But just the same, Nolan has made a space extravaganza in which he is asking viewers to engage their intellect, and nestle in ambiguity. More unintentional ambiguity however is added: Booming soundtrack music drowns out some of the dialogue, and other spoken words are muted when characters talk within their helmets. This is a rare occasion I wish theaters came with optional subtitles.
Here’s the general set-up: NASA has a top-secret branch sending astronauts into interstellar space to find a new planet to relocate humanity after it has been decided our despoiled Earth will be coming to an end in a few decades (among the reasons I understood: failed food production, climate crisis). Close to the planet Saturn, a wormhole has been provided by an unknown extraterrestrial or godlike force that will take the NASA team into another galaxy with potential habitable planets.
One explored planet has nothing but ocean water, which you can’t live on — I suppose they are still looking for a surface somewhere (a previous team failed in their embark). It is warned that every hour spent on the planet will cost seven years of Earth time. Matthew McConaughey, the lead astronaut, loses more than an hour in exploration on this planet, thus, is slipping away time with his family back home.
Other spacemen are played by Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi and a neat-o android with Tetris-like mobility named TARS – all of them with challenging notions. Are the people of Earth expendable if the human race can just as well survive in another galaxy with the aid of test tube babies? Michael Caine, as the NASA head scientist and principle genius back on Earth, certainly believes this choice is of practical likelihood.
It took awhile for me to warm to McConaughey as the protagonist of the story. He began as a NASA test pilot (which is pre-story exposition), but became a farmer trying to raise his family while enduring a massive drought. Here’s just one fault of many I had with the film: I’m more than just a bit iffy as to why McConaughey is suddenly chosen to navigate the space expedition. The space mission gets underway quite abruptly, leaving McConaughey to separate from his family. Away for so many Earth years, he is able to receive messages via video signals from his children, the doubtful Casey Affleck and the wayward Jessica Chastain – whom eventually solves an algorithm of utmost importance. I’m not calling anybody out from this cast as having given one of the great performances, but of any persons who I innately respond to, where something spiritual lights up from inside me, I’d say that happens when Chastain and Caine are on-screen. They’re genuine to me.
McConaughey is less interesting as an individual to me, but boy, is his character handed a series of tough choices. Nolan unfailingly is a superb dramatist who knows how to take his characters to the brink of disaster only to have them resolve in the most longshot, but stunningly creative, ways. He’s made at least five films in which I’ve been riveted by the last half, and with my consciousness in full-alert mode. I’ve said it before: Nolan is the best action director of this century.
Indulge me. In 1979, Disney made a space crap o-rama called “The Black Hole” where the team stayed outside its orbit “observing” it the entire movie without daring entry. Nolan takes us into the black hole. He gives us new things to consider about the black hole. The nitpicker inside me fears that everything about the film will fall into ungainly preposterousness once we’re in it, but Nolan creates visual designs that have never been done before, with ideas driving behind it that have never been thought of before. Suspend your disbelief, please. It’s not believable, but it blows the mind open regardless.
The best film I saw last year was “Gravity” which I love more, for its immediacy, for its classical story and style, for its elegance. “Interstellar” is far more of a rough ride, it has genius and it has dazzle but it is all over the place, and in first-time viewing has disjointed moments that don’t cohere. “Interstellar” is not the greatest film I have ever seen (Oh, how I wished going in!), but it is an experience to love as much as to for a few brief moments hate, to be befuddled by, to be pondered over, and a sight that must be seen to be believed.
169 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
ACTION-DRAMA / THINKING TEENS / WEEKEND TRANCE-OUT