If recent Hollywood history has taught us anything, it’s that the majority of movies aimed at adults who want more than pure escapism in their theater-going experience are the kinds of movies one might find at an art house “theatre” or get a cushy late-year release date so as to up their chances of winning some sort of award. One of the few filmmakers in this span to consistently make intelligent and entertaining movies that don’t seem to fit this mold has been Christopher Nolan.
While Memento was his breakout, it was his resurrection of the Batman franchise and movies like Inception that solidified his name in both the critical and public circles. To no surprise, his latest movie, Interstellar, has been one of the most anticipated of 2014 and it’s finally here for everyone to digest. But does it live up to his track record? Here’s a fun answer: Well, sort of.
This being a Christopher Nolan movie, you can expect it to be long. And at 2 hours and 49 minutes, I’d say this qualifies. To its credit, I’d say it feels more like 2 hours and 15 minutes but the point here is to make sure you have a comfy seat and an empty bladder if you’re going to watch it.
As per usual, Nolan, who penned the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, is attempting to tackle more cerebral material while still packaging it in an accessible and interesting manner. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know too much. And if you haven’t, I warn you there will be some spoiler-like material to follow so if you’re just looking for a grade, skip to the bottom.
The basic premise is that the Earth’s resources are drying up and it won’t be too many decades before mankind needs a new home if they want to survive. In order to find that new home, NASA must come to our rescue and they enlist Matthew McConaughey as the pilot of their last ditch effort. To do so, he must leave his family behind and hope that a planet capable of sustaining life can be found and that he can be reunited with his children. The relativity of time, black holes, wormholes, and crazy smart robots will all join in the discussion at some point.
Let’s start with the movie’s good points. Like most of his movies, it’s ambitious. This is a big subject to tackle, as the relatable family dynamics help give context to larger questions like what humanity is doing to its own planet and what it will take to relocate or repopulate on another world. The visuals are gorgeous and well shot, both on Earth and out in space. Add to that some very excellent sound design and Interstellar becomes one of the only films this year really benefiting from the big screen experience.
McConaughey delivers yet another excellent performance and his relationship with his daughter (Mackenzie Foy) is the touchstone of the movie. While Michael Caine does a nice job, it’s a pretty standard role of a mentor figure so that comes as no surprise. Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain play the older versions of McConaughey’s kids and do decent work, though really it’s the actors playing their younger selves that felt the most sincere.
We now head into the problem areas. First, why was Anne Hathaway cast? Don’t get me wrong, I like her and, in general, I like her acting. But she’s not good in this and the script didn’t do her any favors (though Nolan typically doesn’t do a good job with female characters so this wasn’t a huge surprise). Then there’s the inclusion of Matt Damon. Sure, he’s a fine actor and I am a big fan but he simply had no chance. Gary Oldman wouldn’t have fared much better because the biggest issue is the film’s attempt to resolve the story as a whole through formulaic and unnecessary plot additions.
The Nolans’ started with this great concept and were providing shades of movies as iconic and groundbreaking as 2001. And then they appeared to have succumbed to finishing their screenplay by following rules you’d find in a book entitled Screenwriting 101: How to Write Your First Script. Rather than simply continuing with the trajectory of the movie as it had been laid out, they feel the need to introduce a villain and to shoehorn a love story into the final hour of the picture.
The result of this trite and predictable formula erases all of the tension and destroys the potential and promise evident in the first half of the movie. It’s not a full deal-breaker as 2014 has been so starved for decent fare that even this misstep doesn’t make the experience wholly unpleasant. However, what I would recommend to all of you Nolan fans out there who have had Interstellar penciled into your calendars for quite some time now, is to temper your expectations. You won’t be mentioning this in the same breath as Memento ten years down the line and with the spectacular visual effects of Gravity, there’s nothing earth-shattering about the visuals here to keep that alive as a talking point very long either.
In the end, I think this is worth seeing on the big screen if you’ve enjoyed Nolan’s work but this is far more like The Dark Knight Rises than The Dark Knight. Hopefully sometime before Nolan finishes his next script, or rewrites whatever is already on the slate, he’ll have burned that Screenwriting 101 book and regained his ability to trust that adults can stomach a complex notion without needing predictable, feel-good subplots to go along with it. I’m hopeful but now having two movies in a row with rather glaring resolution issues is the start of a pattern I’d rather someone with Nolan’s talent manage to avoid.
GRADE: C, after initially earning a B – UPDATE: Visual effects, sound design, and a director’s ambition are all important elements of film making. Telling a coherent story, even more so. That’s why after having more time to think about what Christopher Nolan and company put up on screen, I’m lowering the rating on this one by a full letter grade. The last 90 minutes are just so bad and non-sensical that my conscience simply cannot take the idea that I gave the film as much credit as I did initially.
Interstellar is rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language.