Last year, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity blew us away. Not everyone loved the film, but most could agree that it was dazzling to behold on the big screen (especially in 3D) and one giant leap forward in cinema on a technical level. It was a thrill ride as much as a movie, anchored by one single magnetic performance by Sandra Bullock. Gravity went on to become one of two frontrunners for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, winning Best Director for Cuaron and conceding the top prize to 12 Years A Slave, quite rightly. Gravity was an experience, but 12 Years A Slave was a film.
At 91 minutes, Gravity was lean and mean, basically nonstop action from start to finish. Interstellar is not so concise. That should come as no surprise — Christopher Nolan has not made a film that clocks in at under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia. Most of his recent films have hovered around the two-and-a-half-hour mark, while The Dark Knight Rises was even longer. Interstellar is his longest yet, coming in at 169 minutes (nearly three hours). It doesn’t feel that long, though. Nolan’s films are propulsive, even if they wobble a little getting wherever they’re trying to go.
Paramount has done a good job of not spoiling Interstellar, to the extent that many people still don’t know what it’s about. It’s probably better that way, because it’s more fun to watch a movie unfold having no idea where it’s headed, except a reasonable assumption that at some point, it’s headed into space. To preserve that experience, I will be similarly vague in setting this up.The film stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as astronauts named Cooper (no first name that we know of) and Amelia Brand, respectively; it also stars Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine, as other humans. It takes place in the future, following a rough patch in our planet’s history. A number of people seem to have died of famine, but we don’t know how many. Technology has not advanced. Food is harder to come by. It’s hard to tell what the rest of the world is like, since we’re bound to what seems like a Kansas farmhouse in the 1990s. (I don’t know why it seems like the 90s. Maybe because it reminded me of Twister.) Only a few tech advancement seem even as advanced as 2014, let alone many years into the future. (It seems Apple did not survive the collapse.)
I’m all for the less-is-more explanation of what went wrong on the planet, except for a bit where Murphy Cooper’s teachers try to tell her that space exploration never happened. (Cute meta nod to Kubrick’s 2001, though.) It seems impossible that enough time has passed to allow that theory to be introduced into the public school system, especially if there are still living astronauts amongst the population. (Cooper himself is one, we are told.) In moments like this, we wish for either more or less world-building to explain the state of mind these people are in. (Also inexplicable: why NASA decided to relocate to an underground Kansas-like location.)
I’m also fairly certain that there is a character named Cooper Cooper in this film, but I can’t say how without spoiling a major plot point.Interstellar packs an emotional wallop and has a few killer concepts up its sleeve. As often happens with Nolan, his reach exceeds his grasp. As the filmmaker who is probably least likely to be told “no” in Hollywood at the moment, the screenplay (co-written with his brother Jonathan) could have used a little more scrutiny before production. There are a number of leaps in logic one must take in order to get on board with Interstellar. Some are easier to ride along with than others. Though the fate of all mankind depends on the success of the crew’s mission, Cooper and Brand seem to be winging it an awful lot of the time, making decisions on the fly that you’d think they would have discussed before shuttling off to Saturn. Many characters are scientists and engineers and the like, but actual scientists and engineers would probably go insane trying to make sense of this film. This might be why a lot of the science exposition seems to be mumbled or swiftly cut away from. Nolan definitely doesn’t care about the actual science; his approach to science exposition is basically: “Mumble mumble relativity… look over here! Pretty!”
Interstellar owes plenty to previous science fiction entries ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Signs, but it is closest in spirit to 1997’s Contact, which McConaughey also starred in. Like that Robert Zemeckis film, it explores the love between a father and a daughter stretching from infinity to beyond, while also giving us some time to ponder our small place in a vast universe. For all its wanderings in the cosmos, like Contact, Interstellar brings space exploration down to Earth. Space is a wondrous thing in all its majesty, but the human heart even moreso, as Nolan tells it. Parts of Interstellar play in the same mind-bending surreal realm as Nolan’s Inception, and you probably won’t want to think too hard about them. This is not a movie to think about, but to feel.That might comes as a surprise to some, since Nolan’s movies tend to be more cerebral than moving. (Or faux-cerebral, at least.) The performances are strong across the board, and why wouldn’t they be? Nolan has cast various Oscar winners and nominees, including many recognizable faces in relatively small roles, plus at least one surprise movie star. McConaughey could find himself with an Oscar nod if the competition isn’t too fierce. He’s wonderfully emotive, and he’s giving quite a lot of emoting to do. (Hathaway and Chastain are good, but their characters may be a tad too thin to warrant awards buzz.) The special effects are impressive because they don’t often look like special effects. The score by Hans Zimmer is exactly as bombastic as you’d expect it to be.
Like The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, Interstellar has more supporting characters than it knows what to do with, and we get little sense of who these people are or even what their function in this world is. Character remains one of his weaknesses. Interstellar feels like a lot of Nolan films do: like a really superb outline that somehow made it into production without ever being a screenplay. The broad beats are here, but the details aren’t, quite, and neither are the answers to my many questions. His stories defy the laws of logic the same way a wormhole defies time itself; instead of connecting Point A to Point B, he just bends the rules and smooshes them together. Nolan is essentially thrusting us all into a wormhole, saying: “It doesn’t matter how you get there, if you do indeed get there! Just go with it, okay?”
Okay, Christopher Nolan. Interstellar is an epic with big ideas and bigger emotions. It’s a thoroughly entertaining journey through space. Is it remotely coherent? Not really. I still admire Nolan for being one of few filmmakers who can transform an original idea into a blockbuster. We need more movies like Interstellar, and more movies like Interstellar need more input from someone who knows how to write a screenplay.
Gravity wasn’t a perfect film, either, but it was ambitious in all the right ways, while the actual story couldn’t have been simpler. It was, essentially, one character versus tremendous odds, and we followed her singularly from the beginning of her ordeal to the end. That’s all. Interstellar wants to do what Gravity did, and also so much more — it has similar action scenes and a few familiar emotional beats, but it also cuts between life on Earth and what’s happening in the far reaches of space, including a lot of manufactured silliness taking place on the Cooper family farm that could’ve been a lot shorter. Many of the events that unfold are episodic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it seems Nolan is delivering the action beats mainly because a budget of this magnitude requires him to.
For all its vastness, Gravity kept things simple — one woman’s life at stake. That was it, but it was enough. Interstellar is the anti-Gravity — bloated and sprawling, caring little about the physical experience of being adrift in space, more caught up in earthbound drama. Cuaron’s take ends up being more grounded — which is ironic, given that much less of Gravity takes place on Earth. (Though, to be fair, even Gravity couldn’t resist one rather silly dream sequence indulgence.)
Gravity is a more cohesive film, one of 2013’s best. Interstellar is impressive, but far from a masterpiece. Like the universe itself, it is a beautiful mess. There is life inside it. It may be Nolan’s most moving film yet. It is not his best, but it is more personal and more alive than most blockbusters. This one is worth getting sucked into.