FRESH POUR: Interstellar (2014)

dir. Christopher Nolan
Paramount Pictures

At this point in the film-release hype cycle, the Christopher Nolan backlash is in full swing, as has the Christopher Nolan backlash backlash. After The Dark Knight Rises had more of a lukewarm response than most Nolan films, audiences have started to pick up on Nolan’s tics and started to reject them; at this point, you probably already know whether or not you’ll like a Nolan film based on how you receive his style. To that end, it’s surprising (and refreshing) to find that Interstellar, Nolan’s latest, is at once his most ambitious and most intimate film – even if it doesn’t hold together quite as well as I’d like it to.

Borrowing from (or ripping off, depending on who you ask and how bad a mood they’re in) 2001, Solaris, The Fifth Element, Gravity and a spate of others, Interstellar follows former NASA engineer-cum-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, a compellingly centering presence throughout the film), who is called to leave his family to embark on a dangerous, last-ditch effort to find a habitable planet for humanity after the Earth starts becoming uninhabitable. Meanwhile, Cooper’s daughter Murph (played by Jessica Chastain as an adult) lives out her life waiting for/rejecting her father for leaving her as they both independently work to solve the puzzle of humanity’s survival.

In its mix of big ideas and small conflicts, Interstellar provides a compelling mix of the structural exactitude of Inception with the yearning humanity of Apollo 13 and Gravity (with a bit of thematic material carried over from Signs, of all things). On the surface, it’s a father-daughter story, a tale of how saving the human race is really about saving the people we love – Cooper’s daughter Murph, Amelia’s father (Michael Caine) and her lost astronaut lover are the real priorities of our heroes, the villains and supporting characters being selfish cowards or blank ideologues whose alienation from humanity are often their downfall. A surprise cameo by Matt Damon as a cowardly, self-serving scientist they recover from a probe mission offers some slightly hackneyed conflict (including an alien-planet brawl right out of the Gorn fight in that Star Trek episode), but damn if it doesn’t lead to some much-needed action and tension in the middle third of the film.

However, Interstellar also touches on history and our responsibility to remember and preserve it as part of ourselves. The film opens with interview footage from real survivors of the Dust Bowl, passing them off as survivors of the film’s depiction of Earth as a dusty, food-starved nightmare – a ballsy move to be sure, but I really dug it. The crew is chiefly concerned with the dilemma of whether or not to continue the current history of Earth’s humanity by repopulating Earth’s inhabitants on a new planet (Plan A), or seeding a colony of new humans fertilized from genetic material on the ship (Plan B), effectively losing our human history but ensuring mankind’s technical survival. Just as Murph deals with her literal and figurative ‘ghosts’, everyone is haunted by their past, yet strives to preserve it. Even the time-fuckery that occurs in the film’s trippy final act fetures forefathers and descendants reaching out to each other across love, gravity and time to save each other, tying these thematic elements together in a nicely sentimental bow.

The film’s look is typical Nolan – stately, painterly exteriors and a Fincher-esque dedication to stillness and precision. Unlike the weaving, sweeping cameras of Cuaron’s Gravity, Nolan leans heavily on Kubrick and Tarkovsky to paint space as a cold, yet supremely natural phenomena. One shot of the Endurance, a tiny, enterprising speck spinning past the rings of Jupiter, accompanied by a rainforest-sounds mp3 Cooper listens to on the ship, will stick with me for a long time as a majestic, uncanny depiction of the space as a wilderness these new pioneers are exploring. The production design of the ship and its equipment is fantastic, right down to the adorably wry, Tetris-like robots TARS and CASE – a pair of silver monoliths who can split and reconfigure themselves into any shape they need. Regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer still has his problem with stomping on a chord for minutes at a time and calling it a theme, but this is definitely one of his better efforts in a long while. This time, however, he mixes some of his motifs from The Thin Red Line with a mixture of Philip Glass Space Organ and Jerry Goldsmith-ian space grandeur, making even these slight variations very exciting to listen to.

Interstellar, for better or worse, is a film of great ambition. Even when it stumbles at times, its sheer audacity and dedication to its conceits carries you through the many plot turns and sheets of expository dialogue to the humanist ideals at its core. Its flaws are not invisible to me – it’s overwritten at times, convoluted, and threatens to undermine its sentimental simplicity at every turn. Still, Nolan is nothing if not an earnest filmmaker, and Interstellar has to have one of the biggest damn hearts I’ve seen in a Nolan film yet. It’s no 2001, but unlike its detractors, I don’t think it’s trying to be, and shouldn’t be judged for what it isn’t. Hopefully, after the Nolan backlash backlash backlash has died down in  few years, Interstellar may well go down as one of his most human works, if not necessarily his most accomplished and successful.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It!

Interstellar Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever someone discusses emotions (e.g. love) in a cold, clinical way
2) Drink every time you see a full shot of the spinning Endurance spacecraft
3) Drink any time Cooper says Murph’s name
Finish Your Drink When:
Murph has her “Eureka!” moment. (You’ll know it when you hear it.)

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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