Movies

TR Review: Interstellar Is Intermittently Stellar

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I like Interstellar just enough that I wish I loved it. But I can’t.

It did make me realize that The Prestige informs a lot more of Christopher Nolan’s work than may have been apparent before. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to the sorts of movies he actually makes versus the sort of movies he is perceived to have made, there’s a whole lot of misdirection going on that conceals absurd twists.

Do you think a Christopher Nolan movie is somehow going to be a super-accurate, realistic piece of science fiction that doesn’t extrapolate greatly beyond what we know? If so, why? Because of that one time he showed you where the different parts of Batman’s outfit came from? Nolan makes great leaps for the sake of the story just like everyone else – the big reveal in The Prestige jumped way outside the bounds of real science, the mental condition in Memento is far too precise and convenient to be an actual disorder, and even if we bring up Batman, it’s hugely unfeasible that Harvey Dent would be able to function like a normal human being with the level of disfigurement he sustains.

Interstellar, with no detailed explanation, asks you to just accept that aliens have placed an artificial wormhole just outside of Saturn for our convenience. It’d be a lot more convenient by a closer planet like Mars, but then there wouldn’t be a clever in-joke reference to the fact that the novel of 2001 had the monolith around Saturn rather than Jupiter.

Another thing to accept is that planet Earth has become a gigantic Tom Joad-era dust bowl. Never mind why – save for some brief mentions of blight that thrives on the nitrogen in our atmosphere killing all the crops – it just is. And in this new world of famine, there are no riots or looting, and we’re even told that the military has basically been abolished, which is possibly the biggest chunk of science fiction we’re asked to swallow. Meanwhile, children are taught revisionist history about how the moon landing was faked in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union, because…this helps how?

The movie also just kinda casually drops that we have artificial intelligence now, in the form of Minecraft-like moving monoliths. We can do that, yet crop blight defeats us?

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We press have been asked specifically not to spoil too much of this almost three-hour movie, and rest assured, there’s a lot you haven’t seen yet, and that I won’t talk about. But I will say that if you haven’t guessed one of the film’s final plot developments within the first 20 minutes, you are most likely not a nerd, and may well have never even seen a sci-fi movie before.

The following facts are not in dispute: Nolan has the clout and the large-scale vision to get original sci-fi properties made. He uses practical sets and effects where possible, and shoots as much of it on Imax as he can. And he has a story to tell, with a definite beginning, middle and end. Love or hate Interstellar – or fall, like me, into a wishy-washy middle ground – you will feel like you’ve been on a grand journey by the end. It has probably been a long, long time since you’ve seen a movie on this scale that didn’t feature a set-up for a sequel mid-credits. That’s not to say there isn’t room for one; just that the story that needed to be told, has been.

But does all that immunize the movie from criticism? No. It does not. And nerdy nitpickery can and will go crazy over much of the stuff it isn’t fair to talk about in this review as yet.

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At heart, despite the technology and special effects and all that stuff, those who made this movie would like you to believe that it’s really just the story of a father’s love for his daughter, and how traveling at light-speeds affects that when it ensures they will ultimately age at different rates. Matthew McConaughey is a cornball corn farmer known merely as Cooper, while Mackenzie Foy (creepy baby Renesmee from Twilight) is his little girl Murph, who will one day grow up to be Jessica Chastain. Cooper is a frustrated pilot, and when events transpire that lead him to the top-secret remnants of NASA, and the opportunity to fly a spaceship through the alien-gifted wormhole to find a new home for humanity, he takes it, even though it means leaving Murph behind. Thus begins a long journey – through space, and back on the homefront.

Although Interstellar never gets too preachy about specific modern political issues, like whatever it is that caused perennial dust storms in this future world, there’s a definite point being made about mankind’s pettiness in the face of larger issues. When two men wrestle on an alien glacier for reasons less important than the survival of humankind, made tiny in the giant Imax frame, it couldn’t be clearer how stupid our individual issues are against the backdrop of the universe. It’s unfortunate timing that the movie’s constant quoting of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” comes right when multiple TV commercials are using the same poem; somehow Michael Caine’s repetition of a poem I just saw John Cena recite on a WWE show feels sillier than perhaps it ought.

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Nolan gets downright bold in some areas – there comes a point where he actually tries to visualize something onscreen that theoretically can’t be visualized at all for the human eye, so creative points for that. Physicist Kip Thorne has a producer credit on the film, and that aspect of the science is convincing, until we get to a rather tired thesis about love being the real strongest force in the universe. Yes, your beloved “realistic” director Christopher Nolan has decided that love is a tangible force as powerful as any in physics, and while McConaughey and the multiple actresses who play Murph do make you believe in a real emotional connection, the “science” of it feels a tad shaky at best.

It may take you a while to notice, though. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is full of creative, immersive angles, and the rumbles when spaceships take off, land and near-crash is so all-enveloping in Imax that it reminds me of when I was a kid and saw Aliens for the first time in a New York theater with decent Dolby sound. For a non-3D film, it makes you feel part of the experience like few others – though the sound mix does sacrifice a lot of dialogue clarity.

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When the Dark Knight movies were coming out, a mantra among geeky fans was “Trust Nolan.” After seeing Interstellar, I’d suggest a mantra Nolan should take to heart is “trust the fans.” This is a film that could have been about 20% better had some of the points been more subtle – if you really want to show that you’re influenced by 2001, understand that a big part of what makes it great is that characters only talk when they have to…and NEVER to hammer home the theme of the film over and over. Did you find yourself wishing Dave Bowman had often wondered aloud, “Say, what if this monolith is God?” If you answered yes, you might like Interstellar more than I.

I don’t regret seeing the movie – I merely regret that a director with a reputation for smarts left so many silly things in it to mar the otherwise epic experience.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist