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INTERSTELLAR (review)

Review by Jeff Bond

Produced by Emma Thomas,
Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst

Written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, 
Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, 
Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck

 

If you’re a sucker for movies about voyages to the stars that don’t have the words trek or wars in the title, you’ve had to make do with just a handful of hardcore space movies since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey launched a thousand drug trips in 1968.

As Kubrick proved, depicting spaceflight convincingly and intelligently isn’t easy—it’s a lot easier to get a monster onboard or blow up a few planets than it is to make an audience feel like they’re really viewing a potential future for humanity: the nuts and bolts of survival in vacuum and zero g, of building spaceships that work and designing ways to travel to distant planets while staying alive.

Peter Hyams made his sequel to 2001, 2010: The Year We Made Contact, and Robert Zemeckis made Contact.

Is that it?

Unless you’re counting the more near-orbit, NASA docudramas like Marooned, Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and yes, Gravity, there’s not a lot more to choose from that doesn’t turn into goofy pulp.

So Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has been, shall we say, “highly anticipated.” Taking flight from the works of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (whose ideas also inspired some of Carl Sagan’s Contact), Interstellar is a wildly ambitious and wildly sentimental film that, like a lot of Nolan’s movies, works like gangbusters a lot of the time and may leave you grasping for explanations the rest.

If you’re staying awake nights worrying about climate change or the fate of your children in an ecologically decaying world, Interstellar will plumb the darkest depths of your pessimism and take you on thoroughly unexpected flights of optimism. It’s set in the future—near and far—and pivots on a dustbowl, blighted ecology that’s on the verge of robbing the planet of breathable oxygen as well as food. Stubborn Texan test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) winds up being drafted into a secret NASA project to use a mysterious black hole that’s appeared near Saturn to journey to another galaxy—yes, another GALAXY—to check out the results of three earlier missions to determine if planets there are suitable for human colonization. The catch is that due to relativity, years will pass on earth for every hour the crew (including scientist Anne Hathaway, fellow astronauts Wes Bentley and David Oyelowo and a monolith-shaped robot voiced by Bill Irwin) spends investigating the alien planets.

That’s not the only catch. Cooper’s involvement comes about due to his equally stubborn daughter (played as a young girl by Mackenzie Foy and an embittered adult by Jessica Chastain), who’s experienced a poltergeist-like phenomenon in her book-crammed bedroom, and as an adult labors on a formula to manipulate gravity—and launch earth’s remaining population into space—along with sagely physicist Michael Caine. Cooper is desperate to save his children, but physics and relativity aren’t on his side.

Interstellar crams so much incident and sprawling ambition into its running time that you may worry that three hours isn’t enough time to wrap things up. Working in and out of the IMAX format, Christopher Nolan keeps things arresting, holding to a standard widescreen look on Earth and within the cockpits of his spacecraft to create a claustrophobic feeling, then opening up the frame into the tall IMAX perspective for some staggering visual effects sequences in space and on the alien planets.

Anchoring everything is another confident movie star turn from McConaughey, who rightly gained a great deal of heat from his work in things like William Friedkin’s Killer Joe and HBO’s True Detective, and then earned an equal amount of derision for a self-absorbed awards acceptance speech and his current car commercials. McConaughey sort of does one thing, which can easily invite parody—but he does it well, in the manner of a Tom Cruise or a Paul Newman. He easily nails the ballsy test pilot attitude vital to several nail-biting space sequences, but the actor’s real value gets put to the test in the movie’s climactic attempt to create a modern corollary to 2001’s head-tripping stargate sequence.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that black hole isn’t put there in the story for nothing, and McConaughey’s character winds up in an amazing, Escher-like fever dream of alternate timelines and connections, all tied in to his love for his daughter and the circular nature of time and the universe. It’s a scene that has the audience on the edge of derisive laughter, but McConaughey’s mania puts us right into this psychedelic nightmare next to him as he tries to unravel time itself in order to get through to his daughter, and I can’t think of another actor who could sell such a bizarre yet strangely touching scene.

You don’t normally look to Nolan for sentiment—he’s more Kubrick than Spielberg, and it makes perfect sense that Interstellar was on Spielberg’s plate before Nolan took it over. Where the film is predictable, it’s predictable because of some standard Hollywood notions of love conquering all (except as Hathaway’s character insists, maybe love conquers all because PHYSICS!) and grizzled characters talking about baseball and hot dogs (John Lithgow, as McConaughey’s father, actually seems to be recycling his baseball and hot dogs speech from his role in 2010, while it seems like a career ago that McConaughey starred alongside Jodie Foster in Contact).

It falls to a kind of surprise appearance by Matt Damon (spoiler alert!) to get the script’s none-too-subtle but nevertheless effective point across that humans are hard-wired to look out for their IMMEDIATE survival, not the survival of their descendants over the horizon—and in so doing Damon’s character becomes the poster boy for every corporation focused on tomorrow’s profit reports and everyone else who has their head in the sand about climate change. If that showcases Nolan’s pessimism, the film’s future NASA technology and ultimate plot turns display an optimism that makes Star Trek look positively downbeat.

Interstellar is a trip, one that travels down a few well-trod roads as well as some you’ve never seen before.

Jeff Bond is a former editor at Geek magazine and co-author of Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend (in stores now!). He can be harassed on twitter @lazymodeler.
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