Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a lot of things. Like Inarritu's latest film Birdman, this is a movie that wants to combine many different genres at once- sentimental family drama, sci-fi adventure, space epic, a progressive vision of the future, a treatise on the value of love above all else...you get the idea, or you will when you see it. Also like Birdman, it's not entirely successful at everything it's trying to do, and some parts of it work much better than others- unfortunately, here it's a lot clearer which parts do and don't, and that's because Nolan is a much more straightforward, structured visionary (if you want to call him that) than Inarritu. The stuff that works, works very well, and the stuff that doesn't...well, it really doesn't.
But one of the things he was lucky enough to get very right here was the casting, and with Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain as the lead characters in this film, I confess to feeling more attachment to them emotionally than I ever have to any of the characters in Nolan's other films, and that's an achievement. The people in his films are usually cold, distant archetypes, there to recite dialogue in ways that get across his ideas- his worlds are mostly cerebral and he's been criticized for being unemotional with his characters. The entire first act of this film seems designed to respond to those critiques, as he builds up McConaughey's all American good old boy Coop to be a widowed dad (of course) saddled with two kids and a farm with acres of cornfields, all part of a distant future where the earth has run out of food, leaving everyone who's survived to take up a useful profession, like farming.
But Coop is educated and trained as an engineer and pilot, so he longs to be able to use the skills he has acquired to go beyond this world, and maybe look for others instead. The building of emotional bonds between Coop and his kids, especially his precocious 10-year-old daughter Murph, and the set-up of their existence in this future may be more sentimental than Nolan fans are used to, but I think it works well in bonding the audience to these characters as people, and I appreciated that effort, because it causes us to care when the special effects extravaganza portion of the movie takes over. And it does indeed take over, lasting the vast majority of the film, which is undoubtedly what most will find to be the most entertaining part. But I was pretty okay with the world establishing, and it's more the space and planet hopping activities where my restlessness began to grow.
But first, we have to explain how Coop gets called away on his mission to the far off worlds in the first place, and it involves the stumbling onto a classic "underground bunker" that's so popular in science fiction, where NASA has been secretly functioning years after it was publicly de-funded. They've been trying to figure out how to move Earth's population to other galaxies, and sending various astronauts to find other worlds and report back with details. Coop of course, is called on to fly their latest mission (seemingly the very day he discovered this whole operation) and he will have to leave his kids behind to do it, which could very well mean he'll never see them again. This is where the authenticity of the earlier family scenes are called into question, because for all his love of the family, Coop really doesn't hesitate that much to leave his kids, and before we know it, he's taken off with a crew consisting of Wes Bentley and Anne Hathaway to track down several planets where potential for life has been reported to exist.
This part of the film is laden with incredible visual effects of course, but you'd expect nothing less after the likes of Inception. Still, Interstellar does a good job at creating moments of wonder, something that was missing in the very structured, puzzle box movies Nolan's crafted before, like Inception and Memento. But his tendency for exposition heavy dialogue is still here, and this time in bouts of speeches infused with details of quantum physics and relativity theory so jumbled that I challenge anyone to keep up with half of anything the astronauts are saying to each other after they leave Earth. To me, this is why many of the scenes in space that aren't directly about planet hopping drag the movie down considerably, and it's only thanks the Matthew McConaughey's always relatable, everyman presence that we're invested in this journey at all. Back on Earth meanwhile, while Coop is off on his journey of discovery, Murph and her brother (who never seems nearly as important to his dad as Murph is- Coop clearly plays favorites here) are aging at a speed much faster than what is passing for the astronauts, and again the most effective parts of the film involve the moments where Coop must see the faces of his kids and realize that he's missed their entire lives in what felt to him like only minutes.
The passage of time is a much pondered theme of this movie, and is explored and quantified in every possible way, much of it in that gobbledygook dialogue (which may actually make some sense to quantum theorists, but not so much to the average viewer), but then in the last third of the film as an amazing, borderline ludicrous but consistently wondrous sequence where McConaughey travels into a five dimensional reality and must communicate with himself from the past. I don't know if any of what happens there makes sense, but I certainly enjoyed it while I was watching it.
That's probably a good way to describe a lot of Interstellar, even the middle part of the film which drags heavily through long scenes and an entire subplot involving a cameo from a major movie star that frankly could have been cut altogether. Same goes for the unfunny and awkward robot sidekick TARS, which comes across as a forced attempt at creating a "lovable" comic relief buddy, and if Nolan's out of his wheelhouse with the emotionalism, imagine his shot at forcing in a comedy only character. Yikes. At nearly three hours long, this is a movie that needed to have some serious fat trimmed off it in the editing room, and had it done that it's possible a near masterpiece could have emerged. As it is now, it's a big entertainment with some great actors doing their best to ground Nolan's lofty and ambitious ideas (Jessica Chastain as the grown Murph again turns in a deeply felt performance that elevates the rather bit part she's given), and that makes it worth experiencing on the whole, because the good parts are definitely good enough to warrant a first viewing, and maybe even a second. And simply by virtue of being worth a second look, that already places it a notch above Inception in my book.
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