For those of you still uninitiated with Interstellar, the new shrouded-in-secrecy film by genius and innovator Christopher Nolan, stop reading here. It is the personification of discovery, an eyes-wide-open love song that dares to ask what if and to open doors to places both new and unexpected. As Christopher Nolan himself has said to the press, this film, perhaps more than any other of his, relishes in its untold story. There are the expected Nolan twists and turns, but so much of the meat and bones of the story has been lovingly withheld that spoiling seems rude. Interstellar is in a constant state of evolution and metamorphosis, with distinct phases that differ in look, structure, and theme. Although Nolan recycles core sci-fi tropes, the context and presentation deepens and expands them past familiarity, using them as thematic devices that uplift and still surprise. The more familiar you are with the genre, the more you might see things coming (though there are some nobody will), but Nolan’s stellar triumph is in how he synthesizes his film’s many moving parts into a clear, absorbing gospel of time, life, and love. It’s an unfortunate mark of timing that Boyhood, an amazing film that mourns the uncanny delicacy of time’s passing, came out only a few months prior, since Interstellar chases a similar ambition less effectively but still with resonance. Nolan uses time like a Death Star, and it is terrifying.
Interstellar is a profound evolution for Nolan not just as a filmmaker but as an artist. He plays with new forms of cinematic expression, has never been more confident or as audacious, and asks big questions while he finds increasingly stunning ways to wow. No film in 2014 is as joyously cinematic: Interstellar is worth celebrating.
What I can say -- or rather what I will -- is this: Interstellar is a science fiction film taking place in a not too distant future. It’s science fiction in the classical sense, taking existing speculative science and spinning it into narrative orbit. Earth has become a planet-wide dust bowl with crops failing and the population on the brink of ruin. It’s a fatalistic vision of Earth’s future that, in the hands of a filmmaker known for his over-seriousness, shockingly becomes a fable of optimism and hope. Using the last resources on Earth, an expedition is set to travel through a newly discovered wormhole, with detailed plans to ‘test out’ multiple planets that can possibly sustain life. Grounding Nolan’s voyage between galaxies is a gorgeous father-daughter story that’s a metaphor for all human connection and love -- a huge statement that might seem like folly if it wasn’t brought to life by two amazing performances by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy. I expected McConaughey to wow, and he’s better here than his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, but I was pleasantly surprised at the nuanced and heartfelt performance by Foy-a rarity amongst child actors. The cast is excellent, namely Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway along with many others. They are the human heart in a film that could have been intellectually paralyzing, and they pump blood into Interstellar’s icy veins.
The striking production design rejects the sleek futurism of Minority Report and has the live-in grit of Star Wars or Alien. It’s a textured world, and everything Nolan and his elite team of artists (production designer Nathan Crowley, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema) do is to make the future feel as real as the present. Function over form is the film’s mantra, although the designs are destined to be iconic. This is perhaps best shown in the film’s sarcastic robot TARS, which is best described by saying the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey joined Cirque du Soleil, which is somehow both funny and cool. Nolan’s portrayal of a wormhole visualizes space and time with the splendor of gods, making it, along with a few other set pieces, instantaneously stand tall with the best moments of sci-fi spectacle in the history of the cinema. They’re the sort of metaphysical sights that would spark Stanley Kubrick back to life and give a standing ovation. It’s as important to see Interstellar in IMAX as it is to see Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. It sings on the big screen.
In a stroke of aesthetic genius, instead of zooming the camera in, out, and around mind-melting vistas of space, water, and ice, Nolan places his camera onto the wings, roofs, and decks of space ships. There are three main types of shots in these big sequences: a wide shot far back enough to show a breathtaking scale, shots that feature parts of the ship at various angles, or shots from the point of view of the cockpit. No matter how otherworldly or abstract space becomes, and it at times does resemble the drooling visions of a surrealist, the human element – us -- is always in view. The purpose behind Nolan’s first-person camera perspective goes even beyond a human context and into the realm of pure visceral thrill. By anchoring the action through human eyes, Interstellar becomes less like Gravity’s deadly space ballet and instead simulates the feeling of barreling down a cosmic rollercoaster. The effect is often exhilarating, although a minor quibble is that editor Lee Smith does let these shots linger to the point of distraction. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s earthy cinematography and measured framing enhance the textured feel of Interstellar, and it is a frighteningly felt two hours and forty-nine minutes. Hans Zimmer’s organ, religious-like score elevates scenes that otherwise wouldn’t hit as hard as they do, which isn’t a flaw as much as a sign of skilled collaboration.
As plot-driven as Interstellar seems on its surface -- and accusations the film is an extended science lesson are obnoxiously overblown -- the broad story is only a gateway to the subconscious. Why the film works is its devotion to activating an elemental, primal response, and it uses the same stylistic tricks as Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout), and Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) to do it. Fire and ice are played off each other in a stunning use of crosscutting between Earth and a distant planet, an artistic masterstroke that supports one of Interstellar’s most immense and important moments. Nolan wrangles with man’s basic nature, arguing our survival instinct as a species is at once a liberating virtue as well as a fierce limitation, and for the first time in his career, he assembles his film according to symbolic association rather than escalating plot. Even if the audience didn’t consciously register the implications of Nolan’s visual lyricism, they certainly felt it. It’s a stunning moment of pure cinema that left my theater, as well as myself, breathless. The scale is both shrunken and limitless, able to engage the weightiest of ideas on an intimate, felt level. Rather than just being a film, Interstellar is an experience, and exploiting primordial impulse is a powerful reason why.
This sequence unlocks the inner workings of Interstellar as a whole, revealing a film with a poetic logic that washes over you as it fires off every neuron in your head and tugs at every heart string. Humankind becomes a metaphor for science as science becomes a metaphor for humankind, like turning Newton’s third law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) into poetry: you have to leave something behind to go forward. In Interstellar, Nolan made a film that looks backwards and forwards, that’s about time, that’s about humanity at its best and at its worst, that’s about God, and that’s about the expanse of mankind from our birth to our far eventual future. Nolan seems aware of the many risks his latest film takes -- especially as it barrels forward into a third act that’s at constant risk of alienating the mass audience -- but he has the courage to take leaps of faith even if he might stumble. Nolan does stumble. It's a film destined to divide. There are flaws, and they are noticeable. But, largely, Interstellar escapes them- it's an experience that gloriously transcends traditional criteria like few films can. Just like the characters in his movies, Nolan nobly invites audiences to take that the leap with him. Interstellar launched my heart and mind into space at a gravity-defying velocity, overwhelming as much as moving, and it wasn’t hours after seeing it did I realize I had just experienced a reckless, mad masterpiece.
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