You guys heard of this INTERSTELLAR? Came out recently. It’s Chris Nolan’s take on the wide-eyed space exploration epic. The type of sci-fi movie that keeps its feet partly on earth, has no lasers or star wars in it whatsoever and tries to seem relatively semi-quasi-plausible by modern scientifical-esque theories. It’s definitely supposed to be a spectacle, but not in the complicated-cgi-creations-loudly-smashing-things-into-a-million-cgi-particles way we generally get now, or even the how-did-they-even-do-that style of the INCEPTION hallway scene. More in the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA sense of gigantic landscapes. It’s the type of movie made by and for people who get awe struck staring up at the stars and weepy at the thought of specific astronauts. People whose imaginations get boners from the idea of a manned mission to Mars more than they would from a monster biting the head off a robot.
So the truth is I’m not the audience for this movie. I was better in monster biting head off a robot class than in science. When a guy sitting by me in the theater said he read that the black hole created for the movie was so “mathematically accurate” that scientists were now making discoveries based on it, I literally had no idea what that meant. Still don’t. On several different levels. So keep that in mind when I tell you I liked, didn’t love INTERSTELLAR. But I’m still gonna write about it, ’cause this is America.
Matthew McConaughey of THE PAPERBOY fame plays Cooper, an ex-test pilot, widower and father of two, forced to be a corn farmer in a bleak near future where crops are dying, food is scarce and kids aren’t allowed to go into engineering because TVs don’t work anymore or something. His teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) is okay with taking over the farm some day, but his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, THE CONJURING) loves the ol’ engineering, and he hates to see the school discourage her.
There’s a nice poetic touch near the beginning after Cooper and the kids recklessly chase down a low-flying drone to capture and steal its parts. Dad decides that it’s an Indian drone that’s been wandering the world with no mission since the collapse of its command center. Murph sympathizes with the machine and wants to let it go, like it’s a fish. This sort of foreshadows the NASA robots TARS and CASE, who later steal the movie whenever they go into action. They’re valuable members of the team, completely trustworthy, never used for creepiness like HAL 9000s waiting to happen. They’re even programmed to make jokes and talk shit. You gotta respect the rare movie about technology that comes down entirely on the pro side.
(QUICKIE SPOILER: My favorite thing in the whole movie is Cooper sitting on a porch having a beer and reminiscing with a rectangular robot.)
Cooper encourages Murph’s intellectual curiosity, which gets her in trouble at school. Also it causes them to decode a message from what she believes is a ghost in her bedroom, which leads them to trespass at a secret NASA hideout, where Cooper is recruited to join a team of astronauts on a mission to find out if some other guys on a previous mission figured out how to save the world. Meanwhile Michael Caine (ODG), Cooper’s former mentor and father of space teammate Anne Hathaway, will stay on earth and try to invent some kind of anti-gravity thing that would also save the world from the, uh… from too much corn and not enough wheat, or whatever.
The opening obviously makes you think a little bit of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and alot of SIGNS (maybe just because it’s sci-fi taking place at a farmhouse in the middle of a corn field where a widower and his kids try to decode mysterious signs). But of course any smartypants space movie like this is gonna get compared to 2001 (not the year, the space odyssey). That’s the unreachable benchmark. INTERSTELLAR doesn’t feel much like 2001 at all, except that the visuals get kinda trippy when they go through a black hole (though that part reminded me more of Space Mountain at Disneyland. I could almost hear the music playing). And maybe it’s an homage that the robot brothers look like monoliths with monitors for faces. The incomprehensible space technology of 2001 co-opted to serve man.
The thing 2001 gets criticized for when it gets criticized is being cold and distant, looking at the proceedings from more of a God’s eye view than a human one. INTERSTELLAR takes the other approach of aiming mainly for humanity. It says yeah, scientists traveling beyond the galaxy and space and time to save the human race and all that, blah blah blah, but really it’s about a father and his daughter. (You know, like CONTACT.) And it’s sweet and you can’t really fault a movie for being about what it’s about, but to me it demonstrates the wisdom of Kubrick’s approach. By making INTERSTELLAR really about the same thing that many a normal drama is about it sort of trivializes the awe inspiring epic part of the movie. It tries to make relatable a story that is more impactful if it’s unfathomable. Why you always gotta fathom everything, Nolan.
The main thing being examined here is a dad abandoning his kids. And because of all that “relativity” business (good call, Einstein) even if this mission is successful he’ll be gone for decades in earth time and they’ll age faster than him. In his mind it’s the right thing to do because he figures if he doesn’t go the whole planet will die, so seeing them briefly when they’re decrepit and old and he’s still in MAGIC MIKE shape is better than nothing. And his son agrees. He doesn’t give a shit. But women are emotional, am I right fellas? Go to the bathroom in groups, etc. So Murph refuses to forgive him for leaving her. She won’t even send him video messages until she’s grown into Jessica Chastain.
But then there’s sort of a reverse thing where daughter Hathaway left father Caine behind, and he mentors grown up Murphy, becoming a surrogate father. Meanwhile, in space, Hathaway is emotional too. With the future of the human race hanging in the balance she makes a decision based on following a boy she likes (homage to that one TV show Felicity I believe). Then she makes a speech about how it’s a sound scientific basis for a decision because “love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” The fifth element is love.
(By the way, it’s kind of unusual that the male and female leads never have a thing for each other. He only cares about his kids and she only cares about a doctor we never see. That’s pretty cool.)
But the thing is: the ladies are right. Most of the men in this movie fuck up every damn thing, often because of their emotional distance. One goes to his death bed having lied to and betrayed his loved ones for the supposed greater good and not even achieving his goal. Another one chooses to doom the human race rather than sacrifice himself for it. Dr. Michael Caine fails and surrenders, but Murph is the one who refuses to give up. After we hang with Mr. Cooper for a while and see him transcend space and time (yes, with love) he gets back home to find that his daughter still eclipsed him.
Another movie it’s been compared to is SUNSHINE, it being the other most recent non-laser sci-fi movie about scientists on a last ditch mission to most likely fail to save the human race from imminent extinction. I believe the current consensus is that INTERSTELLAR is way better, but I don’t agree. To me the characters in SUNSHINE are more interesting and more believable as experts in their fields. I would be the last man on earth to criticize INTERSTELLAR for fakey science, but even I gotta chuckle when on the mission to save the world by traveling through a black hole one of the astronauts has to get out a piece of paper and make a sketch to explain the concept of traveling through a black hole to our hero. Like, maybe this sort of thing should’ve been covered before take off? In my layman’s opinion.
You know what would be interesting would be if at that point he says “Ah, nah guys, Coop don’t do black holes. I don’t believe in it. You gotta bring me back.”
The pro-science theme is handled a little goofy I think. The dystopian world of the opening feels more like heavy-handed preachiness than “it figures it would be something like this” verissimiliwhatever. In a movie like, say, CHILDREN OF MEN, the world unfolds in front of us, we see all the chaos and piece together what has gone so wrong with the world. In INTERSTELLAR we get more explaining because we gotta understand that a world where everyone is starving is not bad just because everyone is starving, but because WHO WILL FUND NASA?
Cooper constantly annoys his kids with nostalgia about how great it was when we used to invent all the time and explore and shit, but now we just farm. The hardest part to swallow is when we learn that the school system has revised all textbooks to claim that the Apollo missions were faked. It doesn’t seem like that’s supposed to be the truth, it’s just what The Man wants you to believe. I’m not sure I really understand why. So kids will be want to be farmers instead of astronauts? I’m just surprised that this “my kid wants to be an astronaut and refuses to learn how to drive the tractor” problem is widespread enough to inspire such a conspiracy. But maybe they’re also teaching ’em that rappers, movie stars, basketball players and celebrity heiresses were a hoax.
I mean this with all due respect because I love a Nolan movie: this part comes off almost Ayn Randian in its “I want to be educated and do sciencey shit but SOCIETY is forcing me to be a mere farmer!” paranoia. And it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine when movies preach the gospel about science, then go on to be a bunch of bullshit. All this talk about the power of love really works with the movie and is a cool idea, but it’s right up there with intelligent design and The Secret as far as scientific theories go. So it rubs me the wrong way a little bit. But not as bad as the cartoon FRANKENWEENIE, in which a teacher accurately chastises his town for their ignorant disregard for science, then teaches them that electricity brings dead bodies back to life.
But of course we do live in a country where superstitious idiots can get high up in the government and try their damndest to fuck up our future (for example we have a guy who wrote a book denying the existence of climate change in charge of the committee that deals with climate change). So I agree with the sentiment, if not the execution. And I love the idea that in the future NASA is a scrappy underground organization working in the shadows like Batman.
Batman was also a hoax, kids. Don’t be Batman.
I’m not trying to nitpick the movie. It’s definitely worth seeing. I just would have it low in my rankings of Chris Nolan pictures. Most of his movies are puzzles, carefully designed machines. I believe he talks about it as “the geometry of storytelling.” The ultimate example of that – and in my opinion his best batless movie – is INCEPTION, a meticulously constructed contraption of a story, an elaborate magic trick. You can picture alot of charts and diagrams going into the creation of that story. INTERSTELLAR is, in comparison, almost loose and unstructured. Mostly just a series of shit that happens until the end, it’s not as much of a mousetrap. Which is fine, but I prefer the more narratively show-offy Nolan, I think that plays to his strengths better.
Or maybe I’m just unimpressed by the trick at the end because I coincidentally watched INSIDIOUS CHAPTER TWO earlier in the day, and weirdly they have kind of the same twist. SPOILER FOR BOTH MOVIES: First of all, they both start with the letters IN, so they are alphabetically similar. Case closed. But secondly they both have an earlier time period where a kid is dealing with an apparent ghost in the house and something unexplainable happens and then many years later the protagonist watches the event from another dimension just outside the room and manages to intervene and becomes the cause of the odd thing seen the first time around.
Oh my god you guys, it’s THE SIXTH SENSE too. He was a ghost the whole time.
Okay, I’m arguing that we don’t get the full power of a Nolan narrative, but we do get most of the rest of his arsenal. Another Christopher Nolan movie, another building, portentous Hans Zimmer score. I love ’em. Always a big part of that Nolan mood. This one’s recognizable as the kind of churning, droning, driving sounds Zimmer’s been messing with since DARK KNIGHT, but this time with some good old fashioned church organ added to the mix. Reminded me a little bit of CANDYMAN and maybe INFERNO. I kinda wish he’d added KOYAANISQATSI style throat singers chanting “interrrrrr… stellarrrrrrrrr” over and over again, see how that would go over with everybody.
Nolan also insisted on using alot of analog effects techniques. Apparently alot of the spaceship shots are done with models (not computers), the robots with puppets and all of the footage inside the ships was done with projections outside of the windows, not green screens. That was a great idea to prevent the actors from having to answer that question about what it’s like to act against a green screen and have to imagine stuff. But – and I am fully aware that I’m not supposed to think or say this – it does look a little not-up-to-modern-standards at times. Hardly a dealbreaker, but in my opinion a decent defense of digitaling shit up.
Still, it’s an impressive production, definitely designed to be seen big, and the majority of it is shot in Imax, even more of it than DARK KNIGHT RISES. I love that it was a genuine movie-going event. I saw it on the biggest screen in Seattle, at a sold out 3 pm weekday show. It also felt like kind of a wake for projected film, because I had heard this would be the last thing showing in actual Imax, who are apparently going to start using new laser projectors instead of their 70mm film. I guess it’s not really the last one, but they are planning to transition. I hope that works out because this has been a special place for me for many years and it will be a shame if it gets replaced with something not as good. I should mention that this theater is at the Pacific Science Center, so our ticket and concessions purchases support science education for kids and help prevent a future of corn farming.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.