Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review: "Interstellar"

Close encounters of the deferred kind.

First things first: You must go see Interstellar on the biggest screen available, on IMAX if possible.  The special effects are incredible, from depictions of a luminous black hole lashed with gleaming ribbons of light to starkly beautiful alien planetscapes filled with sea and icy desert.  In fact, the epic visuals are by themselves worth the price of admission.  This is certainly a plus, for the rest of the movie proceeds as if it were brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's answer to hypothetical questions that nobody asks: "What would happen if Shyamalan and Spielberg made a movie together?" or "What kind of movie would you get if you crossed Signs, Gravity, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey?"

Well, the answer is an overstuffed, rather too indulgently ambitious 3-hour-long excursion to the stars that somehow manages to entrance the eyes without truly engaging the emotions or the intellect.  Don't get me wrong: Interstellar does have its moments of orchestrally bombastic heartstring-pulling (at one point or another just about every notable character bursts into tears with varying degrees of credibility).  Some of the performances are quite good, even moving.  Still, I could not shake the feeling that Nolan was more interested in giving us a puzzle to solve (or see solved) than a coherent, emotionally honest journey.  It is a grand puzzle, to be sure, but giving the audience the OCD-ish pleasure of seeing it come together is not same thing as giving it actual profundity.

Interstellar does emphasize the loving but strained relationship between test pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaghey) and his precocious, temperamental daughter Murphy (played in childhood by Mackenzie Foy and in adulthood by Jessica Chastain).  Still, the film's overall treatment of emotional ties struck me as problematic, especially with a scientist arguing at one point that a subjective personal love is as valid as any other rationale for choosing a planet to explore.  (I'm sorry, but that simply isn't so, having an otherwise stolid scientist arguing about the transcendence of personal romantic love over time and space seemed cheesy in the moment and I feel stupid even writing that clause now, and the Nolans' insistence on inserting an almost hokey sentimentality into their space epic is a questionable choice at best.)

The basic premise is this: sometime in the future, Earth is quickly becoming uninhabitable as crops fail and dust bowls blow over the plains.  In fact, the only crops that will grow at all are corn and okra (so I guess the entire world is eating this).  Anyway, NASA mounts a desperate effort to find another livable planet.  As the plot would have it, a wormhole fit for just such a search has opened up next to Saturn, and Cooper is the pilot that the mission needs.  Here time becomes an issue, specifically the passing of it.  From theories of relativity and time dilation to the device of cryo-sleep in space travel to the fear that the mission will not find a new planet before everyone on Earth is dead, time stalks the movie.  Cooper is obsessed with returning to Earth and his children, and the endless frustrating deferrals and setbacks push McConaghey's acting to the limit (he acquits himself well).

As for major complaints, I don't want to go into details lest I completely spoil the movie.  (I honestly thought the ending was preposterous.)  I will say, though, on a nitpicky level that the dialogue is often stilted to the point of inanity; naming a black hole "Gargantua" makes it sound like a busty Spandex-clad villainess from a cheap comic book; everyone misconstrues a Dylan Thomas poem and then refuses to stop quoting it ad nauseam until it turns into schlock; and I absolutely could not take Anne Hathaway seriously in her role as a prickly scientist.  I am also going to reiterate my long-running complaint that Nolan doesn't really know how to write complex, psychologically textured (and believable) women.

For all Interstellar's flaws, though, I do fully expect Oscar nominations for special effects (TARS the robot is quite remarkable too aside from the spacescapes), and I do have to give props to the Nolans for even attempting this movie.  They dared boldly to create a new sci-fi epic on a grand scale, and if their reach ultimately exceeded their grasp, what else is ambitious, daring, Hans Zimmer-scored filmmaking for?

Mad Minerva gives Interstellar a grade of B.  If it helps, just ignore the plot details and feast your eyes on the astounding tableaux like the ship Endurance spinning like a tiny pinwheel in the vastness of space or the looming beauty of Saturn's rings as Cooper and company speed toward the wormhole.  Still, it's not the sort of movie that I can see myself rewatching often (unlike, say Apollo 13).

RottenTomatoes gives the movie the bona fide Fresh rating of 75%.

Interstellar runs 169 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violence and intense action.

Here is the trailer:

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