Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Interstellar" Review - A Space Epic Forged By Grand Ideas, Impeccible Imagination And An Even Bigger Heart


Christopher Nolan has been called a lot of things in regards to his directorial style; cold, calculated and often times lacking in basic human emotion. While it is a mostly valid point to some degree with many of his characters seeking either vengeance or solace over the loss of a loved one but never really forging that sought after emotional audience connection, he nevertheless has been able to stir our emotions in many other significant and awe-inspiring ways.

So seemingly in an attempt to quell his many critics who love to rely on old arguments with each of his new films (or just finding the right material), Nolan has crafted a film an experience that still contains all the splendor and spectacle audiences have come to expect from the premiere filmmaker along with the added advent of the human spirit. The result of which is something that will provide his many fans with the high stakes cerebral experience they crave and finally giving those looking for a more human connection something to sink their teeth into as well. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats: 
Projector Type: 70mm IMAX 2D         
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 49 min
Studio: Paramount
Release Date: November 7, 2014

Biases:  
Loves: Big sci-fi epics with brains, Inception
Likes: Anne Hathaway, toned down use of digital effects
Neutral:  Frustratingly obtuse plot points
Hates: Nothing
TARS: One of the best robot buddies ever created

Astronauts are apparently a thing of fiction in the future.
Earth is in bad shape. In an undisclosed but very near future our planet has become one gigantic dust bowl where the human population has gone down from the billions into the thousands and just about all sources of food have become extinct. Relying solely on corn crops to supply enough sustenance for the entire planet, the world's greatest minds such as engineers and scientists have turned their gaze from the stars to the dirt beneath our feet in an attempt to save our dying world.

One such brilliant mind is a man named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widowed father of two who was forced to leave NASA and become a corn farmer along with the rest of world. Now spending his days grooming his teenage son Tom to take over the farm, using his immense skill set to fix farm equipment or defending his young daughter Murph's belief that space travel is real (schools now teach that the moon landing was faked), Cooper longs for the days before the planet was hit with its current drought and famine and wishes that he could make more of a difference.

Despite very little experience, Cooper's crew is ready to save the human race.
Then after both Cooper and Murph discover a very convenient and mysterious hidden message in Murph's bedroom that relays a set of coordinates, both take off on a road trip and soon discover a secret installation where NASA (thought to be completely dissolved decades ago to focus primarily on agriculture) has been secretly working on a way to save humanity by locating a new home world in a different galaxy. Their method of transport for the long journey is a rip in space located near the planet Saturn which leads NASA scientist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to believe it is the gateway to another galaxy and the potential savior of the human race.

Short on both skilled pilots and trained astronauts, Professor Brand jumps at the opportunity to have Cooper join the mission which would add immensely to its rate of success. Cooper then has to make the heart shattering decision to leave not only his dad (John Lithgow) and son behind, but to also leave Murph, whom has a deep emotional connection with her father behind and doesn't understand his sudden and urgent need to abandon her. With little time to lament his decision, Cooper, along with Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway) and two fellow scientists, Doyle (Wes Bently) and Romilly (David Gyasi) are soon on their way to a new galaxy in search of a new home.

The visuals evoke a very similar feel to the Sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Critics and fans alike have put Christopher Nolan on an impossibly high pedestal. Decreeing that he is a director who shoots for the stars (literally this time) and demands perfection in not only the science behind his tales but also grounding them in as much reality as possible, making it seem like an utter failure when he attains anything but the perfection we have come to expect as a result. Nolan is a fantastic and extremely talented filmmaker, but he isn't the movie magician we have built up in our minds.

He makes movies about big ideas usually with an accompanying epic scope but always adds a sugary sweet coating that helps all the extensive talky bits go down a bit easier, but even then as a master of making the implausible seem possible he can slip up every now and then. Interstellar is the most ambitious film Nolan has ever attempted and that is coming from the man who gave us arguably the greatest superhero movie of all time with The Dark Knight, the mind-bending edge of your seat dreamscape Inception and pulled a rabbit out of an endlessly tricky tale of two feuding magicians in The Prestige, and where ambition comes from so does fault and yes, Interstellar is not a perfect film.

Seeing this on a normal screen doesn't begin to do it justice.
Let's begin with what Interstellar gets right though, which despite what you may be gleaning from the above comments is quite a lot. Ambition may lead to fault, but nobody in Hollywood has quite the level of ambition as Christopher Nolan which means that even if it isn't perfect, anyone and everyone who sits down and lets Nolan take them on an adventure is in for one helluva ride. Watching Interstellar isn't so much a narrative as it is a cinematic experience, one that must be seen in theaters (preferably a real IMAX screen) to fully embrace what an achievement in filmmaking it actually is.

Not since James Cameron's Avatar has a film necessitated the big screen experience as Interstellar. Sure, films like The Dark Knight and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol each had scenes and sequences shot in IMAX that were made much more enjoyable when seen in the format, but Interstellar dwarf's both those heavyweights. While it is to be determined how much of the film was shot in IMAX (at least 30 to 40% most likely), it without a doubt adds immensely to the epic nature of the film and cannot be recreated on even the biggest normal theater screen.

Many of the flight sequences use this perspective which was all shot in IMAX 70MM.
Matching the format it was shot in are the incredible visual effects which are a whole different kind of magic. Using a near seamless mixture of miniatures and digital effects, the film has an almost classic feel to it. Part of that feeling comes from the restraint Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema show when it comes to what to show us and what not to show us. While all the Earthbound sequences early on aren't very effects heavy, the outer space sequences which account for the bulk of the film aren't about flashy effects and crazy visuals, they are about instilling a feeling of isolation and hopelessness that mimics what our characters are feeling.

We rarely get a glimpse of the main spacecraft the Endurance, the design of which is more practical than cool looking, as is the rig it uses for interstellar travel. The crew's robotic companions named TARS and CASE are on a whole other level with their awkward designs which are later revealed to be much more capable that it first appears. Even when we begin to explore this new alien solar system and visit its many worlds we hardly ever see them from orbit and when we do they are fleeting images at best. Those weened on space travel films like Star Wars and Star Trek are in for a drastic new (and arguably superior) way of experiencing space travel in film.

Traveling to another solar system via a black hole has never looked more impressive.
As exciting as all the visual pizazz of the film is, none of that would work if it wasn't for the impeccable imagination that fuels it all. Think of all the different possible things one could encounter while exploring the depths of space and then add in the fact that we know very little about anything out there and even then you won't be prepared for the grand vision of Interstellar's cosmos. This is where Nolan scores big every single time out, where even the skeptics who aren't on board with everything else still get wowed in a way that they will never forget.

Take for instance the first planet Cooper and crew land on. What awaits them is best left a mystery, but what can be said is that Nolan will take you on an emotional roller coaster unlike anything you have seen or experienced before and even though it is all over in the blink of an eye, it is something you will never forget. Much like the hallway brawl in Inception, that entire sequence will likely be the one thing everyone talks about directly after seeing it simply because it is one of those extremely rare cinematic moments where the reveal is every bit as compelling as the mystery that led us there.

A boy and his robot...
That sort of awe isn't solely restricted to that singular moment however, because holding this entire journey through the stars together are some fantastic performances from everyone involved, which shouldn't come as a surprise considering the talent assembled here, and a story that may take place in the infinite realm of deep space but is always anchored back down to a more grounded and intimate tale of a father just trying to get back home to his daughter. Kudos to McConaughey as well who doesn't rely entirely on his traditional acting methodologies and turns in an often riveting performance.

While other characters all get a fair shake, at front and center the entire time is the image of Cooper sitting in front of that monitor awaiting for that first time his distraught daughter might send him a message. This is where that long sought after emotional core comes into place which is intermingled brilliantly with the science behind the fiction. Rarely (if ever) has a film melded science geekery with human emotion quite as masterful as here which is important when the film starts to really stretch the limits of our known reality.

Coop and Murph hold a strong bond that goes beyond both time and space.
Adding even more complexity and tragedy to these basic human emotional quandaries are some incredibly disturbing and inconceivable events. Using quantum relativity and other such scientific mumbo jumbo (most of the science, while seemingly properly explained, escaped me) to give weight to the unusual circumstances Cooper and the others come across was a stroke of storytelling genius. I was unprepared for the amount of heartache and despair that awaited me and was amazed at the range of emotions that were stirred up in me from moment to moment.

Sadly though, many have taken to the internet to pick apart or disprove the science behind the film. If you are sitting there trying to figure out if that is what a black hole would really do instead of taking in all the emotional baggage and visual splendor then you are either opposed to sitting back and enjoying something as pure entertainment or you are just trying to be difficult. If ever there were a film where its positives outweighed the negatives, this one is it. Speaking of negatives...

Now, let's discuss some of the more unfortunate side effects to the way Nolan approached his latest opus. For a film filled to the brim with scientific theories and existentialism there is a whole lot that is said and shown but very little that is explained. There is a fine line between explaining too much and not explaining anything at all, Nolan's own film Inception for example is particularly guilty of over explaining with nearly the entire first hour of that film devoted to making sure the audience understands everything before diving head first into all the action. While it worked upon a first viewing, additional viewings proved that first hour to be somewhat taxing at times.

These scenes layout the stakes but very little else in the way of how it all works.
But he seems to have taken the criticism he received for that film to heart because with Interstellar he has swung the pendulum in the complete opposite direction giving the audience little to no explanation on how things will or won't work. All we get are a handful of small briefing scenes that layout the plan and the consequences but leave out all the little details essentially making the film feel scattershot at times and ignorant at others. It is impossible (and too nitpicky) to go into details here but suffice it to say that the entire film is guilty of this and it can leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who like to understand the mechanics behind everything.

There is one frustrating part of the film that does bear mentioning though which is the details behind why they need some mystery calculation from within the black hole in order to accurately determine how to get all the humans off Earth if their mission is successful. All we learn is that half of it has been figured out (which we never see) and that through some extensive leaps in logic and theoretical time manipulation we will learn the other half. What makes this overtly obtuse plot point even more frustrating is that when it is figured out (for the most part) we still don't know why it was needed or how it is even implemented.

Some of the worlds they visit are truly awe inspiring.
It is all the equivalent of someone telling you they need a ride somewhere who says they can't get in the car just yet until they receive a text, then after receiving the text get in and half way there they get out and don't really seem that concerned they never reached their destination. That is the best possible way of explaining the confusion without giving away what actually transpires in the film itself. Sound confusing or illogical? It is and so is the film in this exact regard.

That relatively small critique aside, Interstellar is every bit the Sci-fi epic it has been promoted as. The film takes you on an incredible journey through time and space that most will not soon forget. With near limitless imagination and fully engaging both our minds and our hearts, Christopher Nolan has delivered upon us one of the most captivating adventure films in recent memory. While this isn't the best film the director has ever made, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered or just completely ignores their existence, it is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of the curve when compared to everything else Hollywood shovels out to us year in and year out.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Nothing more needs to be said. Logic concerns and plot holes be damned, see this film immediately and make sure to see it in the proper IMAX format in 70mm film if possible. Even without those added benefits though, the story and the visual majesty on display combined with yet another epic score by Hans Zimmer will be enough to capture the hearts and minds of everyone willing to give themselves over to Christopher Nolan and crew for 3 hours of their lives.

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