Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)- Christopher Nolan’s Self-Indulgent Visual Extravagance Can’t Save an Interminable and Familiar Narrative

interstellar_trailer2.0_cinema_1200.0It seems fitting that director Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker obsessed with the more cerebral slanting elements of film, would ambitiously attempt to tackle the vastness of our Universe and its infinitely changing properties because in most of his original pieces of film he has already bent time (Memento), manipulated space (The Prestige), and created new dimensions (Inception). Despite an ardent fan base who would disagree with even an ounce of criticism towards him, Nolan is an emotionless tactician of a filmmaker who possesses his strengths in creating awe-inspiring visual spectacles combined with weighty intellectual pondering but lacks sincerity as a dramatic storyteller where his characters are always overpowered by the process. And as it was with Inception, an impressively visual yet ultimately meaningless and flawed abstract exercise on human consciousness, Nolan’s latest visual extravaganza Interstellar embraces the best of Nolan’s technical abilities with the worst of his narrative weaknesses. Interstellar could be described as a survivalist space epic that mistakes a long-winded runtime for grandeur and melodramatic seriousness for depth that becomes enslaved to its own sense of ambition as it attempts to balance theoretical physics applications towards gravity, time, and space with concentrated terrestrial aspirations. Ambition is not what Nolan lacks, especially with Interstellar’s exceptionally detailed production design and sweeping cinematography to complement its intellectual potency, but instead he lacks a sensible connection to narrative where cheapened sentimentality is the leading dramatic element of the entire film. There certainly are moments of visual majesty, genuine suspense, and intellectual curiosity, but they are unfortunately diminished by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script that has numerous missteps towards juxtaposing simplistic father-daughter reconciliation amidst cosmic enigma and a Deus Ex Machina third-act that becomes a tad laughable if it weren’t so pedestrian. In tackling the vastness of space Nolan will generate idolization comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and though Interstellar shares a visual consistency and intellectual inquisitiveness to its predecessors it undeniably lacks their dramatic gravitas and contemplative ingenuity making it a visionary film that unfortunately lacks unique vision.

Complexity is the illusion of most Nolan films because screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan have developed an art of hiding their easily digestible themes within layers of unnecessary exposition, ponderous dialogue, and lengthy developments inevitably coming to a point where direct obtuseness is needed to explain themselves. But there is an arguable method to their enigmatic madness since there is a steady momentum that builds from the film’s apocalyptic terrestrial beginnings to the sweeping infinite of space. The Nolan’s quietly introduce us to a familiar yet futuristic rural stretch of North America filled with dust storms, worn-down pickup trucks, and fields of corn (the only crop still able to grow) that is accompanied by old-timer talking head testimony making it feel as though we’re in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It’s a cleverly envisioned apocalyptic society that has abolished scientific determination because of an acute technophobia and has traded the most valuable natural resource of human ambition for basic short-term problem solving. This fated life of ritualistic determination and habitual convenience in a slowly dying planet is what introduces us to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) , a widower and ex-NASA pilot whose sole concern is to take care of his two children, daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothée Chalamet). After a mysterious gravitational anomaly across the fabric of time that gives Cooper binary code coordinates in the dust of Murph’s room (no, really) he finds a hidden NASA base where his old mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) convinces him to pilot a mission to another habitable planet in a Galaxy at the opposite end of a traversable wormhole that has come through some Higher Intelligent intervention. What follows is the Nolan complexity layering into a foray of envisioned theoretical physics of blackholes, wormholes, relativity, singularity, and fifth dimensions, rushed colloquialisms on fatalistic philosophies and theories, and constant foreboding twists towards the mission that is all a theatrical distraction for a simplistic, flawed, and emotionally unconvincing father-daughter forgiveness tale that is reminiscent of another Matthew McConaughey film Contact (add Frequency and Field of Dreams to the list while you’re at it). Interstellar’s script possesses that Nolan weakness for allowing his intellectual pondering and grandeur vision to actually diminish the emotional weight of his characters and story leaving behind something bewildering to behold but nothing substantial to contemplate afterwards.

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What Interstellar doesn’t possess in emotional gravity as it merely touches upon the outskirts of its potential character depth, much like the skillful piloting of Cooper on the outskirts of the blackhole, it attempts to make up for in the application of realized physics theories as well as increasingly captivating visuals that are truly dazzling in ambition and execution. Amidst the casual space-time continuum debate touting theories postured by Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Kip Thorne (one of the physicists who consulted on the film) there’s a sense that talk is cheap, especially when Nolan gives you the practically applied theories in visual execution that is often times bewildering and only occasionally thought-provoking. Nolan exercises the rule that more is indeed more with his masterworks of technical ingenuity and Interstellar, with its sprawling planetary vistas (singularly one dimensional much like the dreams in Inception) and the enveloping blackness of space, might be the physical embodiment of Nolan’s imaginative motivations. Whether it’s the intricate details of the production design from designer Nathan Crowley, the proficient cutting of editor Lee Smith (The Truman Show, Inception, Batman Begins), or the incessantly active camera of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Let the Right One In) everything feels organic to the production inviting you inside the spectacle of hurtling through space or being part of the crew in the appropriately named ship “Endurance.” Unfortunately the awe of gravitational spinning or fifth dimension exploration doesn’t last through the laborious and self-indulgent hundred and sixty-seven minute long endurance test of Interstellar because an emotional connection never arrives with what’s occurring on the screen despite its forced melodramatic attempts and incessant cranked up to 11 score from Hans Zimmer. It’s certainly a visually enriching film, one where the rings of Saturn are as masterfully gorgeous as the silent space terror of the destruction of a spaceship among the desolate stars, but all of Nolan’s spectacle and redundant conundrums never come close to answering that larger philosophical creative question of “Why?” For all of its ambitions to tell a story of melancholy and sacrifice the result comes off as prosaic, and in comparison to a truly visionary aesthetic there’s nothing more clashing and counterproductive than a story that is all too generic and unimaginative in its ultimate theme. Whatever emotionality exists throughout Interstellar can be thanked to a confident cast that lifts their characters beyond their attributed cut out archetypes and embrace the theatricality of the environment to make it as believable an experience as it can be.

One of the elements Nolan knows how to capture in order to sell his highly imaginative realities is the believability of performance, whether it’s the reverse revelation of Guy Peirce’s Leonard in Memento or the dream hopping guidance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb in Inception. Literally piloting the Nolan’s space epic for Interstellar is Matthew McConaughey who has found an emergence of convincing characterization beyond his Best Actor win for Dallas Buyer’s Club with captivating performances in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and Richard Linklater’s Bernie just to name a few. Throughout Interstellar McConaughey invokes his hyper-stylized southern drawl combined with a confidence in vulnerability that creates an impressionable illusion of convincing emotionality in the film, giving the film some weight where it practically floated in the void of emotional space. Unfortunately he’s the most realized of the main archetypal characters since the Nolan curse of writing convincing female roles takes another plummeting fall as two accomplished actresses Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain play intelligent women who are ruled by irrational feeling and eventually capitulate to their male decision makers above them. Hathaway’s Dr. Brand is a woman of intellect who sees and ignores the illogic of going to find a lost love while Chastain’s grownup Murph is practically crippled by her resentment towards her father leaving to save the planet making their performances, despite their vigorous implementation, unconvincing in the events that take place and ultimately inconsequential. Fortunately the rest of the cast fills out nicely, especially with the crew of the “Endurance,” with some scene-stealing wit from David Gyasi, the deadpan charm of Wes Bentley, and a convincingly humorous fussy robot voiced by Bill Irwin. There’s a levity brought to the weighty, ponderous material through the actors and it’s entirely welcome considering the laborious running time and the ability the Nolan’s have for taking their material a tad too seriously. What’s most evident through the performance is that Nolan first understands the world he’s creating and makes it a believable reality for his actors to portray heightening the imaginative, almost inconceivable, worlds that he seeks to create.

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Christopher Nolan isn’t necessarily an unconventional filmmaker who has the ability to transcend genres or manipulate stories into experimental territory, an attribute his fans sometimes place upon his pedestal, because he’s more like a filmmaker who understands the conventions of the genre he’s creating and fulfills them with religious fervor. Interstellar might be perceived as one of those genre fulfilling successes but it only meets the criteria of a space epic through ponderous philosophical dialogue, investing visual creations, and inventive twists on applied physics rather than being a true epic in emotional narrative. Nolan’s vision of the relativity of time and the vastness of space is at times entertaining when it isn’t interminably self-indulgent as it ventures to new worlds in ways we haven’t seen before in order to tell a story we’ve countlessly heard before. Film isn’t about reconstructing the familiar into a new format; especially with the science-fiction genre that should always seek ascension beyond convention and into the transcendence of mind, body, and soul. Interstellar neither approaches the George Lucas inspired space opera of Star Wars nor does it come close to metaphysical artistry of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey leaving it uncomfortably in the middle as a visually enthralling melodrama that has the semblance of substance. Nolan’s ambitious use of space as a canvas of cinema’s use to shift time and space is weighted down by the gravitational blackhole of an emotionally unconvincing and limited narrative making it the antithesis of a Kubrick film, a film that can be experienced once in its extravagance and never ventured again to find substance because there isn’t much there.

Grade: C+/B-

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