Directed by: Christopher Nolan || Produced by: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst
Screenplay by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan || Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Matt Damon, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Josh Stewart, Mackenzie Foy, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Topher Grace
Music by: Hans Zimmer || Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema || Edited by: Lee Smith || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 169 minutes
Bringing us the most divisive film since last year’s Man of Steel (2013) is none other than fan-favorite director Christopher Nolan. Ever since his smash success with The Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012), Nolan has become the most loved and universally recognized filmmaker working in Hollywood today. Most average movie-goers may not recognize the man’s photograph, but everybody knows his name. The man has made a career out of writing and directing blockbuster entertainment with brains and street-smarts. He makes entertainment that’s not afraid to think and possesses thematic and emotional depth — or at least he did before 2008.
In my opinion, Nolan hasn’t made an exceptional film since his Batman magnum opus, The Dark Knight. Inception (2010) was an overrated, pretentious wannabe Matrix (1999)-ripoff, bloated with nonsensical plot devices and boring characters, while The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was a disappointing, poorly paced, and incoherent mess. As good as Nolan’s movies were before 2008 (Memento , Batman Begins , The Prestige , The Dark Knight ), his last two mega-blockbusters were lacking any of the attention to detail that had defined his rise to fame.
I spent the majority of my teenage years singing the man’s praises after the miraculous resuscitation of the Batman franchise in 2005 and again in 2008, as well as retroactively appreciating his earlier non-Batman films like Memento and The Prestige; however, I turned against the man once Inception and The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) hammered me with a double-whammy of disappointment. In many ways, my opinions of Christopher Nolan have followed the same arc as my love/hate-relationship with James Cameron. Both directors have made some of my favorite films (Terminator , Aliens , TDKR, Memento), but then they went in another direction with back-to-back, overrated blockbusters that were doubly annoying due to their pretentious screenplays and hamfisted social commentary (see also Avatar ).
Enter Interstellar, one of Nolan’s most ambitious projects and arguably his most philosophical film yet. In the couple weeks since its release, the movie has become the most polarizing, divisive film since the aforementioned nerd-rage-fest that was Zack Snyder’s and screenwriter David S. Goyer’s (and producer Nolan’s) Superman-reboot. After viewing the film opening weekend, it became clear to me why this film has split so many audiences down the middle. The problem filmmakers have combining blockbuster spectacle with high-minded philosophical themes and New Wave character analysis is that they’ll rarely please everybody.
With Interstellar, Nolan tries to make a broad thematic shift from his supposedly “intelligent” blockbusters with brains (Inception, TDKR, etc.) to a full-fledged Stanley Kubrick-tribute that combines the American New Wave symbolism and artistry of Nolan’s creative idol with the technological spectacle and adventurous ambition of Nolan’s previous efforts. Interstellar is further notable among modern blockbusters in that it is a purebred science-fiction film. Where as most films posing as “sci-fi” blockbusters nowadays tend to be action films taking place in Star Wars-esque, space-adventure settings (e.g. the new Star Trek reboots [2009, 2013], Guardians of the Galaxy , Elysium ), Interstellar is true science-fiction. It’s focus is on the narrative’s melding of speculative science, known science, and quasi-realistic fiction, not on action scenes —- which is good, because Nolan sucks at shooting fistfights or shootouts (chase sequences he does fine).
Interstellar still suffers from the misguided, over-the-top ambition and shaky writing (particularly with respect to dialogue) that has plagued Nolan’s last two efforts, but nonetheless it’s his best film since The Dark Knight. Interstellar sports Nolan’s best visual FX to date and has a great, awe-inspiring scale. Some of the setpieces are paced to perfection and coordinate great visuals with an effective score by (you guessed it) Hans Zimmer. The performances from several key cast members (Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Annie Hathaway) do much to temper Nolan’s dialogue; moreover, the not-so-subtle subtext of the film is amusing.
In the end, whether Interstellar captivates or repels you depends on your particular tastes as a film-fan, because all the arguments for and complaints against the movie are equally valid. The movie is adventurous while still being philosophical and contemplative, it uses actual science-fiction with real scientific speculation, and it’s well acted. However, the story goes off the deep end by the final forty minutes of the film, with McConaughey getting whipped into alternate dimensions and communicating incoherent, gravitational-theory mumbo jumbo through “the power of love,” numerous monologues by multiple characters are painfully cliched regardless of the actor’s attempts to compensate, and Nolan crosscuts boring back-at-the-ranch scenes on earth with the far more interesting space-exploration sequences.
That’s all that can be said about Interstellar. While it is an intellectually ambitious film, the final project itself you’ll see in theatres is not exceptional (particularly when compared to Nolan’s original inspiration, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey ), and there’s little reason to look too deeply into the movie’s narrative when it’s thematic content isn’t all that subtle. Compared to a Gravity (2013) or your average space-adventure film, Interstellar is smarter and more emotionally engaging, but in comparison to most of the films it’s paying homage to, it’s rather straightforward. My guess is that this film is easy to overthink for general audiences, and that’s probably why many non-sci-fi fans are either loving or hating this film. I respect Christopher Nolan for not shoving another generic space-adventure romp down our throats, but rather using his name-brand recognition and complete freedom from studio interference (that latter point a true rarity in Hollywood) to do something commercially risky and against-the-grain. He used his mega-mainstream status to do something decidedly non-mainstream.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Interstellar’s scientifically accurate yet speculative visuals are glorious and not just for show, but in fact critical elements of its adventurous story. Several set-pieces, such as the spinning mothership-docking sequence, are as magnificent as the most pulse-pounding moments from last year’s Gravity while featuring none of the annoying Sandra Bullock. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is awesome.
— However… the story gets too far up its own ass by the time we get to the fifth-dimensional black hole sequence, and numerous parts of the story’s premise are either incoherent, confusing, or nonsensical to the point it’s distracting (super-evolved, 5th dimensional human beings, really?). Nolan’s refuses to stop intercutting the far less interesting scenes on earth with the astronaut team.
? Matthew McConaughey is the one thing that transcends space and time. So is this what he was talking about when he said his hero is always himself in ten years?
For me, Nolan’s less accomplished films are still worth watching above a lot of others. I couldn’t make head nor tail of Inception, but I’m sure I enjoyed it! I think he may have felt pressured, by himself as much as anyone, to finish the Dark Knight trilogy with a bang and maybe put too much high explosive in his kick drum, a la Keith Moon. But it sounds like he’s making amends with Interstellar. (Another one for the ‘to watch’ list.)
He’s come a long way since he made films on his own terms and it must be quite difficult and weird to find yourself trying to find his true voice on films with mega-budgets. I think that’s what I meant by my comment on the Gone Girl review. Is it possible he found his directorial style, but then let it slip when the budgets went up and now he’s looking for it again?
I actually interpreted the exact opposite message from his recent films. I think Nolan’s become so successful and been given so much freedom that it’s starting to compromise his attention to detail and filmic craft. People always lambast major studios for interfering with filmmakers’ original artistic visions, and consistently point to director artistic freedom as a good thing, and most of the time that line of thinking is correct ( e.g. Harvey “Scissorhands”).
However, I’d argue that there’s a threshold level where too much creative freedom and lack of compromise and collaboration actual degrades cinematic projects; it can let directors’ creative control run wild. George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels are a perfect example.
I’m starting to think that Nolan has reached the same point. He’s such a household name and consistent lucrative blockbuster-producer that he can do pretty much whatever he wants. TDK established his brand name and the two films he made after that were a clear, sharp drop in quality from everything else he made before IMO.
In other words, I think the problem with Nolan is that he’s using TOO MUCH of his directorial style. There’s no around to tell him “no” anymore, except for that physics consultant, Kip Thorne, who kept the story from going completely batshit crazy 😛
Nice review. When did you switch to letter grades from your 10 point scale? Do you give pluses and minuses? 🙂
Yep, sure do 🙂 I switched to letter grades about a week ago, actually, so it’s a very recent development. I’m still in the process of updating all my old reviews to the new system, which will take a couple weeks. An explanation for the new ratings can be found here: https://expresselevatortohell.com/about/filmalbumvideogame-rating-scale-an-explanation/