Interstellar

At the heart of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a dilemma, one that is not so easily resolved.  Earth is on the verge of a mass famine.  Corn is the only remaining crop that can be successfully cultivated by farmers, a profession in dire need of new recruits.  Everything else has died out.  Soon, conditions will be unsuitable for anything else to be planted.

Dust is everywhere, an ominous sign.  Dust storms are common.  You have to flip over bowls, cups and glasses when not in use so it doesn’t accumulate on the inside.  Once it gets in your lungs, the coughing starts.  And it never stops.  People are getting desperate.  But no one has any concrete solutions, not even NASA.

Matthew McConaughey plays one of those farmers but he hates the job.  A widow with a teenage son who will be forced to take over the family farm some day and a curious daughter who loves science as much as he does, he remains haunted by a mistake.  Despite that, he would much rather be flying.

Then his daughter tells him about her “ghost”.  In her bedroom, some mysterious thing has been shoving books off the shelves and leaving coded messages in the dust.  She translates one but it seemingly makes no sense.  Another message unknowingly leads them on a ride to a secret NASA facility.

It is here where we learn about a secret plan (well, two, to be exact), a scientific hail mary that relies on a lot of good fortune and more faith than absolute certainty.  Unbeknownst to the general public, professor Michael Caine and his team of NASA scientists have been trying to find a replacement Earth at great expense.  They’ve sent 12 astronauts on doomed solitary suicide missions to remote worlds hoping for a miracle.  They’re down to three options, none of which are sure things.

And that leads to McConaughey’s aching dilemma.  Do I go on this risky mission with a team of astronauts knowing I will sacrifice decades for no guarantee of success or do I stay, build lasting memories with my family and go down with the sinking ship?

That’s an intriguingly heartbreaking premise, and because we like McConaughey and his family (especially father-in-law John Lithgow who provides much-needed levity when warranted), we understand why he’s reluctant to leave at first.  We don’t envy his situation.

There’s a good scene where he tells his daughter the bad news.  She doesn’t understand.  She’s angry.  He tries to reassure her:  I’ll be back.  I love you forever.  She doesn’t believe him.  She’s still mad.  It’s a scene he will revisit in a most surprising way despite its rather obvious contrivance.

Even after he’s launched into space, she refuses to send video messages to his ship.  When the crew lands on their first planet and discover there’s nothing but tidal waves of water, making it absolutely useless for colonization, 23 years pass in the single hour they’ve wasted there.  When McConaughey returns to the ship, he weeps uncontrollably for all the important family milestones he’s missed reflected in a series of clips featuring Lithgow, his son (who becomes a stubborn, emotionally distant Casey Affleck) and his grandchild who doesn’t survive.  He never meets the second one who does.

During the Earth time foolishly squandered on that ocean planet, his daughter grows up to be Jessica Chastain who lands a job at NASA working alongside a now wheelchair-bound Michael Caine.  On his death bed, he makes a rather startling admission which makes her reassess her conflicted feelings about her father.  Caine’s daughter, Anne Hathaway, is part of McConaughey’s crew and in a rare video message announcing his demise, Chastain wonders if she was in on the secret.

Down to two possible substitute planets to inhabit, McConaughey overrules Hathaway’s emotional attachment to a scientist in one world in favour of another presided over by an unbilled Matt Damon.  This turns out to be a very big mistake.

I first screened Interstellar when it hit theatres back in November 2014.  Very early on, I was mixed (I didn’t catch all the dialogue in real time which greatly affected my confidence going forward) and as the movie progressed, I zoned out as I found myself intellectually adrift from all the science jargon.  In the end, I couldn’t decide where I stood because so much went over my pea-brained, perfectionistic head.

How grateful I am for captions and the rewind button.  Watching the film again recently on Blu-ray (complete with stops for quick contemplation and pee breaks), I realized I missed all the funny jokes, most of which come courtesy of robots.  Once the space mission is under way, we meet TARS and CASE.  Humourously programmed to the specifications of their human masters, they’re basically obedient, life size, metallic, four-legged Kit Kat bars.  TARS’ attempts at humour in two scenes make you wish there was more of it.

Having a better handle on the early scenes which are crucial to establishing our connection to the characters and with full concentration regarding all the scientific matters pertaining to the plot, I now have a mostly clear understanding and true appreciation, even though, let’s face it, the big twist in the final act requires a huge suspension of disbelief.  I went with it, though, because of Interstellar’s strongest quality, its incredible special effects.  Even back in 2014, I couldn’t deny how spectacular the visuals are in this film.

Like M. Night Shyamalan’s best work, silence becomes its own character, most especially during the space travel scenes.  As that spinning space station rolls on beyond the Earth up close or past Saturn at a distance, the use of no sound is stunning.  When a major character meets a grisly demise, you hear the interior explosion for a second.  And then, as we quickly witness the damage done from the outside, absolute quiet.  Really effective.  I’ve been trying to think of another production that has used this technique but I’m drawing a blank.

When the space crew lands on these treacherous, distant globes, even though these sequences were shot in Iceland and Ireland, they feel otherworldly, especially the cold, white-rocked planet where you can’t breathe freely because there’s only ammonia in the air, not oxygen.

I liked all the performances.  For a while there, Matthew McConaughey seemed resigned to slumming it in bad romantic comedies, so it’s a relief to see him in a more satisfying dramatic role.  His breezy, familial charm neatly belies a tough survival instinct that serves him well over the course of the movie.  We like him, we care about him and we feel for his impossible undertaking and what he has abandoned to pursue it.

Anne Hathaway holds her own as one of his crew members.  It’s not exactly a surprise that these characters find themselves drawn to each other despite some occasional strategic tension although the movie wisely pushes that idea far into the background for the most part.  Wes Bentley and David Gyasi could’ve been relegated to nothing roles as the rest of the team but they deliver convincing performances and make the most of their limited screen time.  They’re smart characters in over their heads.

Chastain and Affleck do good work, as well, playing the adult versions of McConaughey’s children and I must acknowledge Topher Grace, a NASA doc, who continues to prove there’s more to him than sitcom parts.

Matt Damon’s sudden appearance in the final stretch jolts the movie at just the right time and temporarily turns it into an action film.  I love a good heel turn and God knows it’s necessary here.  Running close to three hours, Interstellar is definitely too long and could’ve easily been trimmed by a good 15-20 minutes.  About midway through, after the tidal wave planet fiasco, the film drags a bit, wallowing in failure and frustration, before thankfully regrouping and regaining its momentum.

Having seen the film a second time now, I understand why it didn’t receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, despite some critics like Richard Roeper arguing for its excellence.  Interstellar just doesn’t compare to Christopher Nolan’s best work, Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy.  Hell, I don’t even think it’s as compelling as the Insomnia remake.  All of these superior efforts build tension in a much more forceful way where you become acutely aware of the clock.  Because we don’t know exactly how much time human beings on Earth have left before they’re wiped out completely because of the coming famine, you don’t feel the urgency of this seemingly doomed mission.  It doesn’t help that the movie’s pacing can be uneven at times.

As for the somewhat questionable scientific theories put forth, they are intriguing nonetheless and do lead to that memorable final act where all is revealed.  There are some nice, emotional pay-offs.

In the end, Interstellar is a good movie that acts and thinks like a great one without really earning it.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 24, 2017
3:21 a.m.

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Published in: on July 24, 2017 at 3:21 am  Leave a Comment  

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