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In Theaters: INTERSTELLAR (2014)


(US - 2014)

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, William Devane, Timothee Chalamet, Leah Cairns, David Oyelowo, Collette Wolfe, voices of Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart. (PG-13, 169 mins)

Like the work of his contemporary David Fincher, the films of Christopher Nolan are among the very few that qualify as legitimate "event" films. A master filmmaker who, like Fincher, consistently draws comparisons to Stanley Kubrick, Nolan has one of the finest track records of any filmmaker in the modern era, even with the inevitable backlash that comes with such a high level of acclaim. Through MEMENTO, the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and INCEPTION, Nolan's scope and vision grow with each new project. His latest film, INTERSTELLAR, is his most ambitious yet, a stunning sci-fi saga filled with state-of-the-art visual effects, a memorable, organ-driven Hans Zimmer score, breathtaking cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY), and excellent performances all around, and one packed with such grandiose vision that it can't be contained in one reality or even in one galaxy. With obvious influences including the likes of Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS (1972), along with Douglas Trumbull's SILENT RUNNING (1972), Robert Zemeckis' CONTACT (1997), and Danny Boyle's SUNSHINE (2007), INTERSTELLAR often feels like it's juggling too many hard sci-fi concepts. On one hand, it's almost impossible to not marvel at such a staggering achievement, but on the other, it magnifies Nolan's few weaknesses.  In the span of just a few moments, your mouth is agape at what you're seeing, then you're groaning as the characters overexplain something for the third or fourth time. Again utilizing his trademark intercutting (think of that SUV's endless plummet into the water in INCEPTION), Nolan can present a brilliantly-edited set piece of nail-biting intensity with three or more distinct and equally suspenseful things simultaneously unfolding, then follow it with a hoary cliche like someone taking their last dying, gasping breath as they're about to reveal a deep, dark secret.

INTERSTELLAR takes place in a near future where Earth is dangerously close to being unable to sustain itself. Crops are scarce--they've just lost okra and corn is on its way out. Cities resemble a new Dust Bowl, the New York Yankees play to a crowd that consists of a few people on a small set of bleachers and the roster is filled with people who have no idea how to play baseball. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a NASA-trained ex-pilot and widower struggling to make it as a farmer while supporting his teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), ten-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), and his wry, wise father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). Times have changed--all government money goes toward farming and organizations like NASA have been disbanded and discredited, as evidenced by Murph getting suspended from school for bringing an old textbook that doesn't reflect the new accepted version of history: that NASA wasn't a legit outfit and the moon landings were faked to help bankrupt the Soviet Union. Books keep falling off of Murph's bookshelf and Cooper dismisses her talk that it's a "ghost." Dust blowing in the windows falls in a specific pattern on her bedroom floor. Scientist and curious mind that he still is at heart, and Murph being his daughter, they eventually figure out that the pattern is a code for coordinates on a map. They follow it and stumble on a seemingly abandoned NORAD outpost in the desert that houses what's left of the space program: Cooper's old mentor Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), his protegee/daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), and the de facto head of NASA (William Devane). Brand tells Cooper that 50 years earlier, a wormhole was discovered behind Saturn and probes sent through it found another galaxy with a dozen potentially habitable planets. Earth has, at most, a generation left before it dies, and they need to find another planet to sustain human life and carry on the species, either by colonizing it with the humans left on Earth or, if that fails, by incubating fertilized eggs on the new planet. Twelve astronauts were sent on a mission a decade earlier to survey each of the planets.  Nine have been eliminated from contention and Amelia, Doyle, and Romilly need a pilot to get them through the wormhole to investigate the three planets where colonization has been deemed possible and attempt to locate the surviving astronauts.

Of course, Cooper leaves his family behind and has no idea how long he'll be gone, which doesn't go over well with Murph. A miscalculation by Amelia results in three members of the team--Amelia, Cooper, and Doyle--spending over three hours on a planet where one hour equals seven Earth years. When they return to the main spacecraft, Romilly is 23 years older and there's communication messages from the now-grown Tom (Casey Affleck) and the still-resentful Murph (Jessica Chastain), who's now working with the elderly and wheelchair-bound Prof. Brand to finish the equation that will being the quartet back to Earth. It's here that INTERSTELLAR goes in directions that are best approached knowing as little as possible.

In many ways, it's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY if Kubrick films had the ability to be warm and sentimental. And that streak of sentimentality is where INTERSTELLAR sometimes stumbles. Nolan is clinical and doesn't wear sentimental well. His protagonists--think Guy Pearce's Leonard Shelby in MEMENTO, Christian Bale's Alfred Borden in THE PRESTIGE and Bruce Wayne in the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb in INCEPTION--are driven by emotion that's been distorted into obsession and, in most cases, revenge. That cold focus is something that draws the Kubrick analogies. Practically every major character in INTERSTELLAR gets a scene where Zimmer's score--quite majestic and often dark but still a bit much at times--swells up John Williams-style as tears roll down their faces. This look doesn't suit Nolan, and sometimes, the film seems less inspired by 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or SOLARIS or SUNSHINE (there's even talk of doing a shortcut to "sling-shot" around a black hole to land on one of the planets, much like the Boyle film's last-ditch, desperate "sling-shot" effort to drop the payload and restart the sun), and more like a secret, elaborate, hard sci-fi adaptation of the 1977 Todd Rundgren/Utopia song "Love is the Answer." The song's not in the movie, but someone at a more maudlin point in the proceedings alludes to love being the answer, which made me think of the song, and well, here, read the lyrics:

Name your price
A ticket to paradise
I can't stay here any more
And I've looked high and low
I've been from shore to shore to shore
If there's a short cut I'd have found it
But there's no easy way around it

Light of the world, shine on me
Love is the answer
Shine on us all, set us free
Love is the answer

Who knows why
Someday we all must die
Were all homeless boys and girls
And we are never heard
It's such a lonely world
People turn their heads and walk on by
Tell me, is it worth just another try?

Tell me, are we alive, or just a dying planet?
What are the chances?
Ask the man in your heart for the answers

Nolan's films have a grim darkness to them and that extends to INTERSTELLAR, particularly in some the mid-film plot turns.  All the tears and the crying makes for an uneven work as Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan try to have it both ways, and it's the same thing that made something like A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001) so frustrating, as Steven Spielberg brought a never-realized Kubrick project to life and you can see in the film the precise moment where Kubrick's cold, clinical script ended and Spielberg's heart-tugging contributions took flight. Some of it works with INTERSTELLAR, particularly Cooper seeing the 23 years older Murph on a video message and realizing how bitter she remains over him leaving.  It's heartbreakingly played by both McConaughey and Chastain, who's very good throughout.  Other times, such as the climax (well, one of the climaxes, I should say), which follows this film's version of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY's "Jupiter and beyond the infinite..." set piece, and Prof. Brand's repeated invocation of Dylan Thomas'"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," the Nolan brothers are just belaboring the point for maximum mawkishness.

Please note that these are immediate reactions. Like Kubrick, Nolan is a filmmaker whose work is difficult to judge on one viewing. That's never been the case more than it is with INTERSTELLAR, a flawed film with some issues of tone that nonetheless has too many brilliant sequences and powerful performances to dismiss. There's a lot to process here, and for everything that doesn't work, there's ten things that do. Performances are terrific across the board, with Hathaway, Lithgow, and young Foy also standing out, in addition to a sardonic and droll work by Bill Irwin as the voice of TARS, the ship's robot, ballbusting the crew with his humor setting at 95% ("Why don't we take that down to 75?" Cooper instructs TARS after the robot jokes about using them as slaves for his planned robot colony). It's a gargantuan, visually dazzling, and often thematically bold piece of work, but in the end, it's really just a bigger, longer SUNSHINE, one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the last decade. INTERSTELLAR is demonstrative of Nolan wanting to make his Kubrick groundbreaker and Tarkovsky art film but needing to make sure it's Spielberg-accessible and audience-friendly. Most of the time, the reconciling of those two goals balances out, but the film struggles in the moments when that balance is lost.

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