Interstellar review

On Saturday, 15 November 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for a matinee of Interstellar at the Jordan’s IMAX theater in Framingham, Mass. We liked the relationship-focused highbrow science fiction film.

Plot

Interstellar follows Cooper, an astronaut turned farmer in an unspecified near future in which human spaceflight has faltered because of the urgency of feeding billions amid severe ecological degradation.

Widower Cooper’s son Tom is content to become a farmer, but his restlessness is mirrored in his daughter Murph. Despite being science-minded in an era focused on mere survival, Murph claims that a poltergeist is trying to send her messages.

An errant surveillance drone leads Cooper and his children to a secret NASA base, where his former colleague Prof. Brand and his daughter are working on sending a second wave of explorers through a newly discovered wormhole near Saturn to find inhabitable planets.

Aware of the relativistic effects of faster-than-light interstellar travel, Cooper gets his father Donald’s blessing and reluctantly leaves with the younger Brand and a small crew to try to save humanity….

Interstellar poster
Christopher Nolan’s latest SF movie

Cast

The cast of Interstellar is uniformly solid, with several actors from past Christopher Nolan productions. Matthew McConaughey is grounded as Cooper, despite the talk of imminent Armageddon, wormholes, and love and gravity transcending the dimension of time.

John Lithgow and Michael Caine are Cooper’s father figures as Donald and Prof. Brand, respectively. Anne Hathaway is emotional but strong as the younger Brand, and Mackenzie Foy plays a young Murph (named after Murphy’s Law — “Whatever can happen, will”).

As more time passes on Earth while the subjective time of the astronauts is shorter, the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain, and Casey Affleck is the older Tom. Murph and Tom react in different ways to their father’s absence. Matt Damon plays Dr. Mann, “the best of us” and part of the first wave sent through the wormhole.

Bill Irwin is also noteworthy as the voice of TARS, a former military robot among those retasked with helping the laconic Cooper’s mission. He brings a sense of snarky humor and potential menace to the proceedings, referring directly to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Direction

Christopher Nolan’s meticulous style is similar to that of 2001‘s Stanley Kubrick or Prometheus‘ Ridley Scott. He’s more comfortable with high-concept speculative fiction in movies such as Inception, Duncan Jones’ Moon, or Rian Johnson’s Looper than with the emotional content of Steven Spielberg’s best.

Viewers waiting for action and suspense have to wait a while before the three-hour-long movie gets to it, and the parallels between Coop and Murph and Prof. Brand and his daughter are pretty obvious. When Donald or Prof. Brand fulminate on the human condition and our need to explore the universe, it’s clear that’s what Nolan thinks.

Still, even if I agree with the sentiment and understand some of the underlying science, I’d rather he spent less time explaining and more time engaging the audience. Overall, Nolan handles his cast and the narrative jumps in time well, but Interstellar feels more technical than passionate, and he’s unlikely to persuade any who might disagree.

Cinematography

Nolan’s true strength is with creating a believable universe. As with last year’s excellent Gravity, space travel is shown to be difficult, dangerous, and ultimately worthwhile. The psychedelic imagery during the wormhole travel is mercifully brief.

The visualization of “Gargantua,” a black hole around which some potential homeworlds orbit, is excellent. Any good science fiction movie should show us something we haven’t seen or maybe even haven’t imagined before. Much of the science is sound, and the distant planets reminded me of some documentaries about hazardous arctic exploration.

Sure, one could quibble with the environmental science, the description of gravitic propulsion, and the late appearance of O’Neill cylinders in the movie, but I was glad to see this movie on an IMAX screen with a full house. As other reviewers have noted, like Big Hero 6, some of the best parts of Interstellar are when it shows people using science to try to solve problems or mysteries.

Soundtrack

As with Inception and many recent action movie trailers, Interstellar had the booming “bwong, bwong” sound to underscore important moments. I could have done without that, but I have to admit that the IMAX theater’s “rumble seats” were nice for the scenes when Cooper and company were flying by the seats of their pants.

There is no music quite as memorable as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from 2001 or Vangelis’ themes in Blade Runner. As in Gravity, I liked the absence of sound during some of the space scenes.

Rating

I liked Interstellar more than Elysium and about the same as Contact, to refer to two Jodi Foster SF movies. It’s definitely part of a wave of more serious speculative fiction, providing a nice balance to the explosions of Star Trek: Into Darkness or comedy of Space Station 76 while I wait for the next cyclical revival of classic space opera.

I’d give Interstellar, which is rated PG-13 for some violence, a 7.5 to 8 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. I think that some critics were overly harsh, but I’m also more of an SF buff than the general audience.

Speaking of which, I’m still enjoying Jonathan Nolan’s cyber-dystopian Person of Interest on television, and I’m cautiously optimistic about his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO. Also, it is with some sadness that I note the passing of Glen Larson, who created the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and many of the other genre TV shows I grew up on.

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