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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Interstellar (Release Date: 11-7-2014)

        To say that Christopher Nolan is in rarified air as a tent-pole filmmaker would be the ultimate understatement: no other director can currently turn a mere movie into a cultural event simply by attaching his name. Spielberg used to have it, Tarantino might get there yet, and Cameron would share the mantle if he made more than one film per decade. As is, Nolan alone is afforded movie-star treatment by both the studios that market his pictures, and the audiences that greedily lap them up. It should come as no surprise that all this adoration has emboldened him to take even further risks; with the release Interstellar, Nolan's first since dutifully wrapping up his Dark Knight saga, finds the auteur marching to the beat of his own drum, traveling to the farthest reaches of space all in the name of chasing his muse.

        Hollywood's own Lazarus (Matthew McConaughey) stars as Cooper, a former NASA test pilot and current farmer (they make those?) living in a vaguely post-apocalyptic American midwest. Rather than zombies or artificial intelligence, Earth's ruination is brought about by a newly untenable climate; rain hardly falls, dust sweeps through towns like a menacing brown fog, and our only viable crop left is corn (Take THAT, USDA!). Humanity's last hope manifests in the form of a wormhole that is discovered somewhere near Saturn, a portal behind which mankind hopes to find a new home. Cooper reluctantly accepts the mission, leaving behind a much beloved daughter (a terrific Mackenzie Foy) and an afterthought of a son (Timothée Chalamet) with only a puncher's chance of ever returning.

        It's easy to forget that Nolan's name hasn't always been synonymous with enormity. As recently as  2006's The Prestige, the guy hadn't even made a single epic. Then came The Dark Knight (and, I'd like to posit, the influence of composer Hans Zimmer), a film who's unnerving scale and runaway success properly put Nolan on the pop culture map, and laid the tracks for his career forever more. Interstellar might be his most daunting undertaking yet, a nearly three-hour-long space voyage that finds as much value in explaining the Theory of Relativity as is does in tugging on heart strings, all while consciously and constantly calling to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey with truly reckless abandon. There's no doubting the film's ambition, but the subject of its actual achievement is ripe for debate.

        Nolan has never bared his heart to this degree. It's commonplace to hear his work described as 'cold' or 'inhuman,' and in the same year that David Fincher laughed off those very same criticisms by crafting one of his iciest works to date, Nolan opted to confront them head-on. Problem is, this might not have been the right movie to finally shift his heart all the way down to his sleeve. The cross-cutting that transpires between Cooper's galactic adventures and his children's dust-bowl suffering diminishes the effect of both, while certain scenes that juxtapose the powers of love and science remain tremendously vague, and would likely be more at home in the diary of a 14-year-old girl. Nolan and writing partner/brother Jonathan also stir a little government conspiracy into the pot, often via clumsy expositions delivered by poorly cast villains who slowly reveal 'ah-hah's that play more like 'ho-hums.' There's even a big twist at the end!!! I'll say this about Interstellar: you're buying a whole lot of 'movie' with your $13, even if it's kind of a mess.

        The primary culprit, as it tends to be in Nolan's work, is the screenplay. Where his heavily plot-driven/plot-hole-ridden films of the past have always managed to distract viewers from their faulty mechanics with the allure and power of spectacle, Interstellar sees the details finally catch up to the Brother's Nolan. The film is littered with head-scratch-worthy internal logic, and dialogue that's so on the nose, you might never smell again. And while I anticipated a ready and fair comparison between this and last year's Gravity, Interstellar's closest relative is actually another Nolan offspring, Inception. Both movies are obsessed with the time delineation, parental guilt, love and its perception, anti-gravity, the intimidating power of water, twist revelations, and plots that function more as puzzles than narratives. Had we never seen (and marveled at) Inception, this might be a wholly different conversation; as is, Nolan's latest feels a touch warmed-over.

        Interstellar is all about reaching out beyond what we've previously accomplished, in terms of both the film itself, and the production behind it. Even Matthew McConaughey, now three years into the McConaissance, has something to prove, trotting out his newly-minted Oscar-winner status for a mainstream audience who hasn't seen him in anything since The Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past. He's fine in the picture, employing his steady southern drawl to endearing effect, and really hitting the high notes in his handful of 'oscar scenes,' but one still wonders if this film wouldn't benefit from a less famous face at its center. His 'movie-star-performance' dial is set firmly at 11.5, an odd choice for... you know, a crop farmer, and the thinly-written Cooper ensures that the thespian always comes first to mind before the character.

        Look, there are elements of Interstellar that work like gangbusters. Certain space travel sequences are near jaw-dropping, and the action, especially as presented in IMAX, shows Nolan again at the top of his game, all while the sound nearly deafens. And even if the director struggles to bring some of his thorny, emotionally driven ideas all the way home, the mere way that he presents them is often harrowing, with certain moments and concepts that rattle around in your head for days. Wether these positives properly outweigh the detriments is really all in the eye of the beholder, and somehow, nearly a week after heading to the stars with Nolan and McConaughey, I'm not sure where exactly I stand. Interstellar is undoubtably a mixed bag, one filled with ample amounts of both treasure and trash; your level of enjoyment will likely be determined by how willing and patient you are to sort through it.

Grade: B-


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