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Movie Review: “Interstellar”

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Space… the final frontier.

Actually, when it comes to the movies, this “final frontier” has gotten a tad crowded throughout the years.

The thing is, the topic of space travel has been explored on a cinematic level quite a few times during the past few decades. In fact, some of the most talented and well-known filmmakers of our generation have attempted to traverse the vast outreaches of the galaxy, not to mention unravel its many riddles.

For example, in the 1960’s, Stanley Kubrick set the bar pretty high with his breathtakingly original take on Arthur C.

Poster art from "Interstellar"

The new season of “Jersey Shore” looks really weird.

Clarke’s modern-day masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the 70’s, the landscape changed from poetic to action-packed as George Lucas and Ridley Scott graced the movie-going public with their “Star Wars” and “Alien” franchises, respectively. During the decades to come, the list of directors who would to attempt to tackle the art of intergalactic storytelling reads like a list of Hollywood’s best and brightest.

In no particular order: Ron Howard (“Apollo 13″), Steven Soderbergh (“Solaris”), Danny Boyle (“Sunshine”), Robert Zemeckis (“Contact”), Clint Eastwood (“Space Cowboys”), Tim Burton (‘Planet of the Apes”), Duncan Jones (“Moon”), Paul Verhoeven (“Starship Troopers”) and James Cameron (“Aliens”) have all given us their take on the universe and everything in it. Hell, even hacks like Michael Bay (“Armageddon”) and Roland Emmerich (“Stargate”) have gotten in on the action, so to speak.

Thanks to a creative trio of directors from the new school, outer space travel has managed to find its way back into multiplexes once again. “Lost” co-creator J.J. Abrams was not only  given the reins to one popular sci-fi franchise (“Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness“), he was entrusted with two (the upcoming “Star Wars” films as well). This past summer, quirky, yet supremely talented director James Gunn helped to successfully launch Marvel/Disney’s little known “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise. Also, Ridley Scott returned to the familiar reaches of space with the long-awaited (and unfairly panned) continuation to his “Alien” saga, “Prometheus.

However, no space-related film managed to bridge the gap between commercial and critical success quite like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” did last holiday season. The celebrated Mexico City auteur (“Children of Men,” “Y tu mama tambien”) continued along his stellar (wordplay intended) career path by taking home the 2013 Best Director Oscar for his work on this visually and spiritually-satisfying gem of a movie. Not only did “Gravity” garner SEVEN Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), it made close to $275 million domestically at the box office. Not bad for a glorified, sci-fi “shipwreck” story.

Now this brings us to “Interstellar.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re waiting for me to compare the intangibles of this film with that of “Gravity.” You’re waiting for me to proclaim that “Interstellar” is THIS YEAR’S “Gravity” in more positive ways than one. In fact, I assume you’re also waiting for me to tell you how great “Interstellar” is and that it’s not only an entertaining movie, but it’s also an important one that could possibly one-up “Gravity” by taking home the “Best Picture” Oscar come this February.

Well, I’m here to let you know that your “thinking” is oh-so-wrong.

I can’t totally blame you though. This movie had all the makings of an instant classic — not only in terms of the sci-fi genre, but in a much broader spectrum. I mean, this is THE movie that movie geeks have been waiting to see ever since director Christopher Nolan wowed the cinematic world with his mystery masterpiece “Memento.” Everybody has been chomping at the bit to see Nolan’s interpretation of the science fiction genre. Truthfully, EVERY genre Nolan touches has turned to gold throughout his well-documented career. The mystery genre — (as I just stated) CHECK. The action genre — CHECK (the “Dark Knight” trilogy). Existential drama — CHECK (“Inception“). It just seems as if “Interstellar” is destined to inch Nolan closer to that coveted (yet fictional) title of “Best Director in Modern Cinema History.”

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news to all of Nolan’s die-hard fans, but “Interstellar” can only be considered an average knock-off, AT BEST. Actually, it could probably be best described as a jumbled mish-mash that includes Nolan’s personal beliefs, convoluted scientific theories, and very familiar, if not formulaic, science fiction scenarios. Honestly, if there’s a sci-fi movie that you are quite fond of, chances are that Nolan has “borrowed” an idea (in some cases, several ideas) from this particular film. Granted, Nolan most likely presents these “ideas” with more style and visual flair than most of the previous filmmakers he borrows from, but this doesn’t excuse the fact that these ideas have been done dozens of times before. It’s inexcusable really.

Sadly, I can honestly say I expected more from Nolan and I REALLY expected MUCH more from “Interstellar.” Now, Nolan is FAR from the first person to try and package unoriginal ideas in a shiny new box. However, based on his reputation as a movie-making maven and (dare I say) cinematic genius, I assumed I was going to be treated to a genre-bending, mind-blowing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. That being said, what I eventually experienced was eerily similar to the plight that the characters from “Interstellar” faced — the whole thing was waaaay off the mark and ultimately a waste of time. Since it ends up being close to THREE HOURS of wasted time (it clocks in at a hefty 169 minutes), “Interstellar” becomes a long, arduous journey to nowhere special… kind of like riding a tricycle to Cleveland.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that Nolan works from a higher plane of intelligence and consciousness than

A clip from "Interstellar"

Hoth Real Estate Company… working hard for you.

I do. Basically, I’m quite sure that “Interstellar” was over my head in terms of its deeper, hidden meaning. The best way to describe this film is to compare it to a beautifully-written, yet nearly indecipherable poem. It’s fairly easy to recognize all the talent and skill that exist behind the words, but it’s impossible to reach a conclusion as to what the whole thing actually means.

It’s not just Nolan’s decision to include lofty concepts like quantum physics, the theory of relativity, black holes, and time-travel that makes “Interstellar” so hard to comprehend. It’s the way these ideas are presented that ends up downplaying the ultimate power of this high-end narrative. Again, the audience ends up suffering the same fate as the characters of “Interstellar” — they end up getting so utterly lost during the first two acts, that by the time act three comes around their situation becomes very similar to certain doomed characters in “Gravity.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I speak of. If you haven’t, well, I won’t spoil it for you… even if you HAVE had a YEAR to see it already.

I’ll try my best not to spoil “Interstellar” for you either.

The story takes place on Earth in the not-so-distant future.Although the planet is free from the horrors of war and violence and has been ravaged by lack of rain, which ultimately leads to a worldwide shortage of food. The world seems to be completely sandy and barren and everything is covered in a burnt sienna/sepia tone. Even though it usually proves to be less than lucrative and fairly futile, former fighter pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, who provides some outstanding emotionally-charged moments throughout) decides to eke out a living as a farmer. The recently-widowed (cancer) Coop is joined on the farm by his crusty father Donald (John Lithgow), his eager teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), and his super genius, yet rebellious daughter Murph (a breakout performance by Mackenzie Foy).

Well, it seems as if the frequent dust storms are getting worse… much worse. This leads to Murph and Coop combining father/daughter intellectual forces, as they discover what looks to be a hidden “message” located in some falling dust in Murph’s bedroom (it will make sense later, trust me). This “message” turns out to be coordinates to some top-secret point on the map that exists in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Hmmm. So, Murph and Coop decide to take a road trip to discover what lies within these coordinates.

Well, what they DO find is an ultra top secret base that houses some odd-looking recommissioned military robots

A clip from "Interstellar"

“See, there’s the planet… right there… about a mile down from the Wawa.”

(named TARS and CASE) and also what’s left of the NASA program. In a twist that can only happen in a Christopher Nolan flick, one of these NASA engineers turns out to be none other than Coop’s former mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine), his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway)and a group of additional NASA engineers who are diligently working on… well… something big and important.

How important is it? Globally important.

See, unbeknownst to Coop and the rest of the population, Earth is officially on its last legs. The dust storms have ravaged the planet so badly that in a few decades crops won’t be able to grow in any soil whatsoever. Sadly, this means that every single person will be dead by the time Murph and Tom are able to have children of their own. Needless to say, this makes Coop very upset, but there IS something he can do about it. See, Dr. Brand and the rest of the NASA eggheads have developed a plan to launch a four-man exploration crew into space to eventually discover a suitable planet(s) for colonization, which will ultimately assure the survival of the whole human race. And you thought your job was filled with pressure.

Another person who has enormous pressure on him is Nolan himself. Due to the ridiculous box office numbers “Gravity” put up for Warner Bros last year, Paramount’s expectations are enormously high for “Interstellar.” However, even though both films technically take place in outer space, they are far from similar films. While “Gravity” is easily accessible due to some simple-to-grasp concepts like isolation and survival, “Interstellar” is about as far away from simple as you can get.

All this being said, the early returns on the limited, mostly IMAX, screenings for “Interstellar” are looking fairly promising ($1.5 million on only 240 screens), but I believe most of these numbers are based on audience curiosity. Once word gets out about its lofty, existential concepts, I think its momentum will die down. Although, I have been VERY wrong at times before and chances are I will be again. So, you really never know. Seriously though, who expected “Ouija” to take-in SEVEN TIMES its budget and be number one at the box office for TWO weeks in a row. I know it was Halloween weekend and people needed their horror fix, but this movie was awful, people.

But I digress, it really doesn’t matter how well “Interstellar” does at the box office, it only matters if its a memorable cinematic experience or not. Well, it’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in quite a while. It kind of reminds me of a hybrid of “Prometheus” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” in terms of art direction and cinematography. Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Her,” “Let the Right One In”) does a fantastic job at making each landscape feel completely unique and, in some cases, appropriately alien. Iconic composer Hans Zimmer‘s score is also a highlight here, as it combines heavy bass undertones with a driving church organ. If you’re familiar with Nolan’s films then you’ll find such an observation to be no big surprise, as his movies always excel musically. Take the string-heavy score for “Inception” as an example. I swear I must have heard it in dozens of car commercials and/or movie trailers since its release almost five years ago.

The real issue here is not with its bombastic score or its stunning visual nature. It IS a Christopher Nolan movie, so its

A clip from "Interstellar"

Beautiful imagery does not a classic film make… or something like that.

a given that these things will be of the highest quality. The disappointing thing here is the story. Nolan, who has written a number of his screenplays with his brother Jonathan (including “Interstellar”), seems to focus on relative, personal concepts (when he’s not tackling the Batman legend) and this film is no different. While “Memento” deals with memory and “Inception” focuses on dreams, “Interstellar” is all about the relativity of time — how much one ultimately has AND whether or not time really does stop, slow down or speed-up based on one’s situation and location. Like I said before, this film is not the easiest to comprehend. So, around the middle of act two, when its intellectual nature starts to really get going, this is the point in which a majority of the audience will officially become lost… permanently.

However, up until this point, it’s a pretty kick-ass ride. The story SEEMS simple enough. Based on the info I mentioned earlier about the Earth’s resources being depleted, Cooper (remember, he’s the guy played by McConaughey) , Dr. Amelia Brand (Hathaway), company man Doyle (Wes Bentley) and gentle scientist Rom (David Gyasi of “Cloud Atlas”) all board this state-of-the-art spaceship called the Endurance and set-out to enter a wormhole near Jupiter. But why would they care about this wormhole in the first place? Apparently, it was mysteriously left there by an unknown source, which the older Dr. Brand (Caine) believes was put there to help us find a new habitable planet in order to prolong the lifespan of the entire human race.

Basically, Coop and company are asked to save the world from certain extinction. No big whoop, right?

However, the plot thickens as Dr. Brand has previously sent twelve brave souls into this wormhole already, as there are supposedly twelve habitable worlds on the other side of this “portal.” The job that the four-man crew of the Endurance must perform is finding out if one (or possibly more) of these twelve volunteer scientists have found a suitable environment and atmosphere for humans to live in. Easy-peazy, lemon squeezy. But there’s a catch — if the Endurance can’t pull off this mission, which has been creatively dubbed “Plan A” (hey they’re scientists, not lyricists), they have to go to (you guessed it) “Plan B,” which involves cloning frozen embryos and all that good stuff. Uh oh, this could possibly mean that Coop might not EVER see his kids again OR even if he does they might actually be OLDER than he is. How’s THAT for confusing? Well, at least it’s an excuse to cast Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck as the grown-up versions of Murph and Tom (Coop’s kids).

As you can probably discern, a good chunk of the second and third acts are devoted to exploring these 12 “worlds” and

Jessica Chastain in "Interstelar"

If you burn it, they will come…

trying to locate each scientist as they do. This leads to some unexpected cameos and a handful of interesting planetary concepts and designs. For example, one planet is entirely made of water and each hour spent on its surface is the equivalent of seven years of Earth time. So, basically, if a baby were to watch “Interstellar” on this planet, by the time the credits rolled he’d be old enough to legally have a drink… which he would most certainly need, by the way.

Another planet is a desolate, frozen world where daytime lasts around three times the amount of time it does on Earth and the same goes for the evenings as well. Also, this world houses a famous actor playing “the scientist,” but I’m not telling you who this is. Hey, at least I’m working on my propensity for spoilers.

From here the film gets… well… weird and long-winded. The screenplay by the Nolan brothers has a great deal of twists and turns to it, but they’re not all easily-mapped rights and lefts. Most of them twist and turn into the shape of a Philly soft pretzel or a double-helix and tend to overlap and fold-in on each other. For some moviegoers, this is where the film will become absolutely brilliant, but for most of the audience this is point of no retention. In other words, this is where people will lose interest entirely.

For the most part, those that are expecting “Gravity Part II” will be bitterly disappointed. This film is not as action-packed or harrowing as “Gravity.” It’s more of a slow burn mixed with a heavy dose of science, a generous dash of philosophy, and a pinch of sociology for good measure.

While “Gravity” asked the question: How will Sandra Bullock and George Clooney find their way back home? “Interstellar” asks the question: When will the human race realize we are all doomed and what can we do about it?

Anyway, its frightfully long 180-minute run time AND all of the hard-to-comprehend aspects of its plot might have absolutely NO EFFECT on the paying customers who show up to see “Interstellar.” Seriously though, “Inception” was close to three hours long and quite impossible to understand AND that film grossed almost $300 million domestically and is beloved by city-dwelling hipsters, college film majors  and/or pretentious movie critics alike. In fact, even average moviegoers will claim to LOVE this film, even if they have no clue what it’s actually about. Maybe “Interstellar” will have the same effect on its audience members.

However, I highly doubt it. To me, “Inception” was an innovative visual masterpiece with a story that might have been difficult to follow, but was intense and engrossing nonetheless. “Interstellar” might have the aesthetics down pat, but it fails to provide a story that is either original OR enthralling. It seems like Nolan was simply paying homage to some of his favorite sci-fi directors, but forgot to add his own unique perspective to it in the process. The whole film eventually becomes one big letdown, as you wait and wait for the big reveal, but it never seems to occur.

Then, when it finally does happen, underwhelming would be an understatement.

 

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  • http://www.octa.com Ash Cook

    Haters gonna hate. This was a much better film than you give it credit for. It’s one thing to read a review that looks at the film, but your review only looks at your inability to manage your expectations. I’m not going to be going to you for movie advice again.

    • http://Thisone Shawn Kotzen

      I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts about harping on expectations… except regarding this film. Basically, Nolan’s movie was about as unique as a YOLO bumper sticker, which didn’t leave much to critique.
      In my opinion it was much more interesting to focus on the possible “expectations” of prospective moviegoers, especially since most audience members will be expecting a completely different movie based on the thrill-ride ad campaign that’s been presented.
      “Interstellar” might be visually beautiful to behold, but its empty sentiment and unnecessary “All You Need is Love” sappiness make this film shockingly easy to dismiss. And, needless to say, I EXPECTED a great deal more than worm holes, dust bowls and robots that roll from Nolan and company.

  • Grant Roberts

    This week I spent three hours watching Interstellar. I also spent three hours undertaking a Law exam.

    Guess which three hours I enjoyed the most…

    Overblown, overhyped and terminally cliche ridden. Nolan has gone from Dark Knight to M. Night. If you couldn’t see the ‘surprise’ ending from 5 minutes in, then you must have spent your life beyond the event horizon.