I saw Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's latest film, yesterday. As long-time readers know, Nolan is my favorite living director. I have compared him with Alfred Hitchcock in the past but it is more common in the press to see comparisons with Stanley Kubrick. Both Hitchcock and Kubrick rank as my favorite directors of all-time.
The Kubrick comparisons seem more warranted with Interstellar as Nolan's film is obviously inspired by 2001, one of the greatest movies ever made. Interstellar is not quite that, but it is sophisticated, often stunning to behold, and surprisingly emotional. In fact, I would say that Interstellar is the most emotional movie Nolan has directed yet.
I read a lot of the early reviews. Spoilers don't usually bother me but the ones I read were very cautious not to give too much of the plot away. I won't either in this post. I will say that the movie has several splendid nods to 2001. There are situations and scenes that remind me of Kubrick's masterpiece. But these are done in Nolan's style so he isn't copying Kubrick, he is merely admiring him and incorporating a little bit of him into this film.
Interstellar stands on its own and is much more "human" than 2001. Kubrick's film is all about the wonder and possibility of space and human potential on a grand scale. Nolan's movie takes place in space and the narrative is nested in space stuff but Interstellar is not really about space. It is about other things.
Those other things actually remind me more of Nolan's brilliant Inception than any other film. If you liked Inception's inward journey and complex story line, you will enjoy Interstellar's outward journey that ironically offers more character empathy. It is equally challenging in that it is not a casual movie, it is not an action movie, there are no sex scenes, no gun fights, you must be engaged and pay attention or you will literally find yourself lost in space.
Interstellar is not about space. Space is the vehicle for the story but the movie is more akin to Inception's consideration of Time, only here we are dealing with the "big scale" time of relativity. And love plays a fundamental role in the movie. Not physical or romantic love, but love of family and love as basic to the human species. Love in Interstellar matches knowledge in 2001 as a primary theme.
The biggest surprise in the film for me personally comes about halfway through its near 3-hour length, when - without giving anything away here - the characters portrayed so well by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway encounter unexpectedly powerful emotions as they experience the relativity of Time at a deeply existential level. I have never considered how humans would react to an encounter with relativity experienced intimately. Interstellar boldly immerses the viewer, through strong empathetic performances of these actors, in that shocking intimacy. From that moment on I was totally into the movie and realized that it was going to stimulate my heart as much as my mind. That was pretty cool.
The film is visually amazing at times. I can see why many reviewers advocate seeing it in IMAX. Generally, I would have driven a little further and paid a little more to see it in that format. Nolan really enjoys filming in IMAX. But, due to a bit of a hectic weekend schedule, I chose to drive a shorter distance and see Interstellar on a "standard" screen. I recall thinking 4-5 times during the film that "Wow, that would look so cool in IMAX." But, to be honest, the film is more of an inward journey than I was expecting, and I am talking about maybe 8-10 minutes of the long movie that is clearly of IMAX grade. Watching it on a standard screen did not detract from the overall experience of it.
Jessica Chastain joins McConaughey and Hathaway in providing the necessary performances to sell the believability of the film's incredible premise and, more importantly, to latch on to the discerning viewer at an emotional level. The weight of love through the passage of Time is the powerful core of Interstellar's message. Unlike 2001, this movie is more about who we are now as human beings instead of what our potential is as human beings.
Interstellar has some flaws. Its execution is not quite as smooth as Inception. It is a bit of a rocky ride to start with. The first 20 minutes contain a lot of necessary setup information for the huge narrative story that follows. But it is presented in a non-dramatic yet heavily theatrical documentary type style that is somewhat disorienting and a challenge to get in to. It is the most efficient way to get the story going but it is not fluid nor did I feel much of anything for what was happening as it was all so hastily told to me. A necessary evil perhaps.
Likewise, I found it difficult to relate to the film's final ten minutes or so. The ending is too abrupt and too neat, the usual Nolan ambiguity is not there. The ending felt too clean for me given the winding course of the narrative. But in between the beginning and end Interstellar is immensely rewarding visually, intellectually, and (I can't emphasize this enough) emotionally. I would give this film an 8.5 if I did fractions on my ten-point scale. It is not quite as good as Inception but it is still an excellent movie. Because of its surprising emotional power and the overall handling of the complicated story during the bulk of the movie I will round this one up to a 9. It is a must-see movie and another magnificent, though flawed, effort by Nolan.
I do not expect Interstellar to enjoy the massive box office success that some of Nolan's other films received. The simple fact is that most moviegoers will find the film too flat in the action department and too complicated to ever relate to something like the existential experience of relativity. That is not mainstream stuff. Yet, it is all there in the film for those who make the effort to connect with it. That connection is a richly rewarding movie experience. But it is probably too much of a stretch to ask the masses of people that saw, say, The Dark Knight, to go so deep with Nolan.
Nevertheless, I applaud him. I connected with the intimate nature of the film and I will likely pay again to see it, maybe in IMAX next time. Interstellar is a sophisticated experience for sophisticated people. To that extent it is very much like 2001, which was not a huge box office success when it was initially released back in 1968. Kubrick was seen as an artist making an artsy movie. Over time the stature of 2001 has risen compared with the critical controversy of its initial release. It may well be the same for Interstellar, only this time most critics seem to like the movie (though many critics do not) while the common movie goer may not relate to its existential message sufficiently to drive financial success. But, as the film itself expresses, things can change dramatically with the passage of Time.