13 November 2014

Interstellar - Visually stunning, ambitious, and yet ultimately, flawed

Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors that can walk into a meeting with a studio and walk out with $150 million to spend on an idea. He's a smart director, frequently creating some of the best blockbusters around with a strong sense of direction, a realistic feel and an intelligent, larger than life idea. I'm a big fan of Nolan's work, with Inception being one of my favourite films, a larger than life concept grounded in reality, filled with great performances and a strong thematic core.

Interstellar follows Joe Cooper, an all American ex-Astronaut turned farmer, who is very aware of the fact that his planet is dying as dust storms frequently ravage the planets surface and crops wither and die thanks to a micro-organism known as Blight. After discovering some strange gravity anomalies in his daughters bedroom that lead him to a secret NASA facility, he reluctantly agrees to leave his family and travel to a different galaxy in order to seek a new habitable planet for humanity. 

Interstellar is not a film that suffers from lack of ambition, asking and attempting to answer big questions about the future of humanity, while being very much grounded in the real world. The idea behind Interstellar feel incredibly Nolan - high concept, intelligent and with a philosophical element to it, while also taking place around a small, personal story. It's clearly a film that was well researched before production, with a seemingly accurate representation of our current scientific knowledge of dimensional space and time dilation tied into multiple science fiction concepts , creating a seamless line between the fact and fiction on display - for the most part. The big finale of Interstellar drops the ball here, taking to much of a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey, removing the focus on hard science fiction and instead replacing it with what can only be described as surreal speculation, attempting to tie Coopers travels through the stars back into the events that are happening on Earth, unsuccessfully. It's a jarring transition from a typically Nolan-esque film to something that relies on an emotional link that Nolan has unfortunately failed to establish.

And it isn't just the ending of the film that is marred by Nolan's inability to elicit real emotional reactions from an audience. Interstellar is a film of two parts, one half following Coopers exploration of space, and the other set on Earth, following his children as they grow up without him. The problem is that the Earth sections of Interstellar simply distract from the much more interesting story in space, and the way that the film is edited (with the scenes on Earth inter spliced with space scenes and vice versa) means that neither of the stories have enough time to build up the dramatic tension that they deserve. The space scenes survive this process simply because they are more interesting and visually exciting, but the scenes on Earth really suffer here, and are by far the least interesting aspect of the film, mostly because the audiences emotional connection is with Cooper, not his family.

It may seem like somewhat of a nitpick, but this lack of emotional connection to characters that we are meant to be invested in is actually both a fairly major problem and one that everyone should have seen coming. Nolan is almost infamous for his inability to really make an audience care about more than one character at a time, and when a relatively large portion of your film relies on it, the lack of empathy with characters turns what could have been some genuinely good family drama into a series of scenes that are not just forgettable, but actively harm the rest of the film. Other directors could have made these scenes work wonders, but one of the few criticisms frequently aimed at Nolan is that he is all brain and no heart, a statement that isn't disproved here. The fact that Spielberg was originally lined up to direct Interstellar explains the inclusion of these scenes, but they really should have been cut when Nolan took the project on.

There are plenty of other things that could be criticised, such as the overly long run time, the obvious foreshadowing and the way that the characters tend to over-explain every little plot element in case you aren't paying attention, but these are fairly minor in comparison, and are more than made up for by the things that Interstellar does well. I loved the focus on hard science fiction for the majority of the film, bringing in actual scientific theories and facts and using them to help tell the story it wanted to tell. There are moments of sheer beauty on screen, visually stunning shots littered throughout the film like great shot composition is easy. I loved the way that the wormhole looked, both from outside it and in, and I loved the design of the artificial intelligences that accompany the crew on their mission.

And despite the aforementioned emotional issues that Interstellar suffers from, there are several moments that could qualify as "tugging at the heart strings", specifically a great scene where Cooper is watching videos that his family have sent him. But ultimately, it's Matthew McConaughey performance, rather than the material he is working with, that makes this scene work. It's a film filled with great performances from great actors including Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and a surprise actor who I had no idea was even in the film, but Interstellar either wastes the performances of those on Earth with easily cut-able material, or relies too heavily on the performances of those in space to generate emotions that the narrative can't.

It could be argued that the narrative itself is inherently flawed, the resolution of the mystery aspect of the plot ultimately serving no real purpose and adding nothing to the more interesting parts of the film. Something not hinted at in the trailers is the extra-terrestrial presence that the film notifies you off quite early on, a presence that albeit initially interesting winds up being fairly predictable, while also removing the sense of reality that the film has created. Its hard to describe without entering the realm of spoiler territory, but the paradoxical and unexplainable resolution of the film is not the kind of ending that suits Nolan, and the lead up to this takes time that would have best been spent on the cutting room floor.

Ultimately, your mileage with Interstellar is going to vary based on your ability to overlook certain flaws in films. I ended up getting a lot out of Interstellar thanks to the concept and the inclusion of interesting physics, such as the idea of time dilation, but how entertained you are by that is likely to vary from person to person. If you are interested in seeing a large scale, visually stunning, high concept space adventure, then Interstellar will be right up your alley. If you are looking for a film with a strong emotional core and meaningful character moments? Not so much. There is a great film inside Interstellar - it's just surrounded by unnecessary scenes and a director that doesn't understand feelings.

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