Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: 'Interstellar' isn't Nolan's finest, but it ain't terrible

I’m what you'd call a Christopher Nolan fanboy. That admission should give you some context on how to take it when I say that I thought his space and time-hopping epic "Interstellar" was a bit of a mixed bag.  
                The long and short of “Interstellar” is that the Earth is dying. Some new disease is wiping out all of our crops and humanity needs to find itself somewhere else to go. A few years back, NASA sent manned probes through a mysterious wormhole to see what they could see in the way of habitable planets in far off galaxies. Now, it’s time for a new crew to go out, crunch the data from those probes and settle on a place to restart humanity.
                The new crew consists of hotshot pilot-turned farmer Matthew McConaughey, science person Anne Hathaway, the bad guy from “Ghost Rider” who is also a science person and an African American science person. Don’t think I’m being dismissive of the rest of the crew. Their back-stories and in some cases present-stories are treated as pretty inconsequential by the movie. The rest of the crew is just sorta hanging out in the neighborhood of the action.
                The movie's main story follows the crew as they inspect three planets which seem like they might make for a good place for humans to put up their feet. We also cut back to life on Earth, which isn't going great for McConaughey’s kids what with the ever-present massive dust storms kicked up by the fading planet and the lack of food and so forth. I won’t go too in depth on the kids as their situation plays out as one of the movie’s better surprises, but there’s a daughter who’s quite bright and an aspiring scientist and a boy who is also quite bright, but who’s being shoehorned into a life of farming because people need food not intellectuals.

                Without a doubt the best thing about “Interstellar” is how it looks and how it sounds. Sure, some of the dialogue is hard to understand due to the sound of rocket boosters or people talking through muffled intercoms, but I can’t help but think that was done on purpose by Nolan to scratch that muffled-dialogue itch Batman fans wouldn't let him take care of in “The Dark Knight Rises” with Bane. It doesn't happen enough to be a bother though and otherwise "Interstellar" is just a technically gorgeous looking and sounding movie. 
                On the page though, well, there are some warts there. The movie's story isn't terrible, but it is clunky. The clunks are particularly egregious in the third act when Chris and his screenwriting partner and brother Jonathan try to visually translate tricky theoretical ideas about space, time and what it looks like inside a black hole. Maybe it sounded profound on the page to have McConaughey and his daughter use the black hole to help them communicate to try to solve all Earth’s problems. In practice, that sequence turns into a cross between the unfortunate Stephen King alien movie “Dreamcatcher” and the delightfully cheesy Jim Caviezel/Dennis Quaid joint “Frequency.” Somehow I doubt delightfully cheesy is what the Nolan brothers had in mind for “Interstellar.”
               There's still a lot to like. The first world our heroes travel to, one which seems to be covered in a vast, ankle deep ocean holds some spectacular secrets. The Nolan brothers also revisit the wonderfully head-scratching concept of the passage of time that Chris also explored in his previous feature, “Inception." Only this time around, it's not just a cool plot device that also leads to neat visuals. There's a heavy dose of poignancy mixed in to its use in "Interstellar" and it all works brilliantly.  
                Overall, the cast is full of big names, but most of them aren't used for much more than that. McConaughey is one of the few fully developed characters, but he's a little too whispery at times and his big emotional scenes are hit or miss. Outside of him and his daughter, none of the other characters have an clear arc, they just is what they is, as a wise man once said. One very famous actor shows up in a small, important and decidedly villain-y role late in the film and was a standout. There was some depth and development there, which was nice. Also, Topher Grace was cast in a role that could have easily been given to an extra or to no one and cut without impacting the story in any way. So that's how things are going for that guy, I guess. 
                  Bottom line: I liked "Interstellar," but I didn't love it. It's faults were hard for me to look passed. Still, if you're even remotely interested in mind-blowing sci-fi landscapes and concepts, watching smart people talk at length about smart, confusing things or just bathing in Matthew McConaughey's charm and you don't mind parting with three hours to do so, "Interstellar" is worth seeing. And it's worth seeing in theaters, if for no other reason than for the sheer spectacle of it all. But spectacle doesn't always translate into re-watchability. Even as a fanboy, I'm not sure how often I'll revisit this one at home.

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