Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s visually astonishing and mind-bending science-fiction epic, is an overwhelming experience. At least it was for me when I saw it on an IMAX screen, and it continues to be every single time I pop in the Blu-ray or watch it on HBO. It’s a $165 million anti-blockbuster that was based on an original idea, one that never felt like a pre-determined or manufactured “product” that was eager to sell toys and video games and lunchboxes and sequels and TV-spin-offs. There’s no “made by committee” feeling here, and I applaud the fact that it offers the audience very little in the way of traditionally overt “fun,” instead placing an enormous emphasis on ideas, grim reality, hard-science, and hypothetical thought, while still telling an intimate and emotionally gripping story that’s relatable, honest, and impactful. Nolan, often labeled cold and humorless by his critics, has made his wittiest, most heartfelt movie yet with Interstellar, and it’s in his expert and patient blending of the earth-bound dramatics and the cosmic life or death stakes that an enormously involving story is crafted.
Anchored by an immensely appealing and dead-serious movie-star performance from Matthew McConaughey, (the sort of role Tom Cruise would’ve been asked to do 10-15 years ago), playing a test-pilot who agrees to navigate an experimental space shuttle into a black hole, leaving behind his children, unsure of whether or not he’ll ever return, all in an effort to find a new and habitable planet for the citizens of Earth, as our resources are fast depleting. Interstellar takes its time but never feels its length (it’s close to three hours), allowing the first, emotionally fragile act on earth to breathe and take shape before we blast off and out of our solar system. The child actress Mackenzie Foy was sensational as McConaughey’s despairing daughter, and the waves of emotion that hit her face are amazing to observe. After a brilliant jump-cut from the back of a speeding pick-up truck to the fiery rocket engines of a shuttle, we’re in the vast reaches of space, heading for Saturn and beyond, with wormholes and black holes and new dimensions and galaxies to explore.
The years pass on earth rapidly with time progressing ever more slowly for the astronauts, and as we watch McConaughey at the film’s half-way point watch and listen to video messages from his children that have been recorded throughout the years, the vastness of this story begins to dawn on you, and it’ll be impossible not to be moved by McConaughey’s sad and honest reactions to what he’s witnessing. To be honest, the less that’s spoiled about this trickily involving narrative the better, because as with all of Nolan films, there’s layer upon layer that will be open for dissection, interpretation and surprise. There are shades of 2001, The Right Stuff, Contact, and Primer felt throughout, but Interstellar is definitely its own thing, operating on a massive canvass and utilizing top-flight craft contributions from everyone in the ace crew. The jaw-dropping cinematography is by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Let the Right One In) and each shot is worthy of the pause button, with the IMAX format allowing for some incredible vistas. The flawless and seamless digital effects are used to propel the story, not as a lazy crutch, but the most impressive aspect to Interstellar may just be how much was done practically and in-camera.
Again, no spoilers, but this is an intensely beautiful movie at times, with images that will simultaneously thrill and haunt the viewer, and I’d suspect filmmakers like Jonathan Glazer and Terrence Malick went bananas for this otherworldly trip. But most importantly, as a filmmaker, Nolan seems incapable of not engaging his audience on a cerebral level every time he gets behind the camera. The last 30 minutes are as trippy as it’s going to get for big-budget cinema, with the narrative constantly coming around on itself again and again. The wormhole and black-hole segments are special effects cinema at its most bravura, literally taking you to places that you will never, ever see with your own eyes. Hans Zimmer’s magisterial score was one for the ages, possibly the greatest of his already legendary career. Multiple viewings of Interstellar have only reinforced how I felt after my first screening – this is Nolan’s grandest effort to date, and if The Prestige still remains my absolute favorite film made by this classy and sophisticated filmmaker, I’m simply in awe of all of the various moving parts that consist to Interstellar. And it goes without saying that I’m beyond ready to see his WWII film, Dunkirk, which hits theaters in two weeks.