Interstellar ★★★½

Interstellar represents my most anticipated movie of 2014. Christopher Nolan is my favorite filmmaker. His original stories, beautiful effects, excellent scripts, and complex stories entertain me and provide ample food for thought. Needless to say, my expectations for Interstellar were through the stratosphere. Partly because of these unattainable expectations, Interstellar wasn’t the tour de force I anticipated.

This Nolan film follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an engineer and pilot turned farmer. Why would Cooper, the father of two children, become a farmer? Simply, because the earth needs farmers. Interstellar is set sometime in the near future (although Nolan never says exactly when), when the earth experiences blights so devastating that the armies have disbanded. It’s all about survival now. Despite his new vocation, Cooper retains the intelligence and curiosity of an educated man. This leads him to discover a secret, underground NASA tasked with finding a new home for mankind amongst the stars. After much soul-searching, Cooper decides to pilot the spacecraft used for this expedition, although he may never return home.

One of the most universal draws of Interstellar is McConaughey as Cooper. In the midst of the Mcconaissance, he delivers an outstanding, emotional performance. I have not seen many of McConaughey’s movies, especially his recent ones, but this must rank as one of his best performances. He brings an everyman quality necessary to Cooper. In addition, McConaughey showcases his ability to express emotion. In a scene that brought tears to my eyes during both viewings, audiences watch as McConaughey breaks down while watching years of backlogged videos from his children. Even though I am not a father, McConaughey portrays the turmoil he feels so believably I empathize with him.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the rest of the cast. Most of the other characters are one-dimensional, possessing only a few traits or facts about them. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), for example, probably represents the second or third most featured character in the movie. Even so, all audiences learn of her for most of the film is that she is a scientist and the daughter of Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Granted, these two details naturally have a few implications, and viewers do learn a little more about her from her actions, but she still seems like a thin character. Aside from Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn at the different ages of her life) and TARS (Bill Irwin), the rest of the cast receives even less characterization than Brand. This inhibits the audiences’ ability to identify and sympathize with these people because they know so little about them.

Like the characters, the story needed some more details. Critics, such as Josh Larsen, sometimes complain about the abundance of explaining in Interstellar. I do not think Interstellar contains too much exposition, but rather I think it would have benefitted from more. Some characters come from nowhere to play a part in the story. Murph’s friend Getty (Topher Grace) simply appears with no backstory, no information, but he plays an integral part in the plot. Several other characters appear in this immediate way, such as the two other astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). The result of these unexplained characters is another instance where moviegoers cannot sympathize with these people because they know almost nothing about them, and viewers feel distracted attempting to deduce who these new players are.

An area of the movie that included the perfect amount of details was Hans Zimmer’s score. Zimmer remains my favorite composer, narrowly edging out the legendary John Williams. For Interstellar he created one of his most original scores to date. It sounds unlike anything I’ve heard from him before. This versatile score produces a pounding heart, goose bumps, and a sense of dread in this reviewer. It’s also moving, only increasing the possibility of tears in some of the emotional scenes. That being said, this represents probably the least memorable Hans Zimmer score I’ve heard. I won’t find myself humming the various tunes from this soundtrack like I do the songs from Pirates of the Caribbean or The Dark Knight, except the oft-repeated motif music heard as water dropping in the “Mountains” track and in its unadulterated version in “No Time for Caution.” Nevertheless, I believe music in a movie should convey meaning or enhance emotion, and Zimmer’s score certainly achieves both of those goals.

Even with Zimmer’s superb score, the star of Interstellar remains the breathtaking visuals. Nolan, known for eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects, delivers some beautiful effects in this movie. The robots, TARS and CASE, seemed real because the filmmakers created them, with practical effects. The spaceships felt somewhat sterile, powerful, and futuristic, like a spaceship should. The special effects people created exactly what I envision when I think about long-distance spaceships in the Endurance, the spinning craft the explorers use to traverse from planet to planet. Nolan even took his crew all the way to Iceland to film some of the scenes, such as those on Miller’s planet, and this on location set, instead of a CGI one, also makes the movie feel more real.

These practical effects, however amazing, cannot stand against the few times Nolan decides to use CGI. The colossal tidal waves that roam Miller’s planet remain some of my favorite shots from 2014. These towering tsunamis look beautiful, yet threatening. Gargantua, the black hole with gravity so powerful it slows time, ranks near the top with these waves. The establishing shots when audiences see the black hole in all its terrifying glory are simply breathtaking.

In a rare twist, however, I actually think Nolan should have used more CGI in Interstellar. I often complain about the CGIfication of movies, but another handful of CGI shots, especially establishing shots (which show the audience the surrounding area), would have helped Interstellar. Presumably in the interest of minimizing the use of CGI, Nolan gives viewers very few establishing shots of key sets, such as the Endurance. This results in a confusion about logistics, especially in the climatic sequence. In both viewings, I could not deduce which portion of the ship Cooper was piloting until he said it. This confusion takes the audiences out of the movie some, as they attempt to understand where all the people are in the physical space of the movie. This proves that, sometimes, CGI is beneficial to a film.

In totality, Interstellar represents a middling Nolan film. The thin characters and confusion stemming from the paucity of CGI establishing shots removed me from the action onscreen. In every prior Nolan film, he managed to wholly transplant me into the world of the movie, but these flaws prevented that in Interstellar. Still, Interstellar remains very much a Nolan movie. It includes a stellar performance from McConaughey, an excellent score, and beautiful, often practical, visuals. In vintage Nolan style, it also includes a movie-altering twist that exemplifies what a surprise development should accomplish (for more on that check out my review of A Beautiful Mind). Most importantly, even though it represents a middling Nolan effort, Interstellar is still a Nolan movie, and Nolan, even at his most mediocre as in Interstellar, still makes better movies than most filmmakers working today.

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