I haven’t seen plain old Interstellar yet. But I did attend Interstellar: The Imax Experience, which is likely a different animal than the non-Imax version. Seeing—and hearing—the film in this format was as close to sampling Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk as I may ever come. My Imax theater is one of only four in New York State (all the others being in New York City or close by) that display the film in 70mm film, a treat that I may not get to experience again in cinema’s ever-growing preference for digital. The theater also features deafening and seat-shaking sound that had its advantages and shortcomings.
Interstellar has been the most anticipated film of the year, and there is nothing out there that looks or sounds like it. We need films like this to remind us of what far-reaching filmmaking can be and can look like, even if its reach exceeds its grasp, which is the case here. Director Christopher Nolan can be thanked both for helping to keep actual film around as well as reminding us that the convenience of viewing a movie on an iPhone doesn’t come close to seeing them on the big screen.
Interstellar’s images are breathtaking, and the film takes us to worlds—indeed, immerses us in worlds—that only film can bring us to. On earth and “out there”—these places must be allowed to envelop, even overwhelm us, with their power. This may be the “biggest” film many of us will ever see, and that deserves a respect all its own.
It’s far from perfect, however, with some miscasting, script weaknesses, and for this viewer, a philosophical letdown. But first the high points: Matthew McConaughey, who has the lead role of Cooper, has become one of our most accomplished young actors, finally fulfilling the promises some of us saw in A Time to Kill. This performance doesn’t have the “throw me the Oscar now” pull of something like what he did in Dallas Buyers Club. But he is every bit as good here, playing a more relatable widow and father and reluctant hero. The film sinks or swims on his shoulders, and he carries it deftly from beginning to end. It’s a rich and sensitive performance.
Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph (Cooper’s daughter at a young age) bears a great deal of the film’s narrative and emotional weight, and is somewhere between very good and excellent. She is an exciting young talent that has a major career ahead of her. As her grandfather, John Lithgow, as always, is reliably solid.
Where the film loses focus is with the miscast Anne Hathaway, who apparently can’t quite do everything after all. She tries very hard, and she manages to keep the film on track at times when the script offers her no help. But she seems to belong to another film, or at least not in this film or this genre. It’s unfortunate that her part is so big, as while it’s not a film-killer, it’s something of a distraction and a drag throughout the film.
The other main actress who should perhaps have had Hathaway’s larger role is the inestimable Jessica Chastain, who seems that she perhaps can do anything—even to the point of making us believe the often ridiculous challenges thrown her way by the script. Chastain plays Cooper’s grown-up daughter, and hits her emotional notes with clarity and credibility. What the script would have us believe is that this brilliant and gifted woman, who is apparently capable of saving the human race, can’t manage to get over her daddy issues when daddy went out to save the human race. As someone who counsels people, I realize quite well that adults often carry emotional baggage from their youth that they haven’t yet jettisoned. But it was hard to believe that this accomplished woman hadn’t made more progress than the film asks us to accept. Yet Chastain takes even the script’s weaknesses, internalizes them, and presents us with as realistic a portrait of an emotionally constricted adult as could be possible. [Spoiler ahead.] It’s ironic that while the film is filled with Oscar winners like McConaughey, Hathaway, and, uh, others, the greatest actor in the film is Chastain, who simply hasn’t won hers yet.
A surprising strength of the film is its speed. With nearly a three-hour span, one might expect a film with slow or dry stretches. That was not my experience. The film moved along quickly, with quick cuts that moved many actions along with enviable precision and speed. Where the film falters is near the end, where Nolan goes all Inception on the plot, taking us out of his carefully constructed grounded realism and tries for a kind of head-banging finale. For some, this will work.
For me, this was the greatest letdown of the film. A not surprising one, but a letdown nonetheless. [Sorry—another spoiler ahead.] The film makes several references to a mysterious “they,” who contribute to the survival of our species, with various helps and provisions along the journey to survival. But the supposed big reveal is that this “they” is simply… us. We’re the ones who figured it out. We’re the ones who laid down the trail of bread crumbs for the future/past explorers to find. The film would have been smaller but tighter if “they” had been dropped, and if the big head-slammer at the end had simply been replaced by an action sequence without the philosophizing, especially this one that seemed to go for the wow, but came off rather limp instead.
The music of the film, scored by Hans Zimmer, has been criticized for overpowering the dialogue at times. Again, not being sure of the non-Imax viewing, it may well have competed with the words in that format, creating the occasional uncomfortable tension and distraction. In the Imax version, the sound often shook the theater and it certainly drowned out the dialogue here and there. But it lifted the film to a new experiential place of sound and image that only sporadically bordered on the pretentious. Yes, it could be overwhelming. But it created something new, enveloping and stimulating. As with Nolan, Zimmer might have reached too far, but we have to acknowledge and pay some homage to the reach attempted here.
Some feel that Interstellar is Nolan’s masterpiece. Time may prove that it might well be, in spite of its weaknesses. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious films one could ever see/experience. For that alone, it should be viewed, and only in the largest format available.