Interstellar confirms beyond all doubt that there is no blockbuster filmmaker working today who is more ambitious than Christopher Nolan. An almost three-hour space epic that combines the theoretical physics of Kip Thorne, cutting-edge visual effects, a dynamite cast led by Matthew McConaughey and a deeply personal, emotional core concerned with the transcendent power of love, Interstellar is a striking anomaly.
It’s certainly the most far-reaching work by a mainstream director since the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas and may well bear comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (one of the many films Nolan openly cited as an influence). Its story is a jaw-droppingly enthusiastic one, spanning generations and pushing into the further reaches of the universe even as it attempts to tell the much more intimate tale of how one father’s love for his daughter can cut across all of time and space.
Interstellar is also, perhaps unavoidably given its goals, a bit of a mess, a movie that takes almost an hour to get moving and that takes wormhole-sized shortcuts in order to keep both astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, both wonderfully understated and commanding) and his brilliant daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, all heartbreaking terror, then Jessica Chastain, less convincing) central to a story that threatens to engulf them at every moment.
To try to describe the sprawl of Interstellar could fill the next few paragraphs, but suffice to say that no one other than Nolan (working from a complex, convoluted and sometimes clunky script from his brother, Jonathan) would be crazy enough to make a movie so undeniably big. This is a film that wants to sketch one human’s indefatigable drive to survive against an immeasurable canvas, that undertakes a rollicking adventure through black holes to alien landscapes while still anchoring its story with a very small-scale bond between two people the cruelty of necessity has kept light-years apart. Nolan seems to mimic both Kubrick, who dared us all to dream a little bigger in our vision of the universe’s vast expanses, and Steven Spielberg, for whom no amount of thought-provoking odyssey could outweigh the ascendency of the human heart. And in his laboring to do right by both masters, Nolan winds up split down the middle.
There’s a good scene in which Murphy, having grown up after Cooper’s depature and working to solve the equation of gravity that would let space stations be launched from Earth, realizes that her mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has never considered a key possibility about one of the equation’s components – that time may not be outside the realm of manipulation. “Are you ridiculing my life’s work?” He asks. “No,” comes her reply. “I’m saying that you’ve been trying to finish it with one arm, no, with both arms tied behind your back. And I don’t understand why.” Interstellar feels a lot like that, its director and scribe both shackled to the Hallmark-worthy sentiment that, in the end, all you need is love. Seriously – Hans Zimmer scores the film with ear-splitting force, seemingly seated before the universe’s largest pipe organ, but the Beatles may have been a more thematically appropriate choice.
For science-fiction lovers, then, Interstellar may fall a little short of expectation. For as much physical ground as its explorers traverse, the cosmic speculation is more often than not muted in favor of humbler emotional resonance. That’s a real shame, because so much about Interstellar works that the film feels damnably close to putting its myriad pieces together. Visually, it’s more accomplished than any other film that came out in 2014, furnishing countless, framable images of heart-stopping grandeur. Narratively, it reaches for the stars, and that ambition is almost commendable enough to overlook the hokey contrivances and dull conversations that constitute most of the bridge-too-far final act. Almost. And emotionally, as disappointingly grounded as this space epic is, one can begrudge that its heart is in the right place. It’s in the mingling of all these ingredients that both Nolans fail.
Length be damned, Interstellar‘s goals are so lofty that, was the film as compelling as it should have been, viewers would have gladly sat through another hour without complaint. Instead, it peddles out the same Dylan Thomas poem (you know the one) again and again in place of any meaningful philosophy, succumbs to the hoo-hah idea of one plucky explorer moving heaven and earth through sheer willpower, and ties everything up in an insultingly tidy manner for a film that’s meant to explore the universe’s infinite, unknowable complexities. With Interstellar, Nolan boldly went where few directors have dared to go before – but there’s no escaping how unfortunate it is that he did so with both arms tied behind his back.
On Blu-Ray, Interstellar is a stunning experience. The 1080p transfer smooths over transitions between widescreen and IMAX scenes, and its grasp on crystal-clear image is superb. There are shots in Interstellar, both the sweeping ones of deep space and smaller ones of Midwest corn fields, and that’s a tribute to the excellence of Nolan’s direction and Hoyte van Hoytema’s visionary cinematography. Black levels are appropriately inky and absorbing in the space-set scenes, and flesh tones are generally accurate and convincing, if occasionally a little oversaturated. The level of detail, though, is incredible, from minute crinkles on Cooper’s space suit to highly textured landscapes on foreign planets. It’s hard to fault a transfer that dazzles as frequently as Interstellar‘s.
It strikes this reviewer as somewhat odd that a 7.1 track wasn’t enlisted for this often deafening movie, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack provided on the Blu-Ray is stellar as well, pulling the viewer into a maelstrom of sound, from the crisp dialogue to the heart-stopping heights of Hans Zimmer’s ginormous score to the quieter buzzing of the spacecraft. The music is intentionally overwhelming, sometimes drowning out dialogue, so people who took issue with that when Interstellar was in theaters won’t find much respite on the Blu-Ray, but that quibble aside, Interstellar juggles a staggering amount of sound with skill and elegance.
The Interstellar Blu-Ray offers a host of extras. There’s a DVD copy, a UV/iTunes/Google Play digital copy and a collectible IMAX film cell included in the release, but in terms of actual special features, we’ve got:
- The Science of Interstellar (50:20)
- Inside Interstellar: Plotting an Interstellar Journey: (7:49)
- Inside Interstellar: Life on Cooper’s Farm (9:43)
- Inside Interstellar: The Dust (2:38)
- Inside Interstellar: Tars and Case (9:27)
- Inside Interstellar: The Cosmic Sounds of Interstellar (1:20)
- Inside Interstellar: The Space Suits (4:31)
- Inside Interstellar: The Endurance (9:24)
- Inside Interstellar: Shooting in Iceland: Miller’s Planet/Mann’s Planet (12:42)
- Inside Interstellar: The Ranger and the Lander (12:20)
- Inside Interstellar: Miniatures in Space (5:29)
- Inside Interstellar: The Simulation of Zero-G (5:31)
- Inside Interstellar: Celestial Landmarks (13:22)
- Inside Interstellar: Across All Dimensions and Time (9:02)
- Inside Interstellar: Final Thoughts (6:02)
Paramount didn’t skimp on the bonus features here. The must-watch is definitely “The Science of Interstellar,” narrated by Matthew McConaughey, which looks at how the film attempted to include a huge amount of real scientific research in its plot, from wormholes and black holes to which planets could theoretically support life if Earth became uninhabitable. It’s a mini-doc of sorts, slickly assembled and constantly engaging.
Otherwise, “Inside Interstellar” tackles just about every topic related to the film imaginable, from conception to filming to the development of various characters, including the non-human ones. This was a titanic undertaking for all involved, and the featurettes make sure to communciate that.
All in all, Interstellar is a frustratingly flawed film that reaches for the stars and doesn’t quite get there. Watching it try, though, is often mesmerizing, and on an audiovisual level, Interstellar is the most flooring cinematic experience of 2014. It’s so disappointing that the plot gets its focus confused and winds up lost in space. This was a film that could have said something meaningful about space travel, our place in the universe and the future of interstellar exploration. Instead, it settles for cheesy, Hallmark-esque melodrama that essentially bubbles all of human endeavor down to one human’s love for his daughter. That love is the strongest force in the universe may be a sweet notion, it’s not the one that science-fiction lovers had hoped Nolan would pursue in a film of this scale and scope. For a space epic, Interstellar is far too often earthbound.
Interstellar is a frustratingly flawed film that reaches for the stars but winds up lost in space, so weighed down by the earthbound tale of one father's love for his daughter that it never gets to fully explore any grand ideas about the universe and our place within it.