Christopher Nolan shoots for the Oscars with ‘Interstellar’

| November 8, 2014

Christopher Nolan has created quite the name for himself over the last 16 years writing and directing films that range from low budget black and white thrillers to large scale comic book epics that have broken the billion dollar box office mark. Nolan has applied his signature style to original works as well as adaptations and often collaborates with his brother Jonathan when it comes to the writing half of his career. Interstellar is the latest outing for this duo coming from a script that was previously written by Jonathan Nolan before being melded with another original idea crafted by his older brother. While Christopher Nolan is no stranger to large scale films and borderline fantasy or sci-fi concepts, nothing in his filmography to date matches the scale or ambition that Interstellar brings with it. With a stellar cast and serviceable marketing campaign, it appears as if Nolan is making his first real attempt at awards season attention with this space epic.

Interstellar is the story of Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, a widowed farmer raising his son and daughter along with the help of his father in law Donald played by Jonathan Lithgow. Cooper was once a pilot for NASA as seen through flashbacks but was relegated to a more blue collar position after a blight affects the entire earth and forces all resources to be reapplied. A freak occurrence caused by one of the common dust storms leads Cooper and his daughter Murphy into the night as they follow GPS coordinates to a locked compound that ends up being NASA’s hidden headquarters. After a whirlwind of conversations and being reunited with a past professor, Cooper is enlisted to pilot a manned mission through a newly discovered wormhole in order to find a suitable home for the human race as Earth can no longer sustain life.

The first act of Interstellar and all of its introductions fly by which is both good and bad at the same time. While I would love to spend a little more time on Earth with Coop and his family, I can’t say that I’m terribly upset at how quickly this film leaves the atmosphere. This part of the film introduces the audience to the rest of the cast including Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck and Matt Damon to name a few. Without even including the entire cast in this film it may seem that there are a lot of characters to juggle at once but given Interstellar’s nearly three hour run time, there is room enough for everyone to breathe as much as Nolan wants them to, which is important to remember. Certain characters are given zero arch and only serve the purpose of propelling the plot forward for as long as necessary and are then discarded or lost. This is no judgment on the performances of these actors as I cannot think of a single performance that could be called less than serviceable.

The most powerful performances come from McConaughey which is to be expected given his leading role but he is almost equally matched by Mackenzie Foy who plays the younger version of his daughter. Even with Coop removed from the planet entirely so early on, one the main threads from beginning to end is his relationship with his children and more specifically his daughter. This provides plenty of opportunities for Foy and Chastain to chew some scenery playing the younger and older versions of Murph. Chastain is able to juxtapose Foy’s performance as a daughter who struggles with the abandonment brought on by her father leaving the galaxy to save the human race whereas Foy is the juvenile daughter who only wants her father to stay. Affleck attempts to match this as the son who grew up to continue his father’s farm but is given much less to work with.

Interstellar really ramps up when Cooper and his crew make it into space. This is where the tone starts to shift and the spectacle begins as time and its relativity starts to bend and different worlds enter the frame. This film is told in a nonlinear way but not in the traditional sense. Nolan intercuts back and forth between the mission and how his family on earth are working to fight off the effects of the blight which skews time considerable. These different locations are shown to the audience as if the events are occurring simultaneously but the time that passes once the wormhole has been reached is dramatically slower than that of Earth. This is one of the few elements that while not necessarily scientifically proven is definitely grounded in hard science fiction. Nolan uses his version of reality to expand the scale and spectacle beyond any of his previous films and in just as understated a way as his earlier works. Every major special effects shot is done with a light touch and is used to progress the story and plot rather than just providing a great shot for the trailer.

All of these factors combined result in a very well paced film that builds tension throughout the first two acts even through a fairly major tonal change from standard sci-fi exploration film to intergalactic thriller and race against the clock. All of this leads to a third act that I in no way saw coming and will almost certainly draw comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in a great way. The bending of reality and science as we know it is stretched to its limit in order to wrap up the conflict introduced in the second act but Nolan’s light touch and finesse allows prevents it from ever reaching the ridiculous. While Interstellar may not reach the level of Oscar buzz that some of the folks involved had hoped, it is sure to exceed the expectations of any audience who has the patience to engage their brain for three hours or so. Much like the previously mention 2001, I see Interstellar benefiting from multiple viewings and triggering conversations and debates for years to come. In some ways this met none of my expectations as a Christopher Nolan film but in others it exceeded expectations I never knew I should have.

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