Since we're discussing them in another thread, here are the trade reviews. They cover a fairly wide range of reaction.
Chief Film Critic @foundasonfilm
To infinity and beyond goes “Interstellar,” an exhilarating slalom through the wormholes of Christopher Nolan’s vast imagination that is at once a science-geek fever dream and a formidable consideration of what makes us human. As visually and conceptually audacious as anything Nolan has yet done, the director’s ninth feature also proves more emotionally accessible than his coolly cerebral thrillers and Batman movies, touching on such eternal themes as the sacrifices parents make for their children (and vice versa) and the world we will leave for the next generation to inherit. An enormous undertaking that, like all the director’s best work, manages to feel handcrafted and intensely personal, “Interstellar” reaffirms Nolan as the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation, more than earning its place alongside “The Wizard of Oz,” “2001,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Gravity” in the canon of Hollywood’s visionary sci-fi head trips. Global box office returns should prove suitably rocket-powered.
We begin somewhere in the American farm belt, which Nolan evokes for its full mythic grandeur — blazing sunlight, towering corn stalks, whirring combines. But it soon becomes clear that this would-be field of dreams is something closer to a nightmare. The date is an unspecified point in the near future, close enough to look and feel like tomorrow, yet far enough for a number of radical changes to have taken hold in society. A decade on from a period of widespread famine, the world’s armies have been disbanded and the cutting-edge technocracies of the early 21st century have regressed into more utilitarian, farm-based economies.
“We’re a caretaker generation,” notes one such homesteader (John Lithgow) to his widower son-in-law, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA test pilot who hasn’t stopped dreaming of flight, for himself and for his children: 15-year-old son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and 10-year-old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), the latter a precocious tot first seen getting suspended from school for daring to suggest that the Apollo space missions actually happened. “We used to look up in the sky and wonder about our place in the stars,” Cooper muses. “Now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”
And oh, what dirt! As “Interstellar” opens, the world — or at least Cooper’s Steinbeckian corner of it — sits on the cusp of a second Dust Bowl, ravaged by an epidemic of crop blight, a silt-like haze hanging permanently in the air. (Some of this scene-setting is accomplished via pseudo-documentary interviews with the elderly residents of some more distant future reflecting on their hardscrabble childhoods, which Nolan films like the “witness” segments from Warren Beatty’s “Reds.”) And as the crops die, so the Earth’s atmosphere becomes richer in nitrogen and poorer in oxygen, until the time when global starvation will give way to global asphyxiation.
But all hope is not lost. NASA (whose massive real-life budget cuts lend the movie added immediacy) still exists in this agrarian dystopia, but it’s gone off the grid, far from the microscope of public opinion. There, the brilliant physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine, forever the face of avuncular wisdom in Nolan’s films) and his dedicated team have devised two scenarios for saving mankind. Both plans involve abandoning Earth and starting over on a new, life-sustaining planet, but only one includes taking Earth’s current 6-billion-plus population along for the ride. Doing the latter, it seems, depends on Brand’s ability to solve an epic math problem that would explain how such a large-capacity vessel could surmount Earth’s gravitational forces. (Never discussed in this egalitarian society: a scenario in which only the privileged few could escape, a la the decadent bourgeoisie of Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium.”)
Many years earlier, Brand informs, a mysterious space-time rift (or wormhole) appeared in the vicinity of Saturn, seemingly placed there, like the monoliths of “2001,” by some higher intelligence. On the other side: another galaxy containing a dozen planets that might be fit for human habitation. In the wake of the food wars, a team of intrepid NASA scientists traveled there in search of solutions. Now, a decade later (in Earth years, that is), Brand has organized another mission to check up on the three planets that seem the most promising for human settlement. And to pilot the ship, he needs Cooper, an instinctive flight jockey in the Chuck Yeager mode, much as McConaughey’s laconic, effortlessly self-assured performance recalls Sam Shepard’s as Yeager in “The Right Stuff” (another obvious “Interstellar” touchstone).
Already by this point — and we have not yet left the Earth’s surface — “Interstellar” (which Nolan co-wrote with his brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan) has hurled a fair amount of theoretical physics at the audience, including discussions of black holes, gravitational singularities and the possibility of extra-dimensional space. And, as with the twisty chronologies and unreliable narrators of his earlier films, Nolan trusts in the audience’s ability to get the gist and follow along, even if it doesn’t glean every last nuance on a first viewing. It’s hard to think of a mainstream Hollywood film that has so successfully translated complex mathematical and scientific ideas to a lay audience (though Shane Carruth’s ingenious 2004 Sundance winner “Primer” — another movie concerned with overcoming the problem of gravity — tried something similar on a micro-budget indie scale), or done so in more vivid, immediate human terms. (Some credit for this is doubtless owed to the veteran CalTech physicist Kip Thorne, who consulted with the Nolans on the script and receives an executive producer credit.)
The mission itself is a relatively intimate affair, comprised of Cooper, Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other researchers (Wes Bentley and the excellent David Gyasi) and a chatty, sarcastic, ex-military security robot called TARS (brilliantly voiced by Bill Irwin in a sly nod to Douglas Rain’s iconic HAL 9000), which looks like a walking easel but proves surprisingly agile when the going gets tough. And from there, “Interstellar” has so many wonderful surprises in store — from casting choices to narrative twists and reversals — that the less said about it the better. (Indeed, if you really don’t want to know anything more, read no further.)
It gives nothing away, however, to say that Nolan maps his infinite celestial landscape as majestically as he did the continent-hopping earthbound ones of “The Prestige” and “Batman Begins,” or the multi-tiered memory maze of “Inception.” The imagery, modeled by Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema on Imax documentaries like “Space Station” and “Hubble 3D,” suggests a boundless inky blackness punctuated by ravishing bursts of light, the tiny spaceship Endurance gleaming like a diamond against Saturn’s great, gaseous rings, then ricocheting like a pinball through the wormhole’s shimmering plasmic vortex.
With each stop the Endurance makes, Nolan envisions yet another new world: one planet a watery expanse with waves that make Waimea Bay look like a giant bathtub; another an ice climber’s playground of frozen tundra and sheer-faced descents. Moreover, outer space allows Nolan to bend and twist his favorite subject — time — into remarkable new permutations. Where most prior Nolan protagonists were forever grasping at an irretrievable past, the crew of the Endurance races against a ticking clock that happens to tick differently depending on your particular vantage. New worlds mean new gravitational forces, so that for every hour spent on a given planet’s surface, years or even entire decades may be passing back on Earth. (Time as a flat circle, indeed.)
This leads to an extraordinary mid-film emotional climax in which Cooper and Brand return from one such expedition to discover that 23 earth years have passed in the blink of an eye, represented by two decades’ worth of stockpiled video messages from loved ones, including the now-adult Tom (a bearded, brooding Casey Affleck) and Murphy (Jessica Chastain in dogged, persistent “Zero Dark Thirty” mode). It’s a scene Nolan stages mostly in closeup on McConaughey, and the actor plays it beautifully, his face a quicksilver mask of joy, regret and unbearable grief.
That moment signals a shift in “Interstellar” itself from the relatively euphoric, adventurous tone of the first half toward darker, more ambiguous terrain — the human shadow areas, if you will, that are as difficult to fully glimpse as the inside of a black hole. Nolan, who has always excelled at the slow reveal, catches even the attentive viewer off guard more than once here, but never in a way that feels cheap or compromises the complex motivations of the characters.
On the one hand, the movie marvels at the brave men and women throughout history who have dedicated themselves, often at great peril, to the greater good of mankind. On the other, because Nolan is a psychological realist, he’s acutely aware of the toil such lives may take on those who choose to lead them, and that even “the best of us” (as one character is repeatedly described) might not be immune from cowardice and moral compromise. Some people lie to themselves and to their closest confidants in “Interstellar,” and Nolan understands that everyone has his reasons. Others compensate by making the most selfless of sacrifices. Perhaps the only thing trickier than quantum physics, the movie argues, is the nature of human emotion.
Nolan stages one thrilling setpiece after another, including several hairsbreadth escapes and a dazzling space-docking sequence in which the entire theater seems to become one large centrifuge; the nearly three-hour running time passes unnoticed. Even more thrilling is the movie’s ultimate vision of a universe in which the face of extraterrestrial life bears a surprisingly familiar countenance. “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” harks the good Professor Brand at the start of the Endurance’s journey, quoting the melancholic Welshman Dylan Thomas. And yet “Interstellar” is finally a film suffused with light and boundless possibilities — those of the universe itself, of the wonder in a child’s twinkling eyes, and of movies to translate all that into spectacular picture shows like this one.
It’s hardly surprising that “Interstellar” reps the very best big-budget Hollywood craftsmanship at every level, from veteran Nolan collaborators like production designer Nathan Crowley (who built the film’s lyrical vision of the big-sky American heartland on location in Alberta) and sound designer/editor Richard King, who makes wonderfully dissonant contrasts between the movie’s interior spaces and the airless silence of space itself. Vfx supervisor Paul Franklin (an Oscar winner for his work on “Inception”) again brings a vivid tactility to all of the film’s effects, especially the robotic TARS, who seamlessly inhabits the same physical spaces as the human actors. Hans Zimmer contributes one of his most richly imagined and inventive scores, which ranges from a gentle electronic keyboard melody to brassy, Strauss-ian crescendos. Shot and post-produced by Nolan entirely on celluloid (in a mix of 35mm and 70mm stocks), “Interstellar” begs to be seen on the large-format Imax screen, where its dense, inimitably filmic textures and multiple aspect ratios can be experienced to their fullest effect.
The Bottom Line
A grandly conceived epic that engrosses but never quite soars
Preoccupied with nothing less than the notion that humankind will one day need to migrate from Earth to some other planet we can call home, Interstellar so bulges with ideas, ambitions, theories, melodrama, technical wizardry, wondrous imagery and core emotions that it was almost inevitable that some of it would stick while other stuff would fall to the floor. Feeling very much like Christopher Nolan's personal response to his favorite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, this grandly conceived and executed epic tries to give equal weight to intimate human emotions and speculation about the cosmos, with mixed results, but is never less than engrossing, and sometimes more than that.
Critical and public reaction will range across the horizon, from the mesmeric to outright rejection for arguably hokey contrivances. But it is certainly some kind of event, one that Paramount, domestically, and Warner Bros., overseas, will massively promote as a hoped-for must-see for audiences everywhere.
While it technically occupies the realm of science fiction, this gargantuan enterprise brushes up against science fact—or at least intelligent speculation—as much as it can in an effort to make the idea of leaving and returning to our solar system as dramatically plausible as possible. But audiences tend to be accepting of even far-fetched premises as long as the rules of the game are clear. Where Nolan takes his big leap is in trying to invest his wannabe magnum opus with an elemental human emotion, that between parent and child; it's a genre graft that has intriguing wrinkles but remains imperfect.
Citizens of the world convinced that our planet and civilization are now in a possibly irreversible decline will readily embrace the postulation of the script, by the Nolan brothers Jonathan and Christopher, that life here will shortly be unsustainable. Shrewdly, the writers don't reflexively blame the deterioration on the catch-all “global warming” or “climate change,” but rather upon severe “blight” resembling the Dust Bowl of the 1930s; wheat and other produce are done for, while corn growers, such as Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), may have a bit of time left.
Cooper belongs to a lost generation; a former engineer and test pilot, he expected to become an astronaut, but dire economic conditions forced the closure of NASA and the abandonment of the space program. His precocious 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) shares her father's long-ago enthusiasm and one of the wittier scenes has an elementary school official reprimanding Murph for believing that the Apollo moon missions actually took place; history has been rewritten to insist that they were just propaganda designed to speed the bankrupting of the Soviet Union in its effort to compete (Nolan restrains himself from adding the canard that Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake moon landing).
There are echoes as well of The Wizard of Oz emanating from Cooper's remote farmhouse, which he shares with his 15-year-old son Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and Donald (John Lithgow), his late wife's father. All the same, any fantasies of escape to a better place cannot be indulged — as Cooper laments, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt.”
But, lo and behold, NASA exists after all; it's just gone underground. Under the auspices of wise old Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the agency is secretly resurrecting its efforts to find a new home for Earthlings, with the suitably named Lazarus mission. The path to it, Brand explains, is through a wormhole visible near Saturn, and plenty of technical dialogue and physical demonstrations are devoted to detailing how the astronauts will slip through this envelope in space and emerge in a different galaxy near another planet that might support life as we know it (eminent theoretical physicist Kip Thorne receives executive producer credit for his contributions to this and other astronomical aspects of the story).
Cooper cannot resist the invitation to pilot this secret mission, but the angst of having to leave his family behind, specifically Murph, gives him the emotional bends. ”I'm coming back,” he gravely intones, echoing The Terminator, but even if he does return, it seems that, on the other side, he and his crew will age at just a fraction of the rate that Earthlings do at home. Murph is inconsolable and single-mindedly remains so for years.
Nolan employs a nifty little homage to 2001 at the 43-minute mark with an abrupt time-jumping cut from Cooper's pickup truck speeding away from his house to the fiery blast-off of his rocket. Other editing ploys emphasize the complete silence of outer space, which provide a sharp contrast to a soundtrack otherwise filled with lots of talk and Hans Zimmer's often soaring, sometimes domineering and unconventionally orchestrated wall-of-sound score.
The small crew also consists of Brand's oddly guarded scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), thoughtful astrophysicist Romilly (David Gyasi, in an intriguingly underplayed performance that makes you wish he had more to do), insufficiently written scientist and co-pilot Doyle (Wes Bentley) and, last but not least, the mobile computerized robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), an occasionally humorous cross between Hal and R2D2. What goes on among the astronauts is not especially interesting and Amelia, in particular, remains an annoyingly vague and unpersuasive character in contrast to McConaughey's exuberant, if regret-laden, mission leader, a role the actor invests with vigor and palpable feeling.
It's a two-year trip out to Saturn, during which the crew hibernates in what's cleverly called “the long nap” (a perfect title for a short story version of The Big Sleep) prior to the rough ride through the hole. Perhaps the most implausible detail in the entire film is that, even from another galaxy, a degree of communication with home is possible. But 23 Earth years have passed, meaning that Murph is now in her 30s and is played by Jessica Chastain. She's just as resentful of her father having abandoned her as she ever was—it's a refrain that's seriously overplayed—while Amelia is gratified to learn that her dad, who looked 80ish when they left, is still alive.
What happens once they arrive on a barren, snowy but not entirely inhospitable rock is best left undisclosed, even if the identity of a surprise presence there of a previous voyager won't remain a secret for long. But aside from 2001, which is obliquely referenced again in a late-on cutaway to an ancient Cooper lying in bed in a sterile room, the landmark sci-fi film that Interstellar intriguingly echoes is the 1956 Forbidden Planet; both involve a follow-up journey to a planet in a different galaxy where humans have previously landed and intensely dwell upon a father-daughter relationship.
But while the double use of this parent-child bond suggests the great importance of this theme to Nolan and represents a legitimate and rare attempt to emotionalize sci-fi, the issue is over-stressed in a narrow manner. Murph's persistent anger at her father is essentially her only character trait and becomes tiresome; she's a closed-off character. Her brother, played as an adult by Casey Affleck, remains too thinly developed to offer a substantial contrast to her attitude.
For all its adventurous and far-seeing aspects, Interstellar remains rather too rooted in Earthly emotions and scientific reality to truly soar and venture into the unknown, the truly dangerous. Startling at times, it never confronts the terror of the infinite and nothingness, no matter how often the dialogue cites the spectre of a “ghost” or how many times we hear Dylan Thomas's “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and its famous “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Interstellar optimistically and humanistically proposes that, even if the light is slowly dying in one place, a reasonable facsimile might be found as a substitute. But there's no rage here, just a healthy belief in mid-20th century-style Yankee gumption and a can-do attitude. Whether that's enough anymore is another question.
By Tim Grierson
Dir: Christopher Nolan. US. 2014. 166mins
An emotional powerhouse when it isn’t hokey - and a stunning spectacle when it doesn’t get bogged down in plot logistics - Interstellar is the clearest example yet of filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s desire to wow us with ambitious big-budget projects that balance cutting-edge effects and bold dramatic crescendos. Biting off far more than it can chew, this space-travelling sci-fi extravaganza works best in its sweeping brio, in its willingness (and ability) to pay homage to the jaw-dropping awe of the genre’s grandest entry, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the film’s majesty is mitigated somewhat by a story that doesn’t seem nearly as visionary.
Opening across most of the planet by November 7, Interstellar will go a long way on the strength of Nolan’s connection to the Dark Knight trilogy, as well as Inception. (Those four films have grossed approximately $3.3bn worldwide.) The fall’s big event film before the arrival of the latest Hunger Games instalment in late November, the movie will also get a boost from a name cast led by Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain.
Grosses should be stellar, with plenty of tech nominations come award season a given. Paramount, which releases Interstellar Stateside, will also no doubt be hoping for Oscar consideration in major categories, especially after the success of last year’s sci-fi hit, Gravity.
Set in a near future in which Earth has suffered devastating environmental changes, Interstellar stars McConaughey as Cooper, a former astronaut and engineer who has reluctantly become a farmer now that the planet is more concerned with sustainability than exploring the cosmos. As a sign of how times have changed, history books have been rewritten to teach children that NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon were a hoax.
Thanks to a strange premonition from his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Cooper ventures one day into an empty field in the middle of nowhere, which in fact is the headquarters of NASA. Continuing to work in secret even though Americans believed the program had been shuttered, NASA, led by Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine), has made a terrible discovery: Earth will be uninhabitable in a generation or two.
The group’s only hope is a wormhole that has appeared near Saturn, offering the possibility to jump to another galaxy to find a hospitable planet. One concerning matter, though: the wormhole appears to have been created by an alien intelligence that’s perhaps monitoring our development.
The mission will take years, but Cooper must pilot a small team, including Brand’s scientist daughter Amelia (Hathaway), to the wormhole and make contact with an earlier group of astronauts that visited planets on the other side, determining if any of them found a world that could be humanity’s new home.
Interstellar’s life-or-death stakes assert themselves slowly, as Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan first establish the reality of their future world, where shrinking global populations and constant dirt storms paint a sobering portrait of everyday life. But once Cooper’s mission is presented to him, it proves to be both daunting and a blessing: This widower who has longed to explore space finally has his chance, albeit with the fate of his species hanging in the balance.
Nolan focuses on the difficulty of Cooper’s team’s task, specifically the fact that they’ll be in space for years with the possibility that they’ll never see Earth (and their families) again. Plus, there’s no guarantee that they’ll find anything of value once they enter the wormhole.
Interstellar gives the anxiety of their mission an impossibly beautiful grandeur, juxtaposing the fragile tininess of their craft against the punishing vastness of deep space. As in 2001, Interstellar portrays space as an airless, silent sea that’s both gorgeous and terrifying. This is but one allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece: Interstellar also slyly references that film’s music and visual cues, and even a plot point.
As one might expect, Interstellar’s effects work is simply sensational, not just in outer space but on the planets Cooper and his crew explore. What the team uncovers shall not be revealed here, but suffice it to say that the filmmakers have crafted several excellent suspense sequences that are both visually resplendent and achingly tense.
Working with long-time editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer, Nolan wrings every last moment of disquiet from these set pieces, which are technical wonders that deliver an emotional wallop as well. Unfortunately, it also must be said that the Nolans’ script stumbles when concentrating on the plot segues that link the bravura sequences.
Despite McConaughey’s charm and Hathaway’s vulnerability, these actors aren’t playing particularly well-drawn characters. Cooper essentially is a grown-up Luke Skywalker or a slightly more responsible version of Richard Dreyfuss’s sky-watching dad from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, a big kid who dreams of a better life somewhere else.
Likewise, Hathaway’s Amelia is a badly underwritten character who, conveniently for the script, lets her emotions occasionally jeopardise the mission. There’s not much dramatic spark between them, which is problematic as their quest gets complicated by unexpected (and slightly predictable) twists.
The crew also has its own smart-ass robot sidekick, voiced by Bill Irwin. Presumably, this is Nolan’s cheeky way of tipping his cap to metallic forerunners like the ones in Lost In Space and Star Wars, but it’s not clever or resonant enough to leave much of an impression. And yet, the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the storytelling, as clunky as it is at times, can be partly forgiven by the thundering scope of Interstellar’s aspirations.
In an era of Hollywood blockbusters filled with sequels, reboots and comic-book films - and to be fair, Nolan is responsible for a few (admittedly, terrific) such movies himself - the mere existence of Interstellar is worth celebrating. This is a film that takes genuine risks, sometimes succumbs to its own self-indulgence - it’s perilously close to three hours long - but strives unceasingly to put on one hell of a show.
Even when his movies falter, Nolan is always working on several levels at once. In Inception, Nolan married a mind-bending plot to a trenchant study of love and grieving. With Interstellar, he continues to merge intellectual puzzles with a simple emotional tale. Once again, he focuses on family and loss, often striking at something primal in our need to protect those closest to us.
There’s a creakiness to Interstellar’s execution, Nolan desperately pulling out all the stops to deliver powerfully heartrending moments, sometimes to great effect and sometimes in ways that feel terribly manipulative. Chastain, playing Murph as an adult, is saddled with an impossible role that’s mostly meant to further an increasingly preposterous plot while simultaneously providing a few tear-jerking moments.
It’s easy - and necessary - to point out Interstellar’s failings, but the breadth of its daring shouldn’t be discounted, either. Perhaps it’s best to acknowledge that the movie’s strengths and weaknesses are profoundly bound up together, producing a riveting push-pull dynamic throughout. You watch the film lamenting its most recent slip-up, only to be knocked sideways by its next extraordinary flourish.