Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Interstellar

Version I Watched: Only available in theatres right now. My screening was on an IMAX screen.

History: The concept for Interstellar was conceived by producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who also worked together on the 1997 film Contact. Interstellar first began production back in 2006 with Stephen Spielberg set to direct. Eventually Spielberg dropped from the project. So when Paramount was searching for a new director, Jonathan Nolan, who was hired as the film's screenwriter years earlier, suggested his brother Christopher.
There is a ton of history and information on Interstellar so I won't go into it all out. Basically Christopher Nolan kept this project under intense secrecy as he has done in the past. He continued to experimented with IMAX cameras, using it more here than his previous films. Also he used natural effects and real sets as much as possible, maintaining the realistic look and feel most of his movies have. One cool piece of trivia I'll drop in is... at a budget of $165 million, and running at 169 minutes, this production cost almost an average of $1 million a minute.
Interstellar has received generally positive reviews, currently holding a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. It opened last weekend in four formats technically. 4K digital, 35mm, digital IMAX and 70mm IMAX. Not common for modern films to open with so many technical options. As of this post it has earned $322 million after two weekends out.

Personal History: Since Nolan tends to be secretive I went along with it and avoided looking into it. I did not read previews, watch videos or trailers outside of what I saw before other movies, and I did not read reviews when it was released. I knew I wanted to see it and I wanted to be surprised as much as possible.

Review: Honestly, I'm a little surprised Interstellar got made, let alone at the scale it did. Hollywood is less risky than ever it seems. Churning out more sequels within the same franchise/universe than ever. So pumping over $150 million dollars into an original, potentially niche idea is quite a risk. A risk I'm glad they took.

I'll cut right to the chase on an important detail. See this on the IMAX. Christopher Nolan is to IMAX as Michael Bay is to explosions. It's definitely his thing and he does it bigger and better than most anyone out there. There's more IMAX footage and cameras used in this than any of his previous films and it makes for a visually exhilarating experience. Really made up for the fact that I never saw Gravity on the IMAX.
And with that said I apologize in advance for referencing Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey a lot.

Point of reference.

Keeping details of a movie secret is an important thing more studios should do. Yes they should create buzz and give enough to get people excited. But leaving a lot of details out can make for a more exciting experience. Going into Interstellar I didn't know what to expect. The trailers were pretty cryptic. Showing plenty but not really telling you a lot. I knew the central plot going in but I sure as hell didn't know where it was going. In contrast to that I saw a trailer for Chappie before the movie started and I already felt like I was told enough to not see the movie and still know everything that happened.
With that in place Interstellar takes you on an epic space journey that is somewhat hard to predict. However, while avoiding hype and spoilers I know for a fact I hyped myself up maybe a tad too much. Because as much as I loved this, I naturally was picky and had plenty of criticisms I didn't anticipate.
I may or may not have mentioned in previous posts my particular tastes with sci-fi. While I enjoy the campy and wild space epics like Star Wars and (some of) the other usual suspects, my absolute favorites are more down to Earth, so to say. Pun intended. What I mean is they are typically near future, dramatic in nature, based on real science or theories or are at least somewhat realistic. Space travel is still a long, tedious, and lonely challenge. And if aliens show up they're mysterious and hardly seen, if at all. So like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unfortunately this kind of sci-fi doesn't come along too often. So I was hoping Interstellar would fill that void in my modern cinema life. It definitely did, but it's not without it's problems.

First, what's good.
Coming from Christopher Nolan it should come as no surprise this movie is well directed. One of the best was the exposition. Most apocalyptic stories have a voice over, or a bunch of news reels to show how big a problem the world ending issue is. Not here. Matter of fact, the world seems very aware it's getting worse every year but it's a slow problem that feels inevitable and not a "Oh no we're dead tomorrow if we don't do something now!" If anything people are in denial about it, thinking things will get better. And it's expressed through subtle execution entirely in a small town. It doesn't go big until they go into space.
So getting past that I'll point out those performances. Some are what you expect of course. Anne Hathaway is always wonderful, as is Jessica Chastain. And while it's not excellent all around there were a few very notable performances.
Matthew McConaughey is the most obvious. This is further proof of reinventing his career after being type cast in so many corny, paint by number romcoms. He was stunning here especially in a heartbreaking scene while watching videos his kids send him while he's on his mission through the stars. Michael Caine was also great, but not as his normal self. Yes he plays what he always plays for the most part. Then there are a couple brief scenes of him much older and knocking on heaven's door. He really nails it with his transformation and you can feel the exhaustion in the old age he shows.
Yet the performance that REALLY caught me by surprise was Mackenzie Foy, who plays Murph, Cooper's (McConaughey) daughter as a child. The only place I knew her from before this was Twilight 4 Part 2 where she plays Mr and Mrs Sparkle Vampire's daughter. In that she was fine but that was more an issue with direction that performance. Here she KILLS it! Her range is incredible. And when Cooper leaves on his mission of potentially no return she breaks my heart with her heartbreak. Always wonderful to see young actors and actresses show potential by doing a better job than some of their older, more experienced counterparts. I did not expect her to give a performance as good as she did.

This scene was tough to get through.

Going back to something I already mentioned, there are the visuals. The visual appeal of this movie is superb with the most notable being the space scenes. The Earth scenes are very well shot, but I must say the space scenes are some of the best visuals I've ever seen in a sci-fi flick. While the shots aren't as extensive and artistically played out as 2001, for example, what we see is a work of art. So well done, so well thought out that it required developing new technology to create, especially with the black hole that comes up in the latter half.
Another feature that is almost just as good is that the cinematography and editing didn't make me want to vomit like most big movies. Nolan made some very smart moves using a tripod in a tripodless world. At no point did the camera movement make me feel sick. It's all very smooth, flowing fluidly from shot to shot with great comfort. It also helps the camera actually held a shot long enough for the audience to register what's happening instead of fast paced, MTV editing.
I really cannot say enough to give credit to how good this movie looks. It's hard to convince someone to sit through an almost 3 hour movie for the visuals alone, especially when there's not as much time spent in space as you'd like, but seeing this for the visuals is satisfying as is.

Now Chris Nolan, as great as he is at creating art that is pleasing to critics and mainstream audiences, he tends to have a few glaring issues in his films that really stand out. As beautiful Interstellar is, as well acted as it is, as engaging as the story is, it is also quite unbalanced at times which hurts the immersion and serious tone. There's one part in particular in the last half of the movie where I felt it took a super serious turn (more serious than it already was), but handled it in a corny and goofy way. Please don't take that too literally, but it's not far from the truth. It's a minor twist (that was a little predictable) but plays out very out of character from the rest of the movie, ending in an overly action packed sequence.
The tone of the movie tends to change without warning. Sad because most of it is a beautiful story filled with a lot of character and emotions that I imagine will cut right to the heart of parents. Especially parents who had to leave their children behind for a long time. But then it has moments of being overly emotional, jumping to twists with a thriller or horror-like tone, and the previously mentioned action sequence that made me think of the more unrealistic parts of Gravity.

Reference II

And with that last reference to Gravity it brings me to my biggest issues with Interstellar. It is very, VERY fast paced for an almost three hour long story. To me these hard science space adventures need to take their time. Really show the long and lonely journey. Interstellar packs what feels like as much as it can but the pacing and tone take a hit because of it. They say "we gotta go to Saturn to go through the wormhole and it'll take two years." Suddenly they're at Saturn. Then they jump through the wormhole without issue. And so on and so on. There was a real lack of weight in what should have been the most difficult and terrifying trip any astronaut has ever taken, seeing as they didn't know what happened to the last crew who went. Slowing it down would definitely make it less appealing to the masses, but it would make it a better space story... like 2001 for example... again.

While a lot of it did feel like a big love letter to films like 2001 (when, you know, originality is still possible) it was still an incredible experience. Some of the complaints I have for it feel like points that could ruin an entire film but they don't. There are lots of things that keep it from being better but what we get is easily one of the best big screen experiences of the year and one of the best IMAX experiences I've seen. It's very engaging. While I was annoyed at times... I was never bored. I never got numb butt from sitting there so long. I didn't want it to be over when it was over. I wanted it to be longer so it could takes it's time and add more to the already big story. I would easily watch this over and over again, ESPECIALLY on the IMAX.
For the most part it's been critically acclaimed. And while it's more streamlined than I wanted it to be, it ironically could turn people off by it's very 2001-esque sequences toward the end. The rest of it can easily engage anyone interest in a story of adventure and relationships, real relationships. At no point was there a forced love story to keep things 'interesting.' All that was there was a natural family bond filled with real issues and real emotions based on misunderstandings and failures to connect both literally and emotionally. A beautiful experience with lots of depth that will definitely satisfy.
While not the best I've seen this year it is one of the best. Definitely a worthy addition to the list of hard science space films. Right up there with 2001, Solaris, Moon... and maybe Gravity, too. But after seeing this it makes that look silly.

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