My Favorite Movie of 2014: Interstellar

My Favorite Movie of 2014: Interstellar December 16, 2014

“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” — Dylan Thomas
Matthew McConaughey and McKenzie Foy in Interstellar

Since this film is still showing in IMAX theaters, and since it’s still my favorite film of the year, I thought it appropriate to put out my review of Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar. Grappling with Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything, with characters I cared about, set against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of astrophysics geekery… what more could I ask for? As my dad said on our way out of the theater, “I might come up with something to dislike about it. Next year.” But in truth, that’s not quite accurate. I do have some criticisms of the film. They’re just outweighed by the positives.

In brief, the premise is that some time in the near future, Earth’s crops are plagued by blight, and the atmosphere is slowly becoming unbreathable. In this 21st century dustbowl, we’re introduced to former NASA pilot/engineer turned farmer Joseph Cooper (“Coop”), played by Matthew McConaughey. Coop is a restless soul, a man born out of due time. In the words of his father-in-law, he “was good at something and never got a chance to use it.” He can’t pretend to like farming. But the world needs farmers, not engineers, and he’ll do anything to carve out a life for his two children.

His daughter Murphy is preternaturally smart. So when she starts to report some paranormal happenings, Coop is puzzled and skeptical. Books are falling off her shelf by themselves, she says. A small ship model is found inexplicably broken on the floor. Her theory? “I looked it up. It’s called a poltergeist.”

“That’s not very scientific, Murph,” murmurs Papa with mild disapproval.

“You said science is about admitting what we don’t know.”

The kid’s got a point. And a knack for foreshadowing dialogue.

Fresh off an Oscar win, Matthew McConaughey really shines in this role as a tender father with the heart of an adventurer. Parents will be moved by his wonderful chemistry with McKenzie Foy, the little girl who plays his daughter. Their relationship is as much about the little moments as it is about direct dialogue. When Coop and Murphy make the startling discovery that sets Coop on his interstellar journey to find a new home for Earth’s population, the situation is tense and uneasy until they realize they’re among friends. In that tense moment, Coop gently places both hands on either side of his daughter’s head as he demands assurances. Small. Simple. Effective.
While the movie goes on to careen through breathtakingly rendered wormholes, black holes and grim planetscapes, that bond between a father and his daughter is the thread that binds it all together. And as time runs down for the people back on planet Earth, it may be the only thing that can save humanity itself.

Sound a bit corny? Maybe it is, but it’s the kind of corny I like. As film critic Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in his excellent review, it’s a refreshing return to an older-fashioned style of film-making, almost in the spirit of a John Ford epic. It’s not afraid to be what it is. And the entire cast commits to their respective roles with the kind of dedicated sincerity that makes films like this work.

Interstellar is not only an acting master-class, it’s also a technical marvel. Consulting with astrophysicist Kip Thorne, Nolan’s special effects team created the first scientifically plausible renderings of either a wormhole or a black hole in film history. The lack of green screen usage gives the film an especially grounded feel, as Nolan literally dragged his cast to exotic locales for some of the set pieces. Speaking of those strange planets, they’re not exactly the kinds of places you’d want to build a summer home. This isn’t Star Trek or Avatar. It’s more like a confirmation of that line from Galaxy Quest: “Wait! This is an alien planet! Is there air? You don’t know!” This sets it apart as a more realistic than usual addition to the science fiction genre.

This film also has a unique villain: time. Okay, I suppose there is one character who shows up half-way through and kind of counts as a villain, but thanks to a nifty application of Einstein’s theory of relativity, time is the real enemy of our main characters. An hour on a distant planet becomes seven years back home. One miscalculation, one error in judgment, and the consequences are unthinkable. You don’t have to be Roger Ebert to predict that something will inevitably go wrong, and tears will inevitably flow. You would also have to have a heart of stone for your tears not to flow with Coop’s. Did I mention that McConaughey is dang good in this?

I mentioned scientific geekery, and this film serves up a double share of that. But it does so fairly accessibly. The script has to explain a lot of complicated ideas in a limited time, and I think it did a good job of it. My teacher’s heart was warmed by one moment in particular where they’re discussing the best way to approach a planet, and Coop flips over the cluttered computer screen to reveal a blank whiteboard on the back of it. He breaks out a marker and draws a rough diagram. Here’s the planet. Here’s the ship. Here’s an arrow. In, and out. The small crew nods to each other. “That’ll work.”

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hans Zimmer’s heart-pounding music score, which relies heavily and fascinatingly on the church organ. The connotations are undeniable, though they go unrealized in the film itself, which is one of its main disappointments.

Without giving away major spoilers, I’ll elaborate on this a bit by saying that it seems like Chris Nolan wants to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to hints of a true “higher power.” When the plan to save the world is explained to Coop, nobody has a clue where this wormhole leading to other worlds has come from. There are gestures toward the idea of some mysterious beneficent entities, referred to vaguely as “They.” The word “God,” strangely, never shows up once in the script, even as characters philosophize about everything from human nature to love to the space-time continuum. Yet a sense of something higher and more mysterious than the humans in the story can grasp pervades the whole atmosphere of the film. One character argues urgently that love “transcends time and space” in a way that she fully admits is beyond human comprehension.

Unfortunately, the entire film builds to a climactic revelation that’s decidedly anti-climactic in its deliberate humanism. And ironically, it winds up being far more implausible and ridiculous than the simple idea of a God who operates outside of space-time. However, if you can get past the silly background explanation, the climax is still an utterly thrilling and beautifully done culmination of Coop and Murphy’s story. It’s sure to delight anyone who enjoys thought experiments about time theory (myself included).

Other items on the negative side of Interstellar’s ledger include some philosophizing scenes that go on a bit longer than necessary, some too-obvious foreshadowing, some editing that tries to force more tension than is necessarily inherent to the material, and a few plot points that I’m still not sure aren’t holes. I will admit that the film does take care of a lot of things that were immediately raised as “holes” but actually aren’t if you pay close attention. I found that I appreciated the movie even more on a second viewing (a better seat didn’t hurt), because I picked up on a lot of details that I missed the first time through.

I will also touch on just one other thing that bugged me slightly about the central scene where Coop tells his daughter that he has to leave, indefinitely. The scene is powerfully acted and written, but I winced at a couple of Coop’s lines. He explains to her that in space, he might not experience time the same way she does. He tries to make a half-joke that “By the time I get back, we might be the same age. What?” Obviously, she finds the idea terrifying, not amusing. “What are you thinking??” I wanted to scream.

Then again, it does hint at an interesting psychological layer to Coop’s character that’s never fully explored in the film. Yes, he’s given the mission and told he must carry it out if he wants his children to survive. At the same time, he admits to his father-in-law that “It excites me.” He’s grieved to leave the children, but for Murphy, who isn’t told the full purpose of the mission, he’s not grieved enough. His leaving plants a grudge in her broken little heart that she carries with her through the film, which is part of what makes it so emotionally affecting. For Coop himself, the full weight of grief doesn’t really sink in until he realizes just what the mission has cost.

In this respect, the film poignantly captures something like the tragedy of a soldier separated from his loved ones. Imagine the young father who gets a draft notice and is forced to kiss his wife and child goodbye. Where is daddy going? The child doesn’t understand. Daddy doesn’t want to leave. And yet, for many soldiers, the prospect of fighting for home and country did hold a strange exhilaration. The spirit of Coop is the spirit of the RAF pilots of Winston Churchill’s great speech, the men who laughed as they fought.

There are so many other things I could say about Interstellar. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself and draw your own conclusions, preferably on the big screen. This is a movie you could easily take your teenagers to, as long as you’re comfortable with the fact that there is some language in the script. Thankfully, it doesn’t sully its appeal with pointless smut and debauchery (unlike The Judge, another feel-good drama that foolishly threw away some of its inspirational capital in that way).

I will say that the first time I saw this movie in the theater, I saw a young guy drop his jaw, then start the Slow Clap as credits rolled with others joining in. The second time, I saw a girl walking out of the theater in tears, telling her boyfriend, “I can’t fathom it all!” I’ve never seen people react that strongly to a film. There’s no doubt it’s struck a powerful chord with audiences. However, while critical reviews have been generally good, some are scorning it. These are mostly fans of Chris Nolan’s more cynical past work, such as his much-ballyhooed Batman reboot. As someone who doesn’t particularly like those movies, I found this movie to be a refreshing change of pace. Where The Dark Knight films lingered on the dark, murky underbelly of human nature, Interstellar draws our focus to the good, the true and the beautiful.

As one reviewer put it, “It’s exciting and moving, but I’m not sure how cool it is.” Call me square, but I’ll take exciting and moving any day.

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  • I don’t comment on your site much anymore because I mainly keep up at work over lunch, and our web security has made commenting very tedious.
    But since you mentioned your having thought a lot about time travel, I wanted to make sure you knew about a very low-budget but cool movie called “Primer” (look for Shane Carruth’s name).
    Mind-blowing and way over my head but still fascinating.
    (Oh, and clean, which is a great plus!)

  • Many thanks! I really like sci-fi and will definitely check that out. One reason I liked Interstellar’s particular take on time theory is that I have a major in philosophy, and theories of time is a big topic in philosophy. I take the view that time is like a film reel, and it’s as if God is looking down from a mountain outside of time, seeing all the history of the world playing out “at once,” so to speak.
    Thanks for the comment, it heartens me to know you that you keep up even though commenting is tedious. (Also, I’ve noticed a significant down-trend in blog-commenting in general, not just for my site—everyone seems to have discussions on Facebook instead nowadays).

  • I just checked out Primer. Duuuude! I loved it. It’s like The Prestige meets Memento meets Looper meets Calvin & Hobbes (heh). I’m happy to admit I had no clue what was going on at first watch, but found a really helpful 15-minute breakdown on Youtube by a coder who created the explanation by rewriting each segment of the story as it got changed by the characters. As Ebert put it, it’s “a film for nerds, geeks, brainiacs, Academic Decathlon winners, programmers, philosophers and the kinds of people who have made it this far into the review.”
    It just occurred to me that they should have added a note in the credits: “No Schrodinger’s cats died in the making of this movie.”

  • Hey Yankee,
    I haven’t been by your blog for quite some time so I’m just now getting caught up. I couldn’t agree more with your choice for best film of 2014. I love your write up of the film and would only add these comments:
    1) I think that as viewers we don’t have to accept Cooper’s explanation of the wormhole and/or the Tesseract — he is the one who thinks they were provided by future man but who is to say that future man wasn’t helped along the way (by aliens or some spiritual force?) or that Cooper is just plain wrong about the future? I agree that Nolan is a humanistic film-maker, but I also think that the material is just too spiritual to be dismissed as totally secular.
    2) I think your comments comparing Cooper to a young soldier going off to fight a war are especially insightful. There is something about space and space adventure that is central to Cooper’s identity (and that Nolan as a film-maker wants to celebrate). I also think that the daughter comes to accept this about her Dad — he wonderful speech at the end of the film about Cooper leaving to go find Brand was an acknowledgement of this spirit of adventure in her father.
    As always, keep up the good work,
    – FH

  • Thank you! It seems to have divided the critics. Some say that it’s a sentimental departure for Nolan, but as I said, I think Nolan could use a little more sentiment in his work. I do know that it’s found an enthusiastic fanbase among really hard-core nerdy sci-fi types (*raises hand*). I was conversing with someone like that the other day, and we were mainly geeking out over the scientific aspects of the movie. But I like that it fused that with a good emotional core.
    As for Cooper’s explanation, I’m not sure that isn’t meant to be The Explanation. I mean he’s having one Big Revelation after another, so I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be part of the reveal. I think it’s also supposed to be the culmination of the ideas about how humans haven’t evolved to the point where they care as much about humanity as a species as they do about their nuclear families. The idea seems to be that this 5-dimensional form of humanity (I giggle-snorted a little just typing that), has developed this advanced form of empathy, causing them to reach back in time and help the earlier humans.
    Of course, all the time-travel aspects of the thing form loops galore, making it logical nonsense, so I DO roll my eyes a bit when they try to downplay just how fantastical the big reveal is. But I still enjoy it as a great slice of sci-fi.
    I will grant you that the film is more spiritual than Nolan himself was probably intending to make it. But that just shows how hard it is for even the most humanistic filmmaker to escape religious symbolism.
    Regarding Cooper’s restlessness, there is one plot point I didn’t quite get: Initially, his daughter is furious because she doesn’t understand why he has to go into space. But presumably, this has been explained to her by the time she’s an adult. So why does she still seem so bitter towards him at first? Eventually, she does come to accept it, but it just seems like once the whole story was explained to her, she would be like, “Ohhhhh, okay. I get it now.”

  • Thought I’d throw in one more comment on the topic of SF in general (long my favorite genre – not fantasy so much, but hard SF. However, lately I lean much more to history.)
    If you haven’t read it, I cannot recommend highly enough C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.
    I am not a literary critic. With that out of the way, this is hands down my favorite SF and maybe my favorite fiction. I have reread it multiple times and hope for at least one more 😀

  • Oh, don’t worry, we have all of C. S. Lewis’s works on the shelves at home, and I think I’ve read at least the first two installments of that trilogy at least twice. 🙂

  • Jennifer Dendekker

    I love fantasy like LOTR, Narnia and Harry Potter. Not a huge StarWars fan. Also love most Marvel movies. Also enjoy some dystopian movies like Hunger Games. Especially enjoy movies with spiritual undertones but even more so when it’s unintentional like you mentioned in a previous comment. I remember you raving about this movie and saw it today for sale on my local mom buy, sell, swap site for $5. Decided to read your post again about it and see if it’s worth my $5 🙂 If I don’t care for SciFi, do you think I would like it? I love wow factor and I must admit you almost make me want to see it!

  • Hey, thanks for reading! It’s not very sci-fiish in the sense that they don’t meet any alien creatures, androids, evolved humans or things like that. The main sci-fi element is space and time travel that aren’t physically possible. I would say it’s more of an adventure/exploration story. 5 bucks sounds like a steal to me. Go for it!