Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar opens in an undisclosed place at an undisclosed time in the future. And though the setting is opaque, the film makes it immediately clear that life on Earth is running out. Cities are unseen, populations are low, the military is nonexistent – all that remains is the need for steady farming, and the will to combat the dust that blankets every feasible area. The dust is so thick on Earth that a thin layer of it can be seen on most every surface. On the kitchen table, in the principal’s office, in the car, on the pillows – it’s everywhere. And by now, it’s killed every crop except corn, which we soon learn is too in short supply. Corn is how we’re introduced to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a farmer and single father of two who gave up his career as an engineer, to literally help cultivate the Earth.Although Interstellar will likely be remembered as a “space movie,” credit needs to be given to the way Nolan handles the first act of his film. The editing is brisk but patient, the characters are almost universally melancholic, and rarely share fond memories of days past. There’s a distinctly Terrence Malick vibe to these opening scenes, which, without warning, quickly evolve into something far different.
A string of seemingly random events helps Cooper and his young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), discover that NASA has been secretly prepping a new mission to save humankind. The mission: travel to three newly-discovered planets and determine if human life is sustainable on them. Cooper is the only living (and/or willing) NASA pilot, so he’s recruited by his former mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), to lead the mission with Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway). Cooper accepts the task, but struggles to say goodbye to Murph as he’s unable to tell her when and if he’ll ever return.
Once the mission commences, Interstellar becomes the new standard for the space film. With each passing scene, it feels as though Nolan and his crew had a keen interest in changing the game, or, at the very least, abandoning the rules and creating new ones. This is chiefly evident in Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score, perhaps the finest he’s ever composed. His music, all but void of the standard orchestral strings and thundering drums that accompany most big movie scores, is truly its own character in Interstellar. There are moments, for example, when the music is intentionally louder than the actors’ dialogue, as if the score is meant to act as a character with a more dominant voice. It’s one of the finest modern musical scores I can recall; an essential component to Interstellar’s overall greatness.
But, of course, there are many things in play here. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s wondrous cinematography, Lee Smith’s seamless editing, and the flawless production design and art direction all help create a world that is distinctly new. Christopher Nolan co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, and together, they have created a masterful, intricate puzzle of a film. In fact, the inner workings of Interstellar are so detailed that to describe the performances of specific actors would be to reveal too much about the complex plot. If I told you who Jessica Chastain shared scenes with, for example, much of the mystery of the film would be ruined.
Cooper is the first dad Matthew McConaughey has played since his self-imposed “McConaissance” began in 2011. Sure, his work in Mud was a predominantly parental role, but Cooper is a dad’s dad. He loves his kids and appears to live every waking moment with them at the forefront of his mind. Perhaps it’s presumptive of me to suggest that McConaughey drew from his own experiences as a father while playing Cooper, but whatever he was doing, it was clearly working. Cooper is arguably the most emotive work McConaughey has delivered yet. For my money, it’s a far more layered and complete performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club. The actor has showed immeasurable promise in the past three years, and I still had no idea he had this in him.
Our big budget movies are manufactured with the uniqueness of an aged assembly line. The stories, the way the films look, sound, and behave are all interchangeable. The actor’s faces might be different (though, in the world of super hero films, they rarely are) and the character’s names might be altered, but for all intents and purposes, blockbusters have little to offer in the way of lasting contribution. This is precisely what separates a Christopher Nolan film from other films of this size. The man makes big and bold and beautiful movies, with Interstellar being his best blockbuster yet. This is a profoundly unique film, the definition of pure cinema.
Pure cinema. A phrase tossed around a lot these days. The phrase, to me, describes those precious moments in film where everything clicks together. Score, cinematography, performance, direction – every component of the filmmaking process is perfectly married, if only for a moment. Pure cinema is hard to find, and when I discover such a moment, I make it a point to call it out. There’s a scene in Interstellar that defines pure cinema. To the best of my knowledge, it’s a scene we’ve witnessed in nearly every movie that has been set in space: the docking sequence. One smaller vessel docks with another, larger vessel, thereby becoming one. In most movies, the docking scene is a minuscule event; something that shows how characters on the small vessel boarded the large vessel. In Interstellar, the docking scene is a matter of life and death. As I sat and watched the sequence, my jaw literally dropped from the thrill of it all. Zimmer’s organ-heavy music pounded away, the ship spun round and round, characters tried to stay conscious, the organs, the spinning. Beautiful. Alive. Pure cinema. At some point, my dropped jaw became a stunned smile and I noticed that a few tears were running down my face. I can’t remember the last time that happened to me during a movie. A
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