This year has provided a handful of masterpieces from established independent filmmakers that will surely label 2014 as the beginning of a post-blockbuster era. Director Christopher Nolan, after starting with indies like Memento and moving into complete Hollywood franchise mode, has always tried to merge the visual spectacle of blockbusters with the emotional resonance of indies to varying degrees of success. Interstellar is his broadest, grandest and most passionate directorial attempt to date. Luckily, it is also his most successful.
Nolan is clearly trying to create his masterpiece with this film. This clear intent will likely determine an audience’s acceptance or rejection of his nearly three-hour opus, although it doesn’t feel that long. There is an almost primal need evident in every frame to capture the truths of the story, the nuances of the characters and the scope of this very detailed and meticulously crafted world. His love for filmmaking as a medium is evident as he shot on film (and the IMAX 70mm presentation is simply gorgeous), but even more impressive is his consistent and surefire pacing in storytelling. Here, Nolan knows what he is doing every step of the way, and his command in presenting a narrative as complex as this is an achievement in its own right.
It is important to remember that movies can, with the proper care, replicate or reflect the world in which we live to incite deeper thought and understanding. When a film borders on reality under the pretense of a fictional plot, the effect can be momentous. Interstellar is one such experience. Nolan has always had a hard time bridging the gap between reporting and reflecting on the human experience. Most of his films show the audience a character’s struggle without demanding that they participate in it emotionally. With this film, he has finally achieved that balance. Where his other films feel distancing and almost foreign in their cinematography and tone, this feels homegrown and authentic. The use of a handheld camera puts the audience in the room with the characters, and the constant use of close-ups provides a consistent window into their emotional state. The score is foreboding and intense, shaking the seats and putting the audience in every riveting moment. Greater still is that the large set pieces aren’t the only stunning parts of this film; the quiet, human interactions are just as effective. Interstellar is immersive and begs to be seen on the largest screen possible. Because of the impressive nature of the filmmaking it is easier to forgive the film when the plot tries to accomplish too much. A more selective narrative would have sufficed.
The mild critical response to the film so far (currently sitting at a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes) is the result of the many layers it contains, and not an indication of disappointment. Nobody can deny that it is a visual feast, technically brilliant and very well-acted. Matthew McConaughey continues his winning streak with a performance that elevates this film to new heights, and Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and the other supporting characters give it their absolute all. The third act, however, is a lot to take in all at once as the film starts presenting its most confounding ideas yet. If the beginning should seem out of hand, it will only get worse from there. The trick is accepting that answers aren’t meant to be provided right away, and given its running time, they might not show up for some time. Interstellar is a journey that maintains a low rumble of intensity and only gets louder as it picks up steam. If a film of this magnitude, brazenly confident in its depiction of the possible end of humanity, didn’t leave some people feeling a little battered, it would not have gone far enough. Emotional attachment will make up for its storytelling flaws, and in the end, it is the emotion that will be remembered long after the credits roll.
The film is dense, there is no way around it. The science of the adventure is presented in its every detail, and while it is thought-provoking and entirely necessary, some audiences are going to wonder why they are being intellectually challenged in a tentpole studio release. This is the true success of Interstellar. It represents a shift, parallel to the rise of independents, where studios are becoming more and more willing to take risks in order to present compelling stories since, given the floundering summer box office, it would appear that audiences are wising up. No longer will people shell out the ever-increasing cost of movie tickets just to see a film they will surely forget about five minutes after they leave the theater. Every now and again people need an escape, but films like Interstellar prove that there is a place for intelligent and auteur-driven fare at the multiplex. One can only hope that its place will grow.