The Film: Interstellar
What’s It About? With the people of Earth facing extinction from famine and drought, NASA launches a secret mission to find another planet that can sustain human life. Former test pilot Cooper, now a farmer raising two children, is recruited for the mission, and accepts against the wishes of his brilliant daughter, who insists that she is receiving poltergeist-like communications telling him not to go.
Number of Oscar Nominations: 5
Will It Win? This is a tricky one. The film missed out on the “major” nominations, with director and co-writer Christopher Nolan once again wondering what he has done to the Academy to make them hate him so much. The movie’s five nominations are all well-deserved – Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Production Design – and it’s probable that it will go home with at least one Oscar. But which one?
Hans Zimmer’s score is moving and sentimental when it needs to be, bombastic at times, and moves along with a very Zimmerish sense of pace and urgency. I am not usually a fan of his work (although I regard the music for The Thin Red Line as one of the most beautiful movie soundtracks ever written), but his work for Interstellar is, well, stellar (and frankly, better than the film deserves; more on that later). All that said, however, I can’t see Zimmer winning, as I think the Academy is going to get swept away by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s lush, romantic score for The Theory of Everything.
The production design by Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis is superb, by which I mean you don’t pay attention to it. Crowley had to design the interior of a Midwestern farmhouse, the interior of a spacecraft, and whatever the backside of a wormhole might resemble (another dimension hidden behind a girl’s bookshelf, apparently). This is Crowley’s third nomination, and in a different year he probably would win, but Interstellar is up against the gorgeous confection that is The Grand Budapest Hotel, the reliably tweedy The Imitation Game, the overgrown treeness of Into the Woods, and the arty period look of Mr. Turner.
That just leaves the technical awards, and while there is strong competition in all three categories, the exhilarating – and accurate-looking in terms of how things move in zero gravity – visual effects might just be enough to persuade voters to reward it.
Okay, so after all that, is the film any good?
Frankly, no. It’s good, it’s just not great. It’s rather … less than stellar, which is a real shame, as it promises much, looks amazing, and really wants you to like it. The story is part 2001, part Event Horizon, part Solaris. It wants to tackle Big Questions about Death and Love and Memory while also still delivering a thrill-ride space adventure. Unfortunately, it’s let down by a couple of major problems.
Possible Spoilers That Will Rip The Fabric of Space-Time
Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is quoted several times in the film; fitting, as the film concerns the possible death of all humanity. But Christopher Nolan’s poetic inspiration was probably Robert Browning’s oft-quoted sentiment on the human imagination and ambition, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Because Nolan tries hard and almost touches greatness in what in some ways is his most human film.
It concerns a daring mission to the stars – and beyond – that will determine the very future of the human species. With stakes that high, it should have you on the edge of your seat, but at times it doesn’t really feel all that urgent, in spite of what is happening on screen. Nolan resorts to his usual storytelling tactic of cross-cutting multiple narratives and turning up the volume on Zimmer’s score to make you feel something, but rather than becoming more urgent, a large part of the emotional impact is dissipated.
Nolan doesn’t know what to do with Anne Hathaway. Her character seems to exist only to be there to provide exposition and to offer arguments against Matthew McConaughey’s plans. And although she’s an astronaut and a scientist, what does she want to do? Go find the man she’s in love with.
A year after we saw Sandra Bullock as a tough, scared, vulnerable, hopeful, depressed and courageous astronaut stranded on her own in space, here we have another female astronaut, but all she wants to do is talk some hippy-dippy nonsense about Love being a binding force in the universe “that transcends dimensions of time and space” (in the end, she’s proved right, but she isn’t even there to enjoy the moment, as Nolan has stranded her alone on a planet somewhere).
The rest of the cast does what it can with a script that is less than the sum of its parts. As is often the case in space/sci-fi movies, characters are explained facts that by rights they should already know (I mean, Jesus, you’re an astronaut about to go through a wormhole, so why did you wait until now to ask why it’s shaped the way it is?)
I was actually far more intrigued by the goings-on on Earth before the mission, and I appreciated the nice touch of including footage from Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on the Dust Bowl. In the future the crops are gone, armies have been abolished, but there’s still baseball. And sarcastic robots.
Nolan deserves credit, however, for at least trying to make a film with a modicum of respect for humanity (in general I find him a very misanthropic filmmaker), even if the result didn’t quite achieve what he wanted.
That said, I never want to hear Michael Caine recite Dylan Thomas ever again.