As I watched Interstellar the other night I felt I was seeing a truly classic sci-fi film, an heir to 2001 A Space Odyssey. Having slept it off, in my pre-dawn mind I have various thoughts assessing the movie.
1) The movie has one of the best first acts I have ever felt in a sci-fi film. I was not looking forward to seeing Matthew McConaughey as a farmer while waiting for the space stuff to kick in. But besides setting up a ton of stuff that has beautiful pay-offs later, the father-daughter departure scene is the emotional high of the whole film. In fact, I like that I wasn’t moved later in the film when this heart-wrenching moment is resolved, the way I would have been in the Hollywood formula. The resolution felt more serene, consciousness-raising, and lofty.
2) Hanz Zimmer outdid himself with the film score, by underdoing. I mention this next because it relates to that great first act. Hans Zimmer is wonderful, and transforms his soundtrack voice for each drama. But he’s been getting more and more over the top. I’m thinking of the cimbalom-crazy Sherlock Holmes scores, and the bombastic trombone fest he did for Christopher Nolan’s other epic fantasy, Inception. I knew of Zimmer before his film work, in the 80s when he was doing New Age meditation music in Germany. He’s gone back to those roots in Interstellar: you barely can hear the music at the top of the movie, and for a good hour it’s all vertical, no big melodies, practically all chords and washes. So in the father-daughter departure scene, when he first introduces some good old Wagnerian chromaticism in the harmonic progression, it is emotionally devastating. There is a melodic theme that emerges by the time we’re in deep space, but it’s as subtle and ghostly as the poltergeisty elements of the story.
3) The screenplay is both highly underrated and more full of holes than a chunk of Jarlsberg. I was surprised by how great/important/compelling the story line was, probably because previews and reviews were big on not spoiling much. So I had the expectation that the film was more atmospheric than story-driven. Not true! Put it this way: when we’re going through the black hole (3rd act, as opposed to the wormhole, 2nd act – let’s keep our science straight), I felt the Nolan brothers were trying to re-create the 2001 trippy climax, but make it coherent plot-wise, instead of just psychedelic zooniness. They succeed brilliantly, though I’d have to read the companion science manual to the movie to understand how anyone, man or robot, can survive entering a black hole. I thought you got obliterated in there. I’ve had panic attacks thinking about this.
That accomplishment, merging science and story and visual splendor, along with the father-daughter, disciple-sage, and displaced love elements in the story, make the screenplay constantly compelling. But after my wife and I emerged from the theater spellbound, we spent the ride home coming up with a dozen head-scratching questions about unanswered issues, logic flaws, and suspension of disbelief stretches. I suspended my disbelief without even realizing it several times, so the film worked in a gripping way. But I went from cheering the Nolans as screenwriters to worrying a bit about this breaking news: Jonathan Nolan is pegged to write the script for a TV adaptation of the Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.
4) What the hell is Matt Damon doing in this movie? When Matt and Matthew start wrestling on the Icelandic rocks, I checked out for a moment. Yes, this episode triggers the final actions of the plot, but I’d love to see a version of Interstellar with this lonely-celebrity-driven-to-evil episode expunged. At the very least, it cheapens the dark revelation from Michael Caine’s dying character by threatening to make all humanity look deceitful and cowardly.
5) Is Interstellar the cinematic equivalent of the genre vs. literary fiction debate? I won’t touch the science in the film (if you’re interested see the Asimov link above), but was constantly aware while watching that the film was celebrating and transcending science fiction at the same time. There’s a lot of talk about stretching genres in the book world these days, the main one being whether high-end genre fiction, like sci-fi/fantasy, can be considered literary fiction employing genre conventions, or whether the blurred lines make genre thinking obsolete. I feel this movie raises similar questions, again the way Kubrick did with 2001, the first non-B movie sci-fi film. Also, Interstellar is a cinematic example of a new book genre, climate change fiction, or cli-fi.
6) What a delicious cast! Besides all the big guns, there were many sweet delights: Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph (so young, so intense), Ellen Burstyn as old Murph, and Timmy Chalamet as young Tom, dear gifted LaGuardia HS alum. But where did Topher Grace’s character come from? OK, Nolan brothers, play down the Hollywood love interests, but how about one sentence of back story about him? After all, I assume Topher sires dozens of Earthlings, which is kind of important to the plot.
7) One final musing, or question: what happened in the ending, Plan A or Plan B, or both? I know Matthew M’s character goes off to hook up with his non-girlfriend on a space colony (Plan B), but what happened on Earth? Is it toast? Did everyone move to a space station? Can I have a little more info, please? But hey, if any Interstellar fans out there want to school me on any of my confusions, leave a comment!
Anyway, I didn’t really need to know everything, for I still got a satisfying conclusion to a wonderful filmic, sci-fi, transcendent experience. But it woulda been nice. Maybe in the re-make. Without Matt Damon.