Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Interstellar

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Produced by: Emma Thomas
Christopher Nolan
Lynda Obst

Screenplay by: Jonathan Nolan
Christopher Nolan

Starring: Matthew McConaughey
Anne Hathaway
Jessica Chastain
Bill Irwin
Michael Caine
Mackenzie Foy
David Gyasi
Wes Bentley
John Lithgow
and a litany of others

Music by: Hans Zimmer

Cinematography by: Hoyte van Hoytema

Edited by: Lee Smith

Studio(s): Legendary Pictures
Lynda Obst Productions

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures (North America)
Warner Bros. Pictures (Other territories)

Release date(s): November 7, 2014 (United Kingdom and United States)

Running time: 169 minutes

Country(s): United States
United Kingdom

Language: English

Production budget: $165 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $543, 083, 147

So, I got underway with November at long last with my last review of Fury, the new war film featuring Brad Pitt and directed by David Ayer. November's in that strange period just before the Oscars when you see some interesting releases which may or may not become wild cards come Awards Season. As such, I have kept busy, and following this review, you can expect words on Nightcrawler, Walk Of Shame, Horrible Bosses 2, and doubtless many other recent releases. With that being said, here comes the catchphrase: for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film is one of those previously mentioned 'Wild Card' release's, Interstellar, the latest film from Christopher Nolan. For those of you who don't know, I'm a big fan of Nolan. I think that he is the working filmmaker with the most impact in the industry today and feel that he is the best director of the past fifteen years at the beginning of this century. He is a thrice-nominated and twice-winning recipient of my Stanley Kubrick Award for Best Director (in 2008 for The Dark Knight and 2010 for Inception), and two years ago I inducted him into my filmmaking Hall of Fame as a Director alongside the late great Ingmar Bergman. That year was his third nomination for Best Director, but although he didn't win, I reckoned that with five masterpieces under his belt (Memento, in my Hall of Fame as a Thriller, also inducted in 2012, all three of his Batman trilogy and Inception) he deserves higher recognition for his accomplishments. What's amazing about Nolan is that he's also still a relatively young filmmaker at forty-four years old, and that there is a glut of fantastic work from this contemporary master which we have yet to see. Working once again alongside his brother Jonathan (with whom he co-wrote the screenplay), the Interstellar project was actually in development from 2007, with the younger Nolan working on the screenplay as a projected film to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who in 2009 moved DreamWorks from Paramount to The Walt Disney Company, leaving Paramount without a director. So, in 2012, coming off of The Dark Knight trilogy, Chris Nolan was looking for a new project, and Jonathan got officially on board, and now it's finally here. The marketing campaign for this began at the butt end of last year with a teaser, the official trailer coming out in May of this year, so there has been a slow build, up to Nolan and star Matthew McConaughey (the focus of much of the campaign, following his Academy Award-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club) making an appearance at Comic-Con, and Paramount partnering with Google. So, yeah, it's kind of been built as a big thing, as though it could be the second coming of 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of its importance for the science-fiction genre, particularly the subsection involving space exploration. So, let's go, plot synopsis! Well, I'm gonna be a little bit vague at certain points because part of what I most enjoyed about a movie like Interstellar is that I went in blank, not having watching trailers, spots or anything, just watching it unfold. Featuring an all-star cast including said McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley and John Lithgow, the film follows a group of astronauts who travel through a wormhole in search of a habitable planet as things are not going particularly well on earth. Apologies if you feel that doesn't tell you enough, but in a world of spoilers and plot details getting out, I like to preserve some of the integrity of seeing a movie cold with opinion unclouded by others' judgements and analyses. Got it? Good!

Starting with the good, Interstellar has two really outstanding things going for it which, in terms of quality control, you're probably not going to find in any other film released in 2013: the first being that it's scope is incredibly far-reaching, and that it's one of the most technically accomplished pictures I have ever seen. I'll deal with the latter first, not to be contrarian, but just because it feels more appropriate. In just about every technical department, the film excels greatly. Replacing Chris Nolan's regular DP Wally Pfister, who earlier this year released his directorial debut, the poorly received Transcendence, Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who first became noted for working with Tomas Alfredson on Let The Right One In, is a deft hand. He plays that fine line of being shoot a picture that is appropriate to the mood, muted and tactful during the expository scenes, intense during the thrilling scenes. Alongside the marvellous visual effects, supervised by Nolan regular Paul Franklin, van Hoytema's cinematography is gorgeously picaresque both in the depiction of interstellar space travel and the various worlds our characters come across. This is accentuated by Lee Smith's (another Nolan regular) film editing. This is someone who knows how to cut a movie, and he brings a quality that adds to the excitement of some of Interstellar's more spectacular scenes. Not to make it sound clinical, but it is a strong exercise in storytelling through montage. Speaking of editing, the sound design/editing of the picture is also a highlight. The team of engineers Gregg Landaker, Gary Rizzo, and editor Richard King, who between boast seven Academy Awards, construct an aural landscape of absolute splendour. There have been complaints from both critics and audiences as regards to some of the inaudibility of the dialogue, and I personally find them to be unfounded. It reminds me of some of negative criticism directed towards the mixing for Robert Altman's masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller. A lot of Altman's picture is set within crowded interiors, be it a tavern or the eponymous characters' brothel, and some of the so-called 'inaudibility' is wholly appropriate to the setting. I find that to be the case with Interstellar, and I imagine that in order to depict what is happening onscreen correctly, there would instances of a lot of loud things going on. Furthermore, in the cinema you can tell they make use of the potential of sound, reaching the highest and lowest level frequencies so that you can, notwithstanding the visual side of things, sonically get an idea as to the extremity, the gravity of the situation(s). Speaking of great sound, the mighty Hans Zimmer is on board and, matching the heights that the Nolans try to strive for, he hits it out of the park with one tremendous score. I've made no bones about my long-standing admiration for Zimmer, and think that he is right up there among the upper crust of all-time great film composers. Last year, he had three great scores, for Man Of Steel (the best thing about that film), Rush and 12 Years A Slave, and I would argue that his work here trumps that of all of those three films. This is a different kind of Zimmer than we've ever heard before. Indeed, I would say the closest thing that matches it is perhaps Philip Glass' score for Koyaanisqatsi, and at times it's hard not to hear the aural resemblance. However, that is no insult, indeed it's a compliment to the versatility of Zimmer as an artist that he's able to move so seamlessly between different scoring methods. A blend between keyboard instruments such as the piano and organ, string sections, a choir and some beautiful woodwind sounds, all tinkered around with on synthesisers, this is a wonderful work that matches some of the majesty of the film itself. Notwithstanding the brilliance of the technical side of things, there are some praiseworthy performances in the film itself. Matthew McConaughey is a great anchor for us in the main part of Cooper. As the audience's primary identification point through the characters' extraordinary journey, Cooper could have been a mere cypher, but what McConaughey brings to this is a warmth, a genuine and legitimate sincerity that boasts no showboating. Displaying his wide range and emotional palette, McConaughey is gives perhaps the best lead performance in any of Christopher Nolan's movies. His character goes through a lot over the course of the picture, and McConaughey never feels anything less than legitimate in the part. Jessica Chastain, one of the best female actors of the past ten years (and a previous Thin White Dude award winner, for Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role for 2011's The Tree Of Life), is very good in her part in the film. I won't divulge too much about the character because it would involve a plot spoiler, but she brings credence to the part. Also strong, and undoubtedly the most pleasant surprise of the film, is young Mackenzie Foy, who plays Cooper's daughter Murphy. Her character is not only key to the plot but key to getting the human element of the film down, and with that comes a certain level of responsibility, and despite her younger years she nails it with all power of a veteran. Among the most moving scenes of the picture involves the chemistry between she and McConaughey, more than matched by his juvenile co-star. There is a real sense of a rapport here, and the relationship between the two is really quite touching. There is also an extended surprise appearance from a well-known actor at one point which is a great little bonus for those who go in cold. So, as I said from the get-go, having dealt with the technical side of things, the scope of Interstellar is quite incredible. The Nolans, both Christopher and Jonathan, deserve to be given credit where it is due, for daring to dream and take us on a journey quite like no other. It is a conceptually daring, rather audacious picture which is burgeoning with imaginative ideas and concepts. Even though I do not think it is a masterpiece up there with the very best of Christopher Nolan's work (more of which in the next paragraph), it further cements his status as the greatest director of the past fifteen years. Nobody has dared to jaunt this far, and even with faults, there is much food for thought and distinction to make this a unique and outstanding film experience.

Now, as I'm sure you gathered from the tone at the end of the previous paragraph, while there were aspects of Interstellar I enjoyed immensely, I do not feel it to be a masterpiece in the manner of many in Christopher Nolan's back catalogue of works. There are a number of issues, but not unlike the same issues I found with David Ayer's Fury, they emerge from one central problem, and that is the characterisation. Conceptually and from a theoretical standpoint, it is a work of genius, but before you give a movie all the window dressing, the furniture that makes up the house, there has to be people inside the house. While I think that there are some strong performances in the midst of this, there has been people there to dust off the cobwebs and turn on the light-switches to truly bring this to life. For instance, as I said in relation to Fury, I know some might find this silly, but once again I was forgetting the names of many of the central characters, a number of whom, incidentally, don't seem to serve a huge amount of purpose other than to get across some thematic content. Anne Hathaway, like Chastain,  is one of the best working female actors, winner of the Alfred Hitchcock Award for Player of the Year in 2012 (kinda like my equivalent to an MVP/most valuable player award), and yet her talents are wasted on a character whose only noteworthy moment is delivering a speech about love that would be tongue-in-cheek if it wasn't serious. The other two astronauts' are barely able to manage to fit the label 'trope,' and other characters such as Cooper's son and his father-in-law are deprived and lacking in legitimate development. Furthermore, is it just me or does anyone else see at the crux of it all an uncanny retread of the plot of Inception? A group of people (and in the case, with two robots) on an extraordinary mission (in this case travelling through a wormhole, in Inception, through the world of dreams)? A father working through insurmountable odds so he can return home to see his children? Michael Caine playing the father figure/professor? The power of three? Alteration of time? All these things are resplendent in that previous film, and while like before it is spectacularly well-made, the fact that these aren't exactly original can't be denied. 

After all of that there, you'd be forgiven for thinking I'm going to be rather derisive of Interstellar, and that is far from being the case. The characterisation and certain plot elements are noticeably weak, creating a number of problems which for just about any other picture would have taken away from it much more than it already does. However, flaws and all, while not reaching the heights of some of Christopher Nolan's other pictures, Interstellar remains a great picture. What is does right it does so spectacularly well. Technically in nearly every department, from cinematography to editing to visual effects to sound and production design, it truly is awesome to behold. The score by Hans Zimmer is an incredibly evocative bit of work not dissimilar to that of Philip Glass on Koyaanisqatsi, and it features some strong performances from McConaughey, Chastain and Foy. Finally, even though I feel they should have done more for the people that are to inhabit this labyrinthine house, I have to admire that Jonathan and Christopher Nolan dare to dream, crossing bridges over deep, dark valleys, venturing where most others never even conceive of going, never mind actually taking these concepts and going out to do them. 

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Alright 

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