Already, we see the pros and cons of Interstellar’s ambition. On the one hand, the film’s hour-long opening salvo is a study in storytelling efficiency. We don’t get a canned voice-over (100 years in the future, humankind is on the brink...). Instead, Nolan sprinkles bits of background dialogue here, and snatches of context there, revealing the extent of the crisis steadily and strategically. For a film about outer space, Interstellar is surprisingly intriguing while we’re still on earth.
On the other hand, sometimes Nolan’s speedy plot progression becomes rushed and awkward. If Cooper is the best living pilot, why does NASA only think to hire the man after he accidentally stumbles upon the headquarters? And once Cooper reaches space, why hasn’t anyone explained to him the basic concept of a wormhole, considering it’s the single biggest part of the mission he’s leading? Naturally, all of this is done out of convenience—the film wants us to be surprised by NASA headquarters, yet it also wants Cooper to pilot the mission. The movie needs us all to understand wormholes, so it gives a canned explanation just after lift-off. These aren’t giant flaws, but they’re frequent and distracting enough to reveal a certain filmmaking laziness.
Even with the bits of awkward dialogue, however, the acting is generally solid. McConaughey seems to be playing himself, but as a rugged adventurer with a dry sense of humor, it works perfectly. Jessica Chastain (playing the older Murph) reprises her vintage determination from Zero Dark Thirty. Anne Hathaway (playing Cooper’s co-pilot) grits through some of the film’s cheesier lines, and comes out respectably on the other side. A surprise A-list actor pops up two-thirds of the way through (he’s uncredited, so I won’t spoil it), and he’s just what you’d hope for in a November blockbuster. But the breakout performance might just be TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), a clever robot who owns the film’s five funniest lines. It’s a clear homage to HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to Nolan’s immense credit, the imitation proves worthy of its predecessor.
In the end, however, the true star of Interstellar isn’t the acting, but the ambience. The outer space landscapes are breathtaking, the wormhole immense and terrifying, the spacecrafts massive, sleek and majestic. Like with Inception, Nolan uses sound and music brilliantly, mixing the eerie silence of space with a sweeping, sometimes menacing score composed by Hans Zimmer. Regardless of how you feel about any other aspect of the movie, the film’s visual and aural atmosphere will leave you speechless. I can’t remember the last time—perhaps other than 2013’s Gravity--that a film has conjured up quite the same feeling of ominous wonder.
Nolan attempts to pair his arresting cinematic landscapes with a series of profound philosophical questions, and here, the results are mixed. How far will we go for our family? What’s more important: saving the people we love now or rescuing the future human race? Will even the most noble, selfless humans eventually succumb to selfishness, given enough time, temptation and loneliness? These are earnest, important questions, each of which would be worthy of a film unto itself. But I worry that Nolan attempts too much here, lessening the impact of each individual question in an effort to ask half a dozen more. Challenging your audience with a single query can be gripping; ten can be overwhelming.
To this point, my favorite question was a smaller one, buried beneath the film’s more dominant inquisitions. When it comes to family, what is the true cost of our time? Is it worse to tempt death, or to miss decades of our family’s lives, to sacrifice years of shared memories in an instant? In the space of minutes, Cooper must weigh the cost of losing years against the slightly increased chance of saving humanity. It’s one of the most fascinating moments in the film.
The movie’s final 15 minutes bring all these questions back to earth, in just about every way besides literally. Here, too, I had a few minor qualms. For a film that so deftly avoided an opening monologue, the movie’s four-part, Lord of the Rings 3-style ending seemed like a surrender to focus group-friendly resolution: it was just too neat and tidy for me. I would have hoped a director of Nolan's prominence might have made the riskier, braver decision to end the film a bit earlier, but alas, people like resolution, and Hollywood is a business, after all.
In fairness, I wouldn’t be making this point at all had the film stayed safe from start to finish. "Do not go gentle into that good night,” says NASA’s director at the start of Cooper’s mission, reciting Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Even if it lands gently, Interstellar has the courage to soar. Sometimes, it takes a bit of bland resolution to see how high a film dared to fly.