Observing Christopher Nolan move further and further into macro territory with larger and larger canvases that couldn't be more removed from the imposed modesty of his debut, “Following,” one thing has become increasingly clear: he's a master of the big picture (as in the greater takeaway from a project, not scale and scope – though that's obviously applicable, too). This has never been more the case than with “Interstellar.”
It's a shame, though, that he is a filmmaker who holds things so close to the chest (i.e. screenings) that a number of critics who came away negative on the picture – and there are quite a few – won't have an opportunity to catch it again before needing to file their reviews. Because I imagine some of them would find a number of loose ends either tied up or, at the very least, singed into reconciliation. At least, I did.
First and foremost, anything you've heard about the sound in that packed-to-the-rafters 70mm IMAX screening at the TCL Chinese Theater Thursday night is absolutely true. Take a proprietary IMAX sound mix and speaker configuration that can be pretty inferior and add in the fact that Nolan's mixes tend to be muddied historically (then consider that for some reason the system was turned up to 11) – it was a recipe for disaster. I couldn't understand full stretches of dialogue and the IMAX of it all with the pitch darkness of the celluloid (too dark, I'd wager), it just wasn't settling.
My second look was in a smaller studio lot screening room on 35mm with a traditional mix and maybe five or six other people in the room. Night and day. And that's just on a technical level. Going back also allowed some of the clunkiness of the narrative to settle in a more satisfying way. It was just nice to see it again after knowing what it was, and this mystery box mentality sort of precludes that for many critics.
So I've already had two very different experiences with this film.* And for whatever it's worth, when it all settled by the end of the weekend, I came away counting this marriage of Heinlein and Clarke** as one of three films this year, alongside “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” that flirt with the “M” word. It was a massive pendulum swing. Some of it remains ham-fisted to me. The oppressive exposition still riles. It's imperfect. But again, you can pick at the rougher edges, but you would lose what's happening on the broader canvas.
All of that, funnily enough, recalls the thematic brilliance of this film. “We found that the more you explored the cosmic side of things, the further out into the universe you went, the more the focus came down to who we are as people and the connections between us,” Nolan said at a press conference last week. That macro/micro quality is a defining characteristic of “Interstellar,” like quantum mechanics versus astrophysics. To reconcile the imperfections you have to recognize and accept the larger context, and the larger context here is a compendium of ideas few have ever been so bold as to sit down and attempt to convey cinematically. For that, Nolan gets my utmost respect.
But few will have the luxury to see it twice, including and perhaps especially those in the industry who will soon be casting a ballot for this or that. It's worth mentioning because the potential for this film to be confounding is all too real. For those reasons, instinctively, I'm skeptical about its place as a game changer in this year's Oscar race. But I do know this: in a Best Actor race marked by an embarrassment of riches, you can add Matthew McConaughey to the mix. I'm not sure you can call someone a revelation just six months after winning an Academy Award, but McConaughey is sort of phenomenal here. He's tapped into a whole new swagger, a movie star presence surprising even for him, and he's delivered a specific, emotional performance to perhaps rival the one that found him on red carpet after red carpet last season. Imagine that.
Paramount is high on Jessica Chastain's chances in supporting, but they'll potentially need the help of a thin category and the actress's gung ho commitment to work the circuit for them to get her there; while it's a great piece of work that serves as the source of a lot of those emotional beats, it doesn't necessarily stand out from the whole. (And if A24 shifts her over to supporting for “A Most Violent Year,” and they might, she'll suddenly be competing with herself here.) Hathaway is doing great work, too. Michael Caine gets his moments. Casey Affleck is hugely effective in his limited screen time, and a famous actor whose cameo apparently isn't widely known despite the fact that he's talked about it on camera (on Letterman and here at HitFix), well, he's pretty memorable, too. But those are all pieces of the equation. McConaughey is the story here. He's killing it lately.
Unsurprisingly, the below-the-line achievements of the film are significant and ought to be in the thick of the awards race. Right at the top, Hans Zimmer's score is probably the best one he's ever done for a Nolan film, inspired by church organ motifs and going to places I just wouldn't have expected. Interestingly enough, the score's beginnings share in that macro/micro thematic construct that appears to be evident in so much of the movie. Here is what Nolan had to say about it:
“One of the things I did was I didn't want him to know what the genre was when he started working. I wrote out a page of what I considered to be the heart of the story, the relationships, the idea of a father having to leave his children. I gave it to Hans and said, 'Work on that for a day and give me what you've got at the end of the day and that will be the seed,' and indeed, the finished score came from that creative act.”
The visual effects are also a marvel. But it's there that I do wonder if the film will compete with a certain space adventure from last year. Because, look, I thought of “Gravity” a number of times while watching this film, and indeed, I often thought about it in terms of what that film did better. Others may be in the same boat. Then again, “Gravity” was a very different film and visual effects were used in a very different way there. The effects in this movie end up going in wildly different directions and on their own terms, are pretty special. I still believe something like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a more significant accomplishment for this industry, but “Interstellar” might be a more significant achievement for another: astrophysics. How do you argue with a process that fed equations from Kip Thorne into a computer to maintain the integrity of reality and how physics govern the real world, and thereby supplied a guy like that with the kind of observed information he feels can inform at least two papers on the subject of black holes? That's some next-level stuff right there.
Elsewhere, Nathan Crowley's production design is pretty functional and great. It stands out and never gets lost in a sea of CGI. Hoyte van Hoytema fills Wally Pfister's shoes well, though much of the film's aesthetic value is CG-influenced (I can't speak to the DP's involvement in all scenarios but I look forward to talking it through with him). I did think the real-world imagery was unnecessarily dark, but it's clear Nolan prefers the deeper hues you can achieve with celluloid.
The sound, as noted, is typically soupy – Nolan seems to like what he likes in that arena but it continues to be a drawback in his work in my opinion. Nevertheless, I suspect the film will still find support within the branch. And Lee Smith's film editing, well, I expected him to win for “Inception” and he wasn't even nominated. I could talk about the tightrope walk of zipping back and forth through time and inter-cutting with effects scenes and plates, etc., but at the end of the day, I suppose it depends on how well the film is received by the Academy in general. He deserves it, though.
I'm not sure if I've said what I wanted to here. I already have a bit of a complex relationship with the film, which I prefer to my initial mixed/negative takeaway, certainly. Not because I want to love the movie, but because just liking or not liking something can be a bit staid.
Anyway, the movie has arrived. And it's a big player for Paramount; studio head Brad Grey is hosting multiple screenings on both coasts – you don't get that every day. It's a relationship with a filmmaker they would surely like to maintain. But the campaign will need to walk that line between in-your-face and modest confidence amid all that scope. Hey, look at that. Macro/micro again.
“Interstellar” arrives on film in theaters Nov. 5. Everywhere else Nov. 7.
*For what it's worth, I personally think non-IMAX 70mm would be the optimum way to see the movie. Here are those specific locations.
**In his HitFix review of the film, Drew McWeeny mentions Peter Hyams' adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's “2010: Odyssey Two,” and that's a great comparison, too. Ditto “Contact.”