Movie Review: “Interstellar” (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2014)

*Update: Phil Plait has an article up about the science involved in Interstellar. He’s obviously of a very different opinion about the film’s artistic quality than I am, but he really is an astronomer, so trust him about the science. I certainly knew the system orbiting the black hole was wrong and the time dilation didn’t seem right, but he actually knows what he’s saying. He also wrote a book that has a description of what it would actually be like to fall into a black hole if you’re interested. I will add a link if the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe does a review, which I’m hoping for.

I never actually wrote a review of Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK 2013), because I couldn’t really make sense of it–it was so full of religious images that it clearly had some point to make about belief, religion itself, or something related, but I could not figure out what it was. However, something I would definitely have said about it is that it bored the hell out of me because it was just a whole bunch of long chase scenes in space and its extreme over-reliance on CGI made it look like a Pixar film as far as I was concerned. It was also rather a scientific mess. Interstellar plays almost like a response to that film, one that brings back the wonders and other-ness of space as well as using photographic effects and real sets. People kept insisting that Gravity was a visual wonder, but I heartily disagree–this is a visual wonder.

Where Gravity was almost entirely made of digital effects, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema not only focus on photographic effects–they revel in the fact that they are shooting on film and using real lights and sets. Even when they need to use fake backgrounds (a requirement of the story), they are actually projected onto the set behind the actors, so that they become photographic (a trick Kubrick previously used). The film is full of lens flares and overexposures. Is it a bit showy and perhaps even pretentious? Maybe. But it looks amazing. When the starlight glints through the window in the back while the crew discusses which planet to visit next and briefly obscures the view of the scene, then moves slowly out of view and the light slowly fades away, it’s the type of detailed, beautiful photographic effect that Stanley Kubrick would have brought to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968). Science fiction films often have seems similar to 2001, which was a film about how humanity is defined by making mistakes that allow for evolutionary development, and yet they so often seem to want to cover up imperfections and turn everything over to technology (often something they are arguing against in their plots). Kubrick did one of the greatest jobs in history of marrying his point to his visual techniques, and Nolan mirrors him here.

The plot of the film is fairly standard science fiction fare, albeit one that pays attention to its own science: the earth has turned into a giant dust bowl and growing plants is thus becoming increasingly difficult, with crops becoming impossible to grow one by one until all humanity has left is corn and even that will only last so long. So, the government secretly brings NASA back to find a new world for humanity, since this world has turned against us. Cooper was NASA’s strongest pilot but responded to the need for food and shutdown of NASA by becoming a farmer, exactly what the world needed, but then a mysterious gravitational anomaly sends him to what turns out to be the secret base of the NASA he never knew had been brought back. Of course, these things collide and NASA sends him on a years-long mission to scout possible new homes for humanity, away from his children for what could be a lifetime. Meanwhile, his daughter angrily follows in his footsteps at NASA, trying to crack the physics problem that will save humanity and unsurprisingly growing up to be exactly like the father she hates.

The point of the film is pretty simple, bordering on facile, saying that it’s the connection to one another that makes humanity strong. Brand comments that love is “the only force that we know of that transcends all dimensions” (Yeah, it’s a rather gag-inducing line.). Mann says that it’s “survival instinct” and the ability to improvise that makes humanity special. Cooper says that humanity was able to save itself through its love of other humans, connecting Mann’s and Brand’s ideas into the cohesive point of the film.

The acting, with one exception, is excellent, though no one has much to do. Matthew McConaughey, the world’s leading actor du jour, is excellent in his lead performance, having to show a mix of intelligence, selflessness, and caring without letting any one of those things overwhelm the others. He is pretty simply a good man, but in this situation it would be easy to play him as a caricature, and McConaughey, who once did play essentially a caricature in a science fiction film that shares many ideas with this one, avoids that pitfall. Jessica Chastain has a rather thankless task, playing a character who is either ecstatic or angry at every moment and thus could easily be over the top, but she (unsurprisingly) makes it work. Mackenzie Foy, while clearly far older than her ten-year-old part, probably has the most difficult part in the film, and she pulls it off with aplomb, coming across as a very smart kid with some trust issues and an incredible stubborn streak. She also actually looks enough like Jessica Chastain that it’s believable that they are the same person (well, to the extent that it’s believable that anyone can grow up to look like Jessica Chastain).

The one problem is, unsurprisingly, Michael Caine. Christopher Nolan has shown a proclivity for falling in love with actors and just recasting them in every film. When it was Christian Bale, it made sense, because he’s just a fantastic actor. When it was Cillian Murphy, it made sense, because he has such a great face for film. Michael Caine doesn’t have anything that makes him worth casting repeatedly. I know he has two Oscars, but he is one of the worst actors who has ever won even one award, let alone two. Here, in what should have been a very easy part, he’s wooden and annoying, delivering his lines with weird pauses and showing no ability to express anything on his face.

Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly strong. While he was once an excellent composer, he long ago became so standard and repetitive that he started to sound as dated as Alan Silvestri. But here he throws out the conventional playbook, and what he gives us works. Nolan helps by utilizing the same lack of room sound and moments of complete silence that Kubrick used so well in 2001, but Zimmer’s score adds something to the film, and that’s all you can ask of a score.

Interstellar is an excellent film–clearly the best I have seen in 2014. It’s not perfect, but I was much happier sitting through three hours of this film than I have been sitting through two hours of most other films.

Thoughts on the Previews: July 31, 2014

I won’t have time to get my review of Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014) up before I go to work today. If you’re trying to decide whether to see it today, my recommendation is yes, but go in knowing that it’s a silly, nostalgic cartoon. As long as you don’t expect any more than that, it’s good.

Commercial: “Selfie”

  • This actually looks like it might be funny.
  • I’m relieved, because I was going to have to watch it, for obvious reasons.
  • It’s still a bizarre premise that seems more like a movie than a show.
  • I’m afraid that I’m going to convince myself this show is good just because of Karen Gillan.

Commercial: Berocca

  • I’m betting this is bullshit.
  • After looking it up, yes it is. It’s megadosing vitamins.
  • Unfortunately, it’s kind of a fun commercial.

Dumb and Dumber To (Bobby Farrelly/Peter Farrelly, USA 2014)

  • The fact that this exists is reason to die.
  • The first one was horrendous and not funny. Everything the Farrellys have made since is horrendous and not funny. Guess how this looks? Horrendous and not funny.

The Expendables 3 (Patrick Hughes, USA/France 2014)

  • While it probably doesn’t deserve the Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941) comparisons being thrown around in some quarters (;-)), I will give it credit that it doesn’t even bother to pretend like there is any story or anything–just explosions and a bunch of old action stars.
  • I do find it funny that I really don’t recognize anybody under 50 in this trailer–there are some younger people, but I have no idea who they are.

When the Game Stands Tall (Thomas Carter, USA 2014)

  • Jim Caviezel deserves an award for the job he did introducing this “first look at” the film. I have never seen an actor do such a terrible job of feigning enthusiasm in my life.
  • Football movies are never good. When they start trying to take on social/religious themes (which most of them do), they get even worse. Needless to say, this is a film I plan on missing.
  • I know it’s not true, but it feels like Laura Dern makes one movie per decade and disappears. Well, except for her regular forays into David Lynch’s maelstrom.
  • Pretending it wasn’t a trailer was just pretentious.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2014)

  • This is one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen. It looks boring, pointless, confused, and visually nothing but blackness.
  • The thing is, it’s a film directed by Christopher Nolan that stars Jessica Chastain (and that McConaughey guy, but Jessica Chastain is far more important to me), so it doesn’t need a trailer to sell it.
  • Unless this trailer is so bad because they handed it off to someone cheap thinking that it didn’t matter, someone needs to be fired.
  • Christopher Nolan needs to stop being so obsessed with Michael Caine. He is one of the ultimate examples that Americans will praise the acting of anyone with a British accent.

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall/Chris Williams, USA 2014)

  • I don’t understand it at all, but the trailer is actually funny. The balloon guy putting tape on the holes in his arm was funnier than anything in the Dumb and Dumber To trailer, certainly.
  • Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks this seems really weird even by animated film standards.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/USA 2014)

  • Peter Jackson’s last four Middle Earth films have used up any benefit of the doubt that he once had for me.
  • This blog’s first ever post was a review of the first The Hobbit–there will be no more Hobbit reviews because Jackson had so clearly failed that there is no reason to watch these other films.
  • This looks like just a five-hour battle sequence. Unsurprising given the title.

Annie (Will Gluck, USA 2014)

  • Why?

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, USA 2014)

  • I knew what this was from the opening “I wish.” I’m not sure if that says more about the trailer, the musical, or me.
  • A running dialogue of my thoughts as the trailer played: Rob Marshall made a pretty good film once in Memoirs of a Geisha, so maybe this will work. Meryl Streep would work of course. Love Anna Kendrick and James Corden. Shit. Johnny Depp. I’m out.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Shawn Levy, USA/UK 2014)

Movie Review: “Transcendence” (Wally Pfister, UK/China/USA 2014)

It seems like everyone in Hollywood who is successful in one area eventually tries directing, and every profession has its own typical pitfalls. Actors tend to fall in love with giving their actors scenery to chew and meaty characters to dig into and neglect everything visual. Writers tend to fall in love with their stories and forget to have a point (and make the stories too complex). Musicians tend to be awful at everything. Cinematographers are the people who are most clearly positioned to make such a transition successfully, since they already have to handle the visual elements of a film as cinematographers, but they sometimes fall end up being the prototypical “style over substance” filmmakers–more interested in drawing attention to themselves than in serving the film. (However, I tend to enjoy style over substance.)

Wally Pfister has had an excellent 20-year run as a cinematographer, first for Roger Corman, whose obsession with making silly sexploitation flicks and low-budget crap has masked the fact that he has been a remarkable judge of talent for many years, and then for Christopher Nolan, who has become the celebrity director du jour for the public the last few years. Nolan’s films have always looked good, and that’s attributable not just to Nolan but also to Pfister, so I was excited to see his directorial debut.

Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen concoct a story that seems ripe for being another example the all-too-common horror/sci-fi warning about the dangers of technology: Artificial intelligence researcher Will Caster has the world’s strongest AI but no way of imbuing it with consciousness when he is attacked by a “neo-luddite” (awesome term) terrorist group that also destroys decades’ worth of research at other AI facilities. As a result, the FBI gives him groundbreaking research from another researcher that gives him that final piece of the puzzle–uploading an existing consciousness instead of creating it artificially–just as radiation poisoning from the attack begins to melt away his life. His wife (a fellow AI researcher) and best friend (another AI researcher) then come up with an obvious plan: Upload the dying Will’s consciousness into the AI. He of course becomes essentially all-powerful and moves technology forward at a frightening pace, always being dogged by the terrorists from earlier but also by former friends who find this newfound existence both frightening and decidedly un-Will-like.

It’s fairly standard “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” rip-off material, but Pfister and Paglen provide an interesting twist: throughout, the neo-Luddites and the others who are frightened by the AI’s growth and actions are frightened for unexplained reasons because they actually do not have good reason for their fear. They’re worried that “Will” is amassing an army when it turns out he’s just helping people to get better from illness and enhancing them because he can. They’re afraid that he’s sending out nanobots (straight out of Doctor Who) to embed himself irrevocably in the world when he’s really trying to fix the environment, as his wife had always hoped to do. They’re afraid he wants to upload his wife into the AI because he’s not really Will’s consciousness, but he actually wants to because he is Will’s consciousness and he wants to be with her. The film’s point is that we shouldn’t fear advancement just because it is advancement–we should make sure that it’s actually something to be feared first. And the film actually makes its point reasonably well for the most part, though it strays several times to improve its love story and give Paul Bettany and Kate Mara more screen time.

I was excited to see what Pfister would do because we already know he has a good eye, but he and cinematographer Jess Hall did fall a bit into the cinematographer’s trap of forgetting to serve its subject. He became obsessed with his slow motion shots of dripping water that served no real purpose and went through some watered-down Sergei Eisenstein montages that only served as distractions. He also used a bit much CGI, considering that his story could easily have been altered to avoid using quite so much of it. Still, his mastery of shadows and color was on full display, so the film still looked good enough. I also like to give points for being unconventional even when it doesn’t work. The film took some visual risks, and it should be applauded for that.

For a film with so many big stars, there was hardly anything for them to do. The makeup does all the work for Johnny Depp when he’s getting sick and his hair does all the work in showing that he’s a stressed-out schlub before that, and he really has no emotions to play throughout. Nolan favorite Cillian Murphy is wasted in a role as an FBI agent who doesn’t so much as get annoyed at someone or show any real anxiety. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman–kindly, wise, and eminently calm. The only person who really has anything to do is Rebecca Hall, who turns in an excellent performance in a surprisingly complex role. She has to play complex mixed emotions throughout the film, and does it very well. It’s a credit to Hall that the strongest single moment in the film isn’t one of Pfister’s shots but rather her exchange with Morgan Freeman when he asks if she is okay at Will’s AI facility–it’s a beautiful moment of complex emotion watching her trying to convince both herself and Freeman that she’s okay and Freeman not believing it for a second.

All told, Transcendence was a reasonably good film. It had some weaknesses and came off a bit pretentious because of Pfister’s desire to show off a few visual ideas he had, but it had a point and mostly stuck to it. It wouldn’t be an inaccurate to call this one style over substance, but at least it has enough style to be that. We’ve certainly seen some worse films this year.


  • With all of his technological innovation, Will still couldn’t make it so that his face wouldn’t flicker and glitch constantly?
  • Morgan Freeman listening to classical music–David Fincher would be proud.
  • Seriously, they were Doctor Who nanobots:
  • The nanobots can heal the guy’s skin almost instantly but not his clothes? Self-repairing clothing is not all that far off now, but Will can’t figure it out?
  • I’m sure that Freeman likes doing sci-fi films because of his professed love of science and reason, but it’s starting to feel like somewhere in Hollywood all the directors have to sign a contract to cast him in all futuristic or sci-fi films they make.
  • Johnny Depp spends nearly the entire film on video screens, presumably filmed in front of a green screen, and yet he needed two drivers. Why would you ever need two drivers? Presumably you can’t need to go to two places at once. Maybe one could only drive him for part of the time so they ended up changing or they fired one and replaced him with the other? I’ve probably thought too much about this.
  • Apparently Kate Winslet was supposed to be the lead but had scheduling issues. I guess Pfister knew he needed someone good!