Director Christopher Nolan and the cast have taken great lengths to insure complete secrecy for one of the year's most anticipated films; Interstellar. I feel that it is only fair to respect this by writing a non-traditional review. There aren't any spoilers to be had here, this is simply a summary of how and what to prepare for when seeing this film. Because even though this film will not appeal to everyone, it remains a must-see.
Interstellar is set in an unknown amount of time in the future. Earth is becoming increasingly unlivable as food supplies are low, and ferocious dust storms commonly occur. Our main protagonist, Cooper, who has two kids he cares deeply for, is sent into space (along with three other astronauts) to find a planet that might sustain life, in order for the human population to evacuate earth.
Because this film is nearly 3 hours long (at 169 minutes), make sure to bring snacks to insure that distracting hunger is not an issue. Bring beverages if you must, but nothing carbonated. Slurping soda may result in bathroom breaks, which I advise highly against. Interstellar both requires and deserves your full attention. Distractions of any kind should not be tolerated.
Do not despair if the first 40 minutes are too slow for your liking. I can assure you that the preceding 130 minutes are thrilling and wondrous. But the first 40 minutes (representing Cooper's time on Earth before the mission) is essential. In addition to suggesting the premise and getting the plot in motion, it constructs the emotional backbone of the story that is pivotal to the experience. Cooper's relationship with his daughter, Murphy (and to a significantly lesser extent, his relationship with his son, Tom) is the heart and soul of this picture. Without it, the entire picture would collapse. Your ability to believe and absorb the story, especially at its most preposterous moments, will rely almost entirely on your investments in Cooper and Murphy's relationship.
Thankfully, these two characters are intricately written, and their relationship is believable and touching. There is a temptation for screenwriters to mistake an actor's youth as personality, thus manipulating the audience with unearned emotion from bland child characters. But Christopher Nolan (and brother, Johnathon Nolan) do not take this easy route. Their friendship and love is painstakingly developed during those 40 minutes, and then expanded throughout the picture. One particular scene that occurs within the first 40 minutes, involves Cooper saying goodbye to Murphy as he prepares to go to space. This scene is stunningly emotional, discarding the sappiness and cliches that would have been so easy to insert here, instead portraying a very real sounding conversation between the two, and subtly suggesting the expanse of poignancy that will overtake this emotionally-charged thrill ride.
Once we get into space, the entire film ascends to incredible heights (literally and metaphorically, of course). The visual effects enter to dazzle and bewilder. These visuals are nothing short of breathtaking. It's been a long time since I've actually watched a film with my mouth agape in wonder, but it happened here many times. The special effects are accented with the emotion and connection with our main character, as well as stunning, poignant silence. The silence in particular could have been mere space gimmickry, but its applications are frequently astounding.
When the film isn't overtaken with silence, Hans Zimmer's score comes in to elevate the picture even further. The organ plays a big part in the music, suggesting grandness, menace, and spectacle all at once. But it's not all "loud noises." Zimmer manages to insert soft, minimalist piano pieces throughout the picture, but it never feels like an obvious cliche. It's an achievement in judgement. For even the most simple and quiet of piano music here manages to suggest scale and enormity in a way that even the loudest of modern blockbuster scores can't manage. Its entertainment on its own merit could be potentially disappointing. But paired with picture, I don't have any hesitation with naming Interstellar as one of the rare perfectly scored films, joining rankings with E.T., Up, Hugo, and Edward Scissorhands. If this sounds absurd, I urge you to watch the film. Hans Zimmer has purposely delayed the album release by two weeks, so that audiences will be forced to watch the film before owning the music. This isn't a gimmick, it's a service to the both the picture and the music.
The cast gives it their all in one of the best ensemble performances I've seen. Matthew McConaughey is our protagonist, and he brings both subtly and intensity to this nuanced and beautiful performance. McCounaughey won't win an Oscar for this (his win last year for Dallas Buyer's Club and Intertsellar's less then excellent reception are speed-bumps to big overcome), but he deserves one. The rest of the cast is no less impressive. Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, McKenzie Foy, and several others shine and enchant. Billy Irwin voices a comedic robot that is not the annoying supporting character you may have been expecting. His presence is minimal, but constant, and his humorous contributions are funny without being overbearing. The result is seemless integration of 5% comedy with 95% drama.
The last hour of the film is where many have been turned off. It has split a lot of audiences right down the middle. It worked for me (though with quibbles here and there), but some have found the last act to be a deal breaker. I offer no advice here, except to say that this is "pure" science fiction, and those unaccustomed to such may find themselves dissatisfied.
In many respects, Interstellar is Christopher Nolan's "statement" project. After consistent critical and box office success time and time again, the studios and producers have backed off. The movie is 3 hours long, and it's only that long because of Nolan's current status. Nolan also got to say "no" to 3D, and instead, promote IMAX screenings (which were open two days before the film's official release). Interstellar was shot entirely in film (as opposed to being shot digitally), a fact that the end credits proudly trumpet. So it's a little sad that Interstellar has been received with such mixed reactions. The complaints don't necessarily match up. Detractors of this film hate the ending. They despise the length. They question the subtly of the themes. For some, the film simply works, and that's all there is too it. Such is the case for me.
I acknowledge the film's many flaws. The science-y gobbly-gook that occasionally overtakes the picture is sometimes lazily used to explain or justify plot points. Context for several scenes are sometimes a bit unclear. And there's some poorly disguised exposition at the beginning of the film. Interstellar is not a perfect film; it has problems to be certain. Though I would argue that length is not one of them. Many would disagree, but I don't think Interstellar could have been as effective if its run time was any shorter. On the contrary, I wouldn't have minded terribly if the film was a little longer. There are so many ideas and themes that are suggested, but never fully developed, and it's a shame that there wasn't time for all of them. As is, the 169 minutes we spend in Nolan's galactic vision are wonderful. But the most compelling element here, is the very earthly connection between Cooper and Murphy. That is the secret to this film's success. That is the key to its brilliance and effectiveness. Not a masterpiece, but it transcends the term "film" and meets the qualifications of an "experience."