Interstellar‘s been out for over a month now, which is basically forever in blockbuster time. Why did it take me so long to see it? I was holding off in hope for the opportunity to see it in IMAX. Plans fell through, and barring a potential second run at the Aquarium (they tend to get studio movies late if they get them at all), it was looking unlikely I’d get to see it on the big big screen before The Hobbit: This Battle Lasts Five Hours pushes it out of IMAX theaters. Seeing it on a regular-sized digital screen is a mixed bag. On one hand, around a third of the frame is missing in the scenes shot on IMAX cameras. On the other hand, I had pretty much none of the dialogue audibility issues that have been reported out of some IMAX screenings (there were maybe 3 lines that sounded intentionally muffled under a rocket launch), and being in an almost empty theater, I was able to get close enough to the screen to let some of the intended immersive effect wash over me.
Even without the full IMAX cinematography, Interstellar is visually engrossing. The apocalyptic Earth seems to rain dust and grit. Wormholes compress extra dimensions into mind-warping imagery. Spaceships chip away at clouds of ice, robots exist as cubes that break into malleable fingers, and a scene of a tidal wave on an ocean planet is one of the scariest things ever. Accompanying these wondrous sights is powerful usage of not just sound, but silence; in contrast to Gravity where the musical score could get overbearing, Interstellar manages the perfect mix of Hans Zimmer’s powerful organs and the beautiful silence of space.
Interstellar‘s got a good story too. As semi-realistic space exploration movie of course it’s going to be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (the snarky robot jokes about that film), but tonally Christopher Nolan is moving away from Kubrickian coldness towards Spielbergian warmth (it’s not surprising Spielberg was attached to Interstellar early on). It’s a father-daughter story, framed with a “ghost” story. I figured out the ending of the “ghost” story at least an hour before it’s resolved onscreen, but seeing how that resolution plays out was still satisfying to see. The ideas of time dilation and relativity have been illustrated similarly in books like The Forever War and anime like Voices of a Distant Star (a very close match thematically; coming off of the Paprika homages in Inception, I suspect Nolan’s something of an otaku), but this is new material for a Hollywood film, and when Cooper gets a message across space from his daughter Murph, now the same age he is, it’s potent geeky-weepy material.
The movie has too much padding to be great. The inclusion of a surprise villain feels potentially unnecessary (the inclusion of a random fist fight, absolutely so). More than any plot elements, the biggest issue is excess expository dialogue. I don’t mind so much in regards to the science stuff (I enjoy that geekiness, and anything that sells science to younger girls and Middle America is doing a public good), but basic statements of plot and theme are repeatedly. Other Nolan films have had moments of clunky dialogue (as my friend kind of scarily obsessed with quoting the airplane sequence from The Dark Knight Rises to attest to), but in Interstellar, with its slower pace, relatively straightforward perspective, and minimal action, it becomes a more immediately distracting issue. Matthew McConaughey’s drawling Cooper and both the main actresses playing Murph (the young Mackenzie Foy aging convincingly into Jessica Chastain) manage to deliver these lines well enough, others not so much. This is the most problematic in the first earthbound act of the film, before they go into space and the good stuff really gets going. In that sense it reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another sci-fi epic that opens with an almost painfully expository first act before entering into captivating realms both alien and powerfully emotional.
I don’t give grades on this site, but The Dissolve‘s review probably has the best approach for grading a film like Interstellar. They gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, but also gave it an “Essential Viewing” tag. That sounds about right. The movie doesn’t achieve consistent greatness, yet that it achieves its moments of transcendence at all makes it absolutely something to see on the biggest screen you can find.