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My 12 for ’14: Interstellar and Our Place in the Stars…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Interstellar is an unapologetically emotional film.

This seems a bit odd, given the reputation that Christopher Nolan has built up as a somewhat cold and clinical film maker. However, that reputation always seemed a little undeserved, based more on his meticulous craftsmanship and tendency towards intricate plot structures than on the material content of his movies. Nolan’s films have always had strong emotional cores buried beneath cynical exteriors. He is one of the few writers to give Batman a happy ending, after all.

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Interstellar tips its hand early on, with Brand proposing love as a universal force on par with gravity. Despite Interstellar‘s keen attention to detail and physics, the final act was all but inevitable. At its core, Interstellar is the story about a father’s love transcending time and space. The actual mechanics necessary to reach that point are intricate and stylishly realised, but they are not the point of the film. Ironically, in constructing a film that repeatedly (and consciously) mimics 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan casts off the stock comparison to Kubrick.

Oddly enough, Nolan brings a decidedly old-school aesthetic to Interstellar. Any number of visuals from the film would not look out of place on the battered cover of a fifties or sixties paperback. Filmed using practical effects and on real film, Interstellar‘s style evokes an older style of cinematic spectacle. Even its pacing evokes classic Hollywood storytelling, with Interstellar never feeling too rushed or relaxed as it crafts a three-hour saga. The result is stunningly beautiful piece of work.

interstellar2In some respects, the mixed critical reaction to Interstellar is something of a blessing. The movie was not quite what anybody expected, and polarised critical and audience response has generally been the indicator of a classic science fiction film. Think of Blade Runner or Alien or even 2001: A Space Odyssey. These were all films that looked and felt utterly unlike anything that contemporary audiences had come to expect; confusing and ambitious cocktails that seemed to have landed outside of time. Perhaps Interstellar will feel the same way with time.

Or perhaps it won’t. It is too soon to engage in retrospection about a movie released less than two months ago. An end of year retrospective invites such consideration, but – ironically – we need more time to properly assess how Interstellar is to be processed or perceived. Then again, there is something quite fascinating about the way that Interstellar has become such a lightning rod for debate and discussion; everybody has an opinion. Some love it; some hate it. Some adore the first two acts and hate the last third; some think it is indulgent and pretentious.

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Interstellar is certainly a film that gets people talking, providing an impetus for these sorts of conversations. One of the more interesting aspects of 2014 has been just how polarising major movie releases have become – at least outside of blockbuster season. Interstellar, Gone Girl and Wolf of Wall Street are massive films that provoke a myriad of responses. Everybody and their mother has an opinion on Interstellar, and those ideas inevitably intermingle and contrast, spurring even more debated and discussion.

The nature of popular culture is changing. The distribution model has made it easier to reach smaller audiences, and to filter or tailor content. Consider the declining ratings on the major television networks in the age of digital entertainment. Youtube stars are able to turn themselves into millionaires by selectively and efficiently targeting their niche. It seems like the big monolithic pop culture moment is a thing of the past; the “must watch” era of television and film has been eroded by Netflix and TiVo.

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(For example, the biggest television phenomena of the last couple of years – if you believe the internet – are only accessible to a tiny minority of viewers. Orange is the New Black airs on-line. Breaking Bad only really broke out in its last couple of seasons. Mad Men continues to percolate on the edge of the popular consciousness, even as pop culture heralds sing its praises. Hannibal can survive despite abysmal viewing figures because of a clever distribution model. Not everybody can watch True Detective and Game of Thrones.)

Against this backdrop, movies have gone two routes. The bigger budget movies have thrown even more money at the screen as they turn to sequels and prequels and reboots and remakes. Transformers 4 will make a shedload of money, no matter how vacuous it is. The smaller budget movies have become even more indie and viral, counting on critical and audience buzz more than ever. Critics will rave about Boyhood and Birdman, but they will never become big cultural moments. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but it seems they veer to the extremes.

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One of the more interesting facets of 2014 has been the willingness to produce relatively expensive and high-profile films that are not safe, and that will generate discussion and strong reactions. Films like Interstellar, Gone Girl, Wolf of Wall Street and Noah are relatively big gambles for the studios, but they are also movies that generate conversations and discussions without feeling either large and safe or quirky and small. They feel like films that have re-claimed the middle ground that seemed to be shrinking with each passing year.

Interstellar is a movie rich with ambition and utterly unconcerned with what a large audience might think about it. It is bold and daring; there are points where Interstellar seems almost confrontational. It is a movie that is saying what it wants to say, without any real desire to temper that for fear of losing the audience. By the time that the third act kicks into gear, the viewer is either along for the ride or not; there is no concession, no half-hearted attempt half-please everybody.

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Interstellar is a film brave enough to know that it will have to alienate some viewers to make its point. From its fascination with the moon launch through to its pulpy science-fiction roots, Interstellar is a truly epic film that could not have come through the sorts of focus groups or studio notes that tend to dominate big budget blockbusters. It is a film produced by a director who clearly has the trust of the studio to realise his vision. As with the other examples from this year, that raw energy on display is impossible to resist.

It is hard not to admire the craftsmanship on display here. Interstellar is a movie elegantly designed to push the limits of the cinematic experience. Like Tarantino and other directors, Nolan is a proponent of traditional film making. The director shoots on film and largely eschews green screen work. The result is a movie that feels much more grounded and real than many of its contemporaries. There is a visceral quality to Interstellar, apparent even in the decision to shoot the space scenes from the perspective of the craft rather than an objective observer.

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Despite this scale, Interstellar is as deeply personal and intimate as that told in independent films like Boyhood or The Babadook. It is a story that seems quite personal to Nolan, the loving father who spends time away from his family to do his work; a director condensing months and years of planning away from his children into mere minutes of screen-time. Just as Spielberg has always been conscious of fathers, Nolan has similarly been preoccupied by stories of parents and children; indeed, the last four of his films were given codenames referencing his own children.

Hans Zimmer’s score to Interstellar is a thing of beauty, with soaring organ solos and a compelling sense of urgency; the initial direction from Christopher Nolan was a note with two line of dialogue written on it (“I’ll come back” “When?”) and a quote from an earlier conversation between Nolan and Zimmer about the responsibilities of parenthood. There is a sense that Nolan has not changed too dramatically since his work on Memento, that he is still a film maker working on themes and ideas that profoundly fascinate him; just on a much larger scale.

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Interstellar is a stunning, thoughtful, provocative piece of work. It is the best film of the year.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent overview of Interstellar! I’m very interested in what reputation it will end up with in posterity. It’s curious how films end up with their own mini-narrative of critical reception (e.g. Amazing Spider-Man 2)

    • Thanks Marc!

      I remain one of the few people who loved The Amazing Spider-Man II, despite disliking the first film in the series. It had flaws, but I thought its core arc worked very well.

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