It’s already a miracle when any filmmaker, regardless of reputation or clout, manages to bring a big-budget hard sci-fi film to the big screen. The Catch-22 is attempting to compose an intellectually complex science-fiction story that deftly examines what it means to be human in our vast and unpredictable universe with the kind of giant budget that’s usually reserved for crowd-pleasing action fare.
That’s why hard science-fiction flourished in the literary world, especially during its 1950s golden period, while great examples of the genre within the entirety of film history can be counted on one hand.
Any masterpiece that’s before its time, that dares to go places previously unheard of, will more than likely be misunderstood or underrated upon its initial release. Since bona fide hard science-fiction masterpieces tend to delve headfirst into complex high-concept ideas about facing the unknown, unpredictable universe while coming to terms with how frail and lost we really are as a species, it’s no surprise that it usually takes a decade or two for such daring works to be fully appreciated.
Having to face something we’ve never seen on the big screen that challenges the limits of our intellectual as well as emotional capacity as it relates to art is perhaps why critics and audiences usually brand these films as "silly" or "nonsensical" upon their initial release.
When Kubrick’s timeless masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released in 1968, audiences and critics didn’t know what to do with a film that was unlike anything they’ve seen before, not only a groundbreaking technical achievement up until that point, but a cryptic and awe-inspiring examination of humanity’s possible future and relationship to the universe.
In 1968, it was commonplace to read scathing reviews of 2001 and hear about audiences leaving the theatres cursing at Kubrick, most of the scorn reserved for the third act, which dares to speculate on a new plane of existence that’s beyond our comprehension. Yet about a decade after its release, 2001 was already hailed as one of the greatest films ever made.
In the actual year of 2001, Kubrick and Spielberg’s vastly underrated Artificial Intelligence was met with similar ridicule and criticism, most of it aimed at the high-concept and emotionally complex finale that once again pushed the boundaries of the genre to bring us something we haven’t experienced before.
Yet nine years after its release, the same critics who discarded A.I. upon its initial run called it one of the best films of its decade. As real artificial intelligence progresses at the overwhelming speed that it does, I predict A.I. will be gradually more appreciated over time.
Now it’s Christopher Nolan’s turn, as his mind-bending, gorgeous, ballsy, intensely emotional and intellectually challenging space epic Interstellar will spark heated discussions upon its release, be misunderstood and ridiculed by many critics and audiences, only to be hailed as an envelope-pushing masterpiece ten years down the line.
I know that I’m spending too much space on an impromptu lesson on the history of hard sci-fi during what’s supposed to be a review of Interstellar. The truth is that I want to recommend it to absolutely everyone, regardless of whether or not I think you’ll love it or loathe it, without giving almost any detail regarding its narrative or even its technical achievements.
This is an experience you must engage in with as little prior knowledge about it as possible. It’s hardly surprising that even before its release, critics are already taking sides in heated arguments about Interstellar’s many challenging themes and ideas.
Most of the arguments focus on its insane yet mesmerizing finale, so be on the lookout for similar long deconstructions of the third act to blow up even in casual conversations during the months following its release. Just like 2001 and A.I., Interstellar boldly goes places no filmmaker has gone before during its final 20 minutes.
Interstellar’s marketing did an amazing job teasing it without giving away any major plot details: In a dust-ridden, food-scarce, regrettably actually possible near future, a pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has to travel through a mysterious black hole with a crew of scientists in order to find a new home for humanity.
In doing so, he has to leave his family, which includes his beloved daughter, behind to embark on a dangerous mission he more than likely won’t return from. All of this happens before we even hit the first act break, and what follows is a remarkably ambitious labyrinthine trip through relativity, gravity, time, and dimension, all of it wrapped around a profoundly human story.
Nolan’s a director who’s praised for his technical prowess yet criticized for his clinical and cold approach to character and story, lacking all emotion. Regardless of the fact that I find this assertion to be unfounded, it’s going to be hard to find anyone bringing up the same argument with regard to Interstellar, where the close bond between Cooper and his daughter allows Nolan to examine what it truly means to be human in such an unforgiving universe.
Without giving too many details into Interstellar’s revolutionary visual style, I can safely state that I loved how the production design and special effects rely heavily on efficiency instead of cinematic grandstanding. Everything from the design of the shuttles to the surprisingly nimble box-shaped robots that resemble the famous monoliths from 2001 is there to directly serve the story instead of providing an unnecessarily cool and sexy experience for the audience.
The glorious blend of sound-less space, a welcome realistic approach first revitalized by last year’s Gravity, and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score creates a jaw-dropping audiovisual experience on its own.
Of course there’s a lot more to be talked about when it comes to Interstellar. But it’s too early in the game to fully trust any source of feedback, including mine, when it comes to any deep and insightful examination of its many layers. Films with this much unbridled ambition needs to ferment in the audience’s mind for a while before a concrete reaction can really be taken seriously. For now my only advice is to go see it as soon as possible.