Off the Carpet: Enter Nolan - 'Interstellar' has arrived
Observing Christopher Nolan move further and further into macro territory with larger and larger canvases that couldn't be more removed from the imposed modesty of his debut, "Following," one thing has become increasingly clear: he's a master of the big picture (as in the greater takeaway from a project, not scale and scope — though that's obviously applicable, too). This has never been more the case than with "Interstellar."
It's a shame, though, that he is a filmmaker who holds things so close to the chest (i.e. screenings) that a number of critics who came away negative on the picture — and there are quite a few — won't have an opportunity to catch it again before needing to file their reviews. Because I imagine some of them would find a number of loose ends either tied up or, at the very least, singed into reconciliation. At least, I did.
First and foremost, anything you've heard about the sound in that packed-to-the-rafters 70mm IMAX screening at the TCL Chinese Theater Thursday night is absolutely true. Take a proprietary IMAX sound mix and speaker configuration that can be pretty inferior and add in the fact that Nolan's mixes tend to be muddied historically (then consider that for some reason the system was turned up to 11) — it was a recipe for disaster. I couldn't understand full stretches of dialogue and the IMAX of it all with the pitch darkness of the celluloid (too dark, I'd wager), it just wasn't settling.
My second look was in a smaller studio lot screening room on 35mm with a traditional mix and maybe five or six other people in the room. Night and day. And that's just on a technical level. Going back also allowed some of the clunkiness of the narrative to settle in a more satisfying way. It was just nice to see it again after knowing what it was, and this mystery box mentality sort of precludes that for many critics.
So I've already had two very different experiences with this film.* And for whatever it's worth, when it all settled by the end of the weekend, I came away counting this marriage of Heinlein and Clarke** as one of three films this year, alongside "Boyhood" and "Birdman," that flirt with the "M" word. It was a massive pendulum swing. Some of it remains ham-fisted to me. The oppressive exposition still riles. It's imperfect. But again, you can pick at the rougher edges, but you would lose what's happening on the broader canvas.
All of that, funnily enough, recalls the thematic brilliance of this film. "We found that the more you explored the cosmic side of things, the further out into the universe you went, the more the focus came down to who we are as people and the connections between us," Nolan said at a press conference last week. That macro/micro quality is a defining characteristic of "Interstellar," like quantum mechanics versus astrophysics. To reconcile the imperfections you have to recognize and accept the larger context, and the larger context here is a compendium of ideas few have ever been so bold as to sit down and attempt to convey cinematically. For that, Nolan gets my utmost respect.
But few will have the luxury to see it twice, including and perhaps especially those in the industry who will soon be casting a ballot for this or that. It's worth mentioning because the potential for this film to be confounding is all too real. For those reasons, instinctively, I'm skeptical about its place as a game changer in this year's Oscar race. But I do know this: in a Best Actor race marked by an embarrassment of riches, you can add Matthew McConaughey to the mix. I'm not sure you can call someone a revelation just six months after winning an Academy Award, but McConaughey is sort of phenomenal here. He's tapped into a whole new swagger, a movie star presence surprising even for him, and he's delivered a specific, emotional performance to perhaps rival the one that found him on red carpet after red carpet last season. Imagine that.