I know it’s a bit of a strange comparison but in Spaceballs, President Skroob explains his habit of running everywhere saying: “The ship is too big. If I walk the movie will be over.” Interstellar tries to take the opposite philosophy: many events happen at a more realistic pace and less concern is given to the overall film length. The result is a movie almost 3 hours long which doesn’t feel long, apart from about 20 minutes near the end that get uncomfortably cheesy and melodramatic. But the film does sometimes still feels rushed.
I really enjoyed this film and especially the generally slow pace of development. It is refreshing to see a film that isn’t afraid to take it’s time setting the scene and developing characters and relationships. It is also very well filmed with beautiful imagery and composition of shots both on Earth and in space. In addition there is plenty of decent plot development, OK science and good dialogue. It is very rare to get all of these things, mostly, right in a film.
This is a movie that, at heart, is about how love can escape the bounds of time and space which is pretty cheesy and not very original but isn’t especially offensive in a decent film. Unfortunately it is regularly, loudly and explicitly stated that love is the power that saves the day. After all this is also a reasonably solid science fiction story and not a children’s fairy tale or teen drama so there’s no real need to lay things on so thick. Explicitly shouting the theme several times, most gratingly near the end, is close to sickeningly cheesy and insults the intelligence of the viewers.
The first 45 minutes neatly set up the current situation on Earth and how people live. It is immersive and often starkly beautiful and really allows the viewer to become part of the world. The world where everyone is a farmer reminds me stylistically of Signs, being set on a farm with corn fields and potentially supernatural goings on. It also shares the slow build up.
Then things suddenly speed up a bit as certain revelations are made and seemingly all the commitment to slow film making is thrown to the wind. This feels jarring and presumably was intended to make the viewer feel something of what the characters are feeling but without any justification in the narrative the sudden urgency actually interrupts your immersion and you’re suddenly reminded that you are watching a movie.
Fortunately the style settles down again and the tedium and long time spans involved in space travel, even within our system, are well handled. The space scenes are dramatically shot and very pretty. The space ships are nicely utilitarian and practical looking although in some cases the exterior shots are too clean and the ships look out of place when they should blend in seamlessly. Although this is definitely more of a science fiction fantasy story rather than “hard” SF, the space flight scenes are generally more realistically presented than those in other “harder” SF films. OK the science is sometimes rather flaky but, for example, they get the principle that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum (I’m looking at you Gravity).
Once the mission has left our solar system, things move more squarely into fantasy territory. The crew’s adventures (and misadventures) now taking place in a distant galaxy and on alien worlds gives the film more leeway to venture into the fantastical. A good balance is maintained though between realism and fantasy and it doesn’t suddenly go all Journey to the Centre of the Earth in the second half.
There are some twists in the run up to the climax but they are either reasonably obvious or just not quite interesting enough to be dramatic. Towards the end, the plot starts to feel like it is running out of steam before the cameras are ready to stop rolling. This doesn’t really matter though as the cameras are producing some beautiful images and for the most part it doesn’t feel like it drags on for too long.
A quick note about the robots in this film. I’m not sure if I like their physical appearance or not. It is quite refreshing that they have gone away from the typical android type appearance but the strange folding bi-pedal format looks pretty clunky and impractical. On the other hand, the personalities of the robots are just right. I especially like the segment where the ability of the robots to tell lies and jokes in introduced and TARS pretends that he is going to enslave the human crew and set up a robot colony.
I feel that a little too much time is spent at the end tying up loose ends. Although it is nice to see how the story lines work out and it is a refreshing break from the recent tradition of stopping the narrative as soon as (or even just before) the climactic obstacle has apparently been overcome. When a film like this is well done the viewer is invested in the characters and wants to know what happens to them in the end. Not everything is fully explained by the end but it does feel a little like spoon feeding rather than allowing us to use our imaginations a bit.
Significant spoilers here in the last paragraph…
I just had to mention a thing that bugged me about one of the main plot points in the second third of the film which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Matt Damon’s character has been sent to investigate a potentially habitable world. He finds it desolate and worthless and realises that with limited resources, people from Earth probably won’t ever come there again. So he fakes his reports on his planet, making it look like an ideal location for a colony, to get the crew to come and rescue him. Once they arrive, instead of coming clean and going with them to another planet, he decides to kill them and steal their spaceships. He talks about not wanting to be alone and trying to secure the future of the human race but all his actions seem to be geared specifically towards remaining alone and wasting the very limited resources that are the only chance for the survival of the race. OK, he’s probably pretty crazy after spending a long time alone with no real hope of rescue but this feels like lazy writing to inject some drama and action into the second third of the movie and could have been handled a lot better by including him in the team and developing tension between the crew and the traitor who they need to join them.