The wait is finally over. The veil over one of the year’s most anticipated films has been lifted. So is Interstellar going to be a blockbuster hit? A major Oscar contender? A good movie?
The answer is all three. The film started screening in earnest last week with a Wednesday night “tastemaker” showing at the California Science Center IMAX that was heavily attended by Oscar voters (just as it had been in NYC a couple of nights earlier). But Paramount, as has been the case with all Christopher Nolan films, kept the movie shrouded in secrecy and had put a strict embargo on reviews and plot discussion until this morning (one online trade posted a spoiler-heavy piece after that Wednesday screening, but much of it mysteriously disappeared once the studio saw it in the morning.) There have been numerous screenings since, including a couple for the SAG nominating committee on Thursday night at the Chinese and Saturday night at Arc:ight in Sherman Oaks that were followed by Q&As I was pleased to moderate with stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. The film was junketing this weekend, and there was a big Los Angeles official premiere Sunday night, also at the Chinese. There will be another in NYC next week in advance of the November 5-6 select IMAX and 70MM film special screenings and its national break on November 7.
Early opinions are divided, which quite frankly also was the case with 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie that inspired a young Nolan. Rock Hudson famously walked out of that premiere, blasting the movie as not worthy of Hollywood. Obviously that wasn’t the case as the Stanley Kubrick classic is regarded almost as a religious experience for its zealots, and I have no doubt that the powerful, moving and thought-provoking Interstellar just might be regarded in that same league decades from now.
What it has that 2001 famously lacked is true human beings. The actors in it had less emotion than the robot HAL. Interstellar, on the other hand, is an emotional roller coaster and, for me, ultimately less a head-scratching sci-fi trip than a movie about time, love and human connectiveness. In other words, it is trying to unlock the mysteries in us and our relationship to one another as much as what’s out there in the great beyond. That element should play well with the Academy, which never has given a so-called “Science Fiction Film” the Best Picture Oscar (though 2013’s Gravity, to which Interstellar will be compared, came tantalizingly close, winning seven Oscars and Best Director only to lose the big one in the end to 12 Years A Slave). Reviews so far range from rapturous to mixed (our stablemate Variety puts it in the same breath with The Wizard Of Oz, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and 2001), and the early score at Rotten Tomatoes stands at 75% fresh, with just 20 reviews posted so far. But the big guns at big city newspapers won’t be heard until next week. (I will have a formal video review later this week.)
Critics and a handful of cranky pundits aside, I can tell you the industry so far seems to be blown away by Interstellar. I base that on seeing reaction at the SAG screenings, the Science Center screening and just general discussion. I was on the phone last week with Chris Rock, an Oscar voter as well as former Oscar host, interviewing him about his new comedy, Top Five, a smash hit at Toronto that Paramount will release December 5, right in the heart of awards season. I wondered what he thought about his own chances for awards, especially in original screenplay. “It’s intriguing, but I saw Interstellar, so …” — meaning what chance could he, or anyone else, possibly have?
At the Science Center party under the imposing Space Shuttle Endeavor, I saw several others expressing the same sentiments. A top major guild executive was still shaking and told me it was easily the best film he’d seen all year. One SAG- and Oscar-voting actor surprised me by praising this film over the more actor-centric Birdman, on which he seemed lukewarm at best.
A SAG Nom Comm voter, an older woman, told me she hadn’t experienced another film like it. To be sure Interstellar offers reigning Best Actor winner McConaughey his richest, most heroic and perhaps most emotional role ever — even more so, believe it or not, than Dallas Buyers Club. His character’s name is Cooper, and I asked him Saturday night if he might have been named as sort of a subtle homage to actor Gary Cooper , the iconic star who might have played this kind of conflicted but uniquely American character in another screen era (he didn’t know, but it was in Jonathan Nolan’s original script). If McConaughey hadn’t won last year, a nomination in this extremely competitive Best Actor race would be a given — he’s barely ever off screen in the film’s near-three-hour running time — but depending on how this all plays out, we could see him there again. It’s a huge movie-star performance in the best sense. Jessica Chastain, one of three actresses to play Cooper’s daughter Murph at different ages, has an enormously difficult role, but she nails it and should be in the running again for Best Supporting Actress.
The Best Picture category was made for films of this scope, ambition and achievement. And it is largely CGI-less, a rare move for epic movies of this scope, which should impress filmmakers. The major computers used for this film are on screen more than off. I would be surprised if Oscar voters left their love for this only to technical categories as they did all those years ago with 2001. After all, though his The Dark Knight famously didn’t make the Best Picture cut in 2008, it was responsible for the shift from five to 10 nominees that the Academy undertook the next year. And his Inception did get a Picture nod. I also think the complex original screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan could be in. Even Kubrick’s enormously heady script with Arthur C. Clarke for 2001 managed to make that cut in 1968 (but lost to Mel Brooks’ The Producers). Nominations in the below-the-line categories such as Cinematography, Editing, Hans Zimmer’s great score, Sound, Makeup and Production Design are all very possible. The studio needs to keep the booming sound in check, though, as it appeared to overwhelm some at one early screening. (You don’t want to send some of those older viewers straight to Cedars-Sinai after seeing and hearing this one.)
The Academy has its official screening on Saturday night, and it will be interesting to see reaction there. The big question is whether the directors branch finally will succumb to the power of Nolan. Although he has had three DGA nominations (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception), the much more exclusive — and elusive — Academy directors branch never has nominated him. This will be a litmus test. We’ll see.
As the Interstellar rollout continues during the next couple of weeks, more of this story will be told, and its awards prospects will take shape. This is not a movie that can be dismissed easily.