Christopher Nolan's new space epic lives up to that moniker in the sheer scope of its visuals. But is the story equally impressive?
Last night, I saw Interstellar in Imax 70mm film at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, CA. Normally, I much prefer digital presentations, but this is a special case—director Christopher Nolan is a real filmophile, and this is the format he favors to present the movie exactly as he intended it to be seen. Unfortunately, only 54 Imax theaters worldwide are showing it in 70mm film (32 in the US), but it's also being presented in standard 70mm film, 35mm film, Imax digital (dual-projector), 4K digital, and 2K digital. It was not shot or processed in 3D, and the soundtrack was not mixed in any immersive-sound format.
First, the movie itself; I will offer no real spoilers here, only basic plot points that most people know already, even if they haven't seen it yet. In the near future (it's not clear just how near that future is supposed to be; I'd say in the neighborhood of 50 years from now), humanity is struggling to survive and grow enough food in an environmentally devastated world. Led by a mysterious message, ex-engineer and pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his tween daughter Murph (Mackennzie Foy) end up at the secret headquarters of the remnants of NASA, which has discovered a wormhole that could provide a means for the human race to migrate to another world.
Cooper agrees to lead a small team to see if any of the potentially habitable planets near the other end of the wormhole will suffice as humanity's new home. Meanwhile, the elderly Professor Brand (Michael Caine) works to complete a formula to control gravity and thus lift massive cylindrical structures filled with people off the surface of the Earth. But in order to save the world, Cooper must leave his beloved daughter (Mackennzie Foy as a child, Jessica Chastain as an adult, Ellen Burstyn as a senior) and son (Timothee Chalamet as a teen, Casey Affleck as an adult) as well as his father-in-law (John Lithgow), possibly forever. On the plus side, his intrepid team includes Professor Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway).
For the most part, the science of wormholes, black holes, and relativistic time dilation depicted in the movie is quite accurate as far as we understand such things—which shouldn't be surprising with CalTech physicist Kip Thorne acting as an executive producer and science advisor. I have a degree in physics, and I read about developments this field a lot, so I was pleased to see that Nolan made a real effort to get the science right.
As for the story, I found it to be somewhat simplistic, though there is some higher-dimensional time looping that might give some viewers pause along with the heavy-duty physics. And there are several major plot holes that I won't go into here. Emotions run very high, almost to the point of melodrama, and everything is relentlessly depressing—which, I suppose, is to be expected in an end-of-the-world story. The only respite is TARS, a wisecracking robot (voiced by Bill Irwin), whose design and persona seem highly improbable and incongruous. I'm really glad there are no alien monsters, but there are many sequences of growing intensity that reach a fever pitch and then suddenly relax—so many that I felt wrung out and exhausted by the end. Finally, the movie is simply too long with too much expository dialog; many scenes could have been shortened or even eliminated without compromising the story.
Cooper explores the surface of a frozen planet on the other side of the wormhole.
Even though the story is basically simple, many plot points were completely obscured by truly terrible dialog intelligibility. I've heard this complaint from several people, so I'm inclined to think it's in the soundtrack, not the theater's sound system. (In fact, the Chinese Theatre had installed additional acoustic treatments per Nolan's specifications at a cost of $600,000!) Contributing to this problem is McConaughey's mumbling delivery, but he's not the only one who can't be understood at least some of the time. Another problem with dialog intelligibility is that quite a bit of dialog is delivered amid very noisy conditions—dust storms, flying through the wormhole, etc.
Speaking of noisy conditions, the levels during the presentation were pretty outrageous. The average level (Leq) over the movie's entire length was 99.8 dBC, and the highest 1-second level (Lmax) was 117 dBC! The level remained above 101 dBC 10% of the time and above 79 dB half the time. Also, the subwoofers got a serious workout during the loud parts—32 Hz and surrounding frequencies reached 120 dBC near the end—shaking the seats almost like a ButtKicker! I brought my earplugs, but I ended up putting my fingers in my ears during the loud parts so I could better hear the dialog in the soft parts—not that it helped much in that regard.
By far the best aspect of Interstellar is the visuals, which are absolutely stunning. The scenes in space, near the wormhole and black hole, and on the surface of the extrasolar planets are gorgeous, well worth the price of admission alone. Amazingly, Nolan used very little CGI, building full-sized sets and intricate models instead. And I was surprised that the image was rock steady with no visible gate judder, and I saw only a few scratches in the film.
As he has done in several of his movies, Nolan uses different aspect ratios, including Imax film-native 1.43:1, "flat" 1.85:1, Imax flat 1.89:1 (which is mostly used in museum- and planetarium-based Imax theaters), and 2.39:1 for shots on 35mm film. The shots in space were mostly 1.43:1, providing an awesome sense of immersion, while many of the more intimate moments were in one of the wider aspect ratios. I noticed the switches sometimes, but it never bothered me—in fact, I thought it served the experience well. The image was mighty impressive on the 66x46-foot screen, which had been masked from its full size of 86x46 feet.
After the movie, I met up with the Chinese Theatre's head projectionist, Thomas Larsen (who has been a guest on my Home Theater Geeks podcast
), and the onsite Imax projection specialist, Pat Caldwell, who gave me a tour of the projection room. I learned that the film itself weighs 600 pounds and stretches 10.67 miles. An Imax film projector had been installed for this movie, and its unique film-handling and shutter system are responsible for the lack of gate judder.
Unlike 35mm film projectors, in which the film is oriented vertically, the Imax 70mm projector orients the film horizontally. The film is drawn from the center of the spool outward and returned to the take-up spool in the same way, leaving it ready to be played again immediately—no rewinding necessary. Interstellar fills the spool so completely, there is no room for trailers, and the end credits are drastically shorter than in other presentation formats.
Larsen told me that the open-gate peak brightness for Imax is 22 foot-lamberts, whereas 35mm film and digital are spec'd at 16 fL. The movie was plenty bright, but the blacks were not all that deep; I found myself wishing for high dynamic range to deepen the blacks and reveal more detail in the shadows of some very dark scenes.
I've read some reports that put Interstellar in the same league as 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don't agree—I think 2001 is a much better movie. Granted, both portray space science as accurately as possible—a revolutionary idea in 1968 and still somewhat uncommon today—and both deal with existential issues in a sophisticated manner. However, whereas 2001 is uplifting and almost spiritual, I found Interstellar to be depressing and rather banal by comparison. That's not to say I was bored—as I mentioned earlier, the visuals alone held my attention for the entire two hours and 49 minutes.
If you decide to see Interstellar, I recommend seeking out an Imax theater showing it in 70mm film; click here to see if there's such a theater near you
. Also, different presentation formats don't necessarily use the same set of aspect ratios as Imax 70mm film. In any event, be sure to protect your hearing one way or another and make a pit stop before finding your seat.
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