“Few films dare to reach so high,” shouts the banner sprawled across ads for “Interstellar.”
Now, two weekends after blast-off, it seems appropriate to ask whether its reach exceeded its grasp.
The answer: In terms of both box office and critical response, the movie evokes a bundle of mixed messages. While Hollywood wants to revere all its event pictures as sure things, “Interstellar” represents an expensive “maybe.”
Ironically, the debate about the film has been heightened by the simultaneous release of a more modest movie, “The Theory of Everything,” which is a study in contrast to “Interstellar.” While both embrace the esoterica of advanced cosmology, “Theory’s” release seems like a gentle nudge compared with “Interstellar’s” cosmic clout. The film’s director, Christopher Nolan, and his stars (Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain) are ubiquitous in the media (though “Theory’s” Eddie Redmayne is, too).
But the sheer aggression of Nolan’s publicity platoon may have gotten in the way of the movie. Following years of intense (almost comic) secrecy surrounding the film, some reviewers have rebelled at the post-release constraints imposed on them: “I’m not even supposed to tell you who’s in the thing, aside from the people you’ve seen on magazine covers,” complained A.O. Scott of the New York Times. Chastain, who also stars in “A Most Violent Year,” was barred from promoting that film because it was released in the same fiscal quarter.
If the media was frustrated by constraints, filmgoers were confused by “Interstellar’s” science — “turgid discussions of abstruse physics,” complained Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal. “It’s mumbo without jumbo.”
By contrast, the cosmological ruminations of Redmayne, playing Stephen Hawking in “Theory,” seemed accessible, deftly wrapped in a feel-good story of a man conquering appalling physical impairments (ALS), with the aid of his loving wife.
“Theory,” distributed by Focus Features, has opened in only five theaters, pursuing the classic gradual rollout of specialty pictures and saving its overseas release until awards season in January. The film clearly aspires for “The King’s Speech”-sized acclaim, with the resulting box office bounce.
Since nothing seems to come easy for Nolan, “Interstellar’s” $47.5 million opening weekend was formidable but below the $50 million plateau Paramount forecast for it. “Some movies you open and then you move on, but with ‘Interstellar,’ every single weekend is like opening it again,” explained Megan Colligan, Paramount’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing, as though emulating the film’s opaque science.
So does all this embellish the Nolan legend or diminish it?
Certainly few, if any, contemporary filmmakers have, purposefully or not, dared to reach for such a mythic perch, as reflected in “Interstellar.” A $165 million production, it runs 168 minutes — and feels it. Having directed nine movies (including three “Batman” sequels) Nolan makes it clear he is not so much a director as a fully autonomous filmmaking industry. In interviews and personal conversations, he projects a British chill (though he spent much of his life in Chicago) that is vaguely reminiscent of David Lean.
As though mindful of all this, Nolan worked hard to inject a strong father-daughter subplot in “Interstellar,” but his formula for reinforcing emotion is to play it scene after scene — hence the almost three-hour running time. In storytelling, as in self-promotion, the Nolan style seems to embody utter force, rather than understatement. And that is why, yet again, his film poses an intriguing counterpoint to “The Theory of Everything,” which bills itself as a personal struggle, not a cosmic mission.