Release Date(s)2014 (March 31, 2015)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is impressive in the ranks of contemporary hard science fiction films, if for no other reasons than that there so few of them these days and that its ambition is nearly unsurpassed.
The film opens fifty-some odd years from now, on an Earth in decline. Humanity’s technological achievements have faded, the global climate has become a dust bowl, and disease is wiping out so many crops that feeding everyone has become a losing effort. In these difficult circumstances, we’re introduced to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA engineer and pilot who’s scratching out a meager living as a farmer. He’s also struggling to raise his two young children, even as he knows that their future is bleak. When his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) claims that her bedroom is haunted one day, Cooper investigates and uncovers a mysterious message – binary coordinates that lead him to a hidden NASA base. There he meets a former colleague, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), who has been working for years with a team of scientists on a secret project. It seems that a stable wormhole was discovered decades earlier near Saturn. Such things can’t happen naturally, so the belief is that an alien intelligence placed it there deliberately to give Humanity a chance for salvation. Brand and his team have identified three candidates worlds, that might support life, orbiting a supermassive black hole on the other side of the wormhole. So Brand recruits Cooper to lead a last-ditch expedition to see if one of these worlds can become Humanity’s new home. A trio of scientists will accompany Cooper on the mission, including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), along with a pair of robots. But whether it’s successful or not, the mission will take years… and Cooper will have to leave his children behind.
I must admit that Interstellar is a film I’ve only come to appreciate with time. When I first saw it in the theater (projected in 70mm film at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood), the sound quality was terrible. It was so distorted, in fact, that a significant portion of the dialogue was simply unintelligible. I found the problem off-putting enough that I actually finished the screening with a headache. According to a statement on the film’s website, this effect was deliberate: “The sound on Interstellar has been specially mixed to maximize the power of the low end frequencies in the main channels as well as in the subwoofer channel.” Deliberate or not, many expert and savvy filmgoers were likewise frustrated and complained loudly about the sound it online. After all, the whole point of going to see a large-format film in a premium theater is to achieve complete immersion in the experience! Anything that pulls you out of that experience is an irritation. At any rate, I had no interest in seeing Interstellar again theatrically, preferring instead to wait for Blu-ray. Now that I have seen the film again on Blu-ray, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s a lot here that’s good.
For one thing, much (though not all) of the science depicted in Interstellar is incredibly accurate. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne worked closely with writer Jonathan Nolan and director Christopher Nolan to ensure a certain adherence to realism. This extends to the most accurate CG visualizations of wormholes and black holes ever presented on film. The time dilation effects experienced by Cooper and his crew are true to the rules of Einsteinian physics. The look of the film’s spacecraft, space suits and other equipment is completely believable. Interstellar is certainly high-concept, yet it works hard to keep the focus on its characters – to contrast human-scale experience and imagery with the cosmic. All of these things are impressive.
On the other hand, Interstellar has many irrational elements as well – moments of “magical” thinking – and it’s the often awkward juxtaposition of the two that’s frustrating. For example, why send a mission through a wormhole from Earth to colonize a barely-habitable planet orbiting a black hole, when Mars is right next door? Given that the crew knows time-dilation is going to be a problem there, and that time is critical back on Earth, why not send a probe down to check out Miller’s planet first? How does a sliver-thin spacecraft like the Ranger carry enough fuel to land on a planet and return to orbit safely? Why would you have hibernation pods filled with liquid (like bathtubs) on a spaceship that sometimes operates in microgravity? Why doesn’t the radiation from the wormhole and the black hole’s accretion disc fry the astronauts before they ever get close? These are but a few of the questions one could ask about the film’s overall accuracy. Sure, I appreciate that films need to be entertaining first, and that some suspension of disbelief is always required, but the filmmakers go to such lengths to get some of these details right that their oversights are glaring. I love science fiction – and in particular hard science fiction – and I know that the best examples of the genre manage to clear both hurdles.
Yet, for all its flaws, the film does succeed as an entertainment. It also beautifully captures the sense of awe inherent in the human experience of spaceflight. Some of the acting performances are wonderful, particularly Jessica Chastain (as the adult Murphy). McConaughey, Hathaway, and Caine are all good too. The film’s visuals and cinematography, much of it captured using handheld IMAX cameras and enhanced with background projection and interactive lighting effects, are extraordinary. Most of the spacecraft exteriors were shot old school, using large-scale miniatures, à la Alien or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Better still, life-size versions of some of these spacecraft were constructed for use in exterior landscape shoots. When Christopher Nolan discovered that these could be mounted onto the production’s massive soundstage gimbals, he bolted IMAX cameras onto them like GoPros and shot VFX footage with them maneuvering like models, capturing an extraordinary level of detail and realism in the process.
I’m pleased to say that every bit of that detail shows up in the Blu-ray’s video image, which is presented in 1080p high-definition at a variable aspect ratio that alternates between 2.35:1 and 1.78:1 (the latter for sequences shot in IMAX). The level of clarity and detail here is every bit as good as you’d expect from large-format filmmaking, with incredibly deep blacks, brilliant whites and a pleasing range of shadings in between. You’ll see terrific subtlety in the textures of space suit fabric, spacecraft thermal tiles, and icy planet surfaces. The film’s color palette is subdued by design, but it’s always accurate to the theatrical experience. This is reference quality Blu-ray video, just as it should be.
I’m also happy to report that the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track included on Blu-ray is superior to the theatrical presentation. This is a surround mix that revels in its contrasts, with incredible dynamic range that flexes between moments of silent majesty to bombastic organ chords, with rumbling low tones you can almost feel. This audio has been specifically re-mixed for the home theater experience, as per normal with theatrical film Blu-ray releases. Make no mistake: The mix is still strongly pushed towards the low end and it does seem to be a deliberate artistic choice. But, whether it constitutes an actual fix from the grating theatrical mix or not, the upshot is that the film’s dialogue is in noticeably better balance with the music and effects. For its own part, Hans Zimmer’s score will certainly not appeal to everyone, but I think it works well against the film’s stark and dramatic imagery, even more so now that the dialogue is actually intelligible. Additional audio tracks here include English Descriptive Audio, as well as French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options are available in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Moving on to the set’s special features, I think you’ll find that they’re unusually good, particularly by the standards of more recent Blu-ray releases. All of them are contained on Disc Two of the set in full 1080p high-definition. Your bonus experience begins with The Science of Interstellar TV special (50:20), which is narrated by Matthew McConaughy (some of you may have seen it last year on Discovery’s Science Channel). It touches upon the different scientific concepts that are relevant to the film, and includes interviews with Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, astrophysicists Kip Thorne, Sean Carroll, Natalie Batalha, and Jamie Bock, astronomers Andrea Ghez and Fiona Harrison, NASA astronaut Marsha Ivans, and even Elon Musk of SpaceX fame. The science is entry-level and easy to digest, even if a bit of it’s already out of date (the primordial gravity wave detection mentioned in the special has not, in fact, withstood further analysis). Still, the special serves as a good primer and provides nice context for viewers of the film.
Next up is the 14-part Inside Interstellar documentary, which totals about 122 minutes worth of behind-the-scenes material on the film’s production. There’s no “play all” option – you simply select each individual featurette from the disc’s menus. Segments include: Plotting an Interstellar Journey (7:49), Life on Cooper’s Farm (9:43), The Dust (2:38), Tars and Case (9:27), The Cosmic Sounds of Interstellar (13:40), The Space Suits (4:31), The Endurance (9:24), Shooting in Iceland: Miller’s Planet/Mann’s Planet (12:42), The Ranger and the Lander (12:20), Miniatures in Space (5:29), The Simulation of Zero-G (5:31), Celestial Landmarks (13:22), Across All Dimensions and Time (9:02), and Final Thoughts (6:02). Highlights include abundant material on the filmmakers’ approach to the production, good looks at the conceptual design and construction of the film’s various spacecraft and equipment, discussion of the film’s groundbreaking depictions of astrophysical phenomena, and lots of on-set interviews and footage with the cast and crew shot during filming. You even get to spend time with Zimmer as he carefully crafts his score, then records it in the midst of an English cathedral.
Once you’ve exhausted the documentary material, you can also view the film’s teaser trailer and all three theatrical trailers. The set’s third disc includes a DVD version of the film and there’s a Digital Copy code insert too. Disc One also offers preview trailers for Terminator: Genisys and The Gambler. Finally, in a nice touch, the package includes a one-of-a-kind IMAX film cell cut from an actual print. The only thing that’s really missing here (and that I had hoped for) is an audio commentary. I know that Christopher Nolan doesn’t do them, but a writer’s track with Jonathan and Kip Thorne, discussing the film’s ideas and the evolution of its story, would have been welcome indeed. Nevertheless, the material you do get here is both substantial and enjoyable.
Ultimately, Interstellar is a good science fiction film. Is it great? No, I wouldn’t go that far, though I would suggest that it’s arguably the most ambitious example of the genre to appear in theaters since the Wachowskis’ Matrix films. Simply put, Interstellar goes for it and gets a great deal right in the attempt. If it ultimately falls short of its goal, dipping a bit too far into pseudoscience and “Love Conquers All” clichés… well, so be it. Films that work this hard to be daring are a rare thing in today’s Hollywood and should be appreciated in spite of their flaws. As such, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar on Blu-ray is recommended.
- Bill Hunt