Oscars: 'Interstellar' Hopes to Avoid '2001' Awards Fate

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"Boring," "Too long," "What the hell?" — Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic confounded viewers, and as Christopher Nolan courts Oscar voters with his own space odyssey, he risks a similar outcome

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The first reviews landed with a thud: Warning readers that the ambitious new sci-fi epic was nearly three hours long, The New York Times complained, "The movie is so completely absorbed in its problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring." No, we're not talking about Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's ambitious new sci-fi epic. That actually was one of the reviews knocking Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Nolan acknowledges as a major inspiration.

Regarded today as one of cinema's grandest achievements — 2001 ranks sixth on Sight & Sound's most recent critics' poll — the movie, when it hit screens in 1968, didn't exactly trigger love at first sight. It had enthusiastic defenders like Roger Ebert, but it bored the Times' Renata Adler, and the era's great critical rivals Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris both gave it unequivocal thumbs-down, with Kael snapping "monumentally unimaginative" and "the biggest amateur movie of all time."

Watch more 'Interstellar' Clip: Matthew McConaughey Told Rockets Are "Useless Machines

"Its Hollywood reception was just as divided: Ebert reported that Rock Hudson stormed out of the film's Los Angeles premiere asking, "Will someone tell me what the hell this is all about?" If anything, 2001 fared slightly better with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences despite the Academy's long-standing disinterest in most sci-fi movies. It received four Oscar nominations (including best director and original screenplay), though it won only one (for visual effects). But it was shut out of the best picture contest: That year's winner was the musical Oliver! — a likable-enough movie but hardly one for the ages.

All of which is to suggest that Nolan might find his new film encountering a similar fate. Interstellar follows an astronaut, played by Matthew McConaughey, who regretfully leaves his family behind to venture into the furthest reaches of space and time in the hope of finding a new home for the embattled human race. As the film unveils Nolan's own theory of everything, the director serves up shout-outs to Kubrick's movie: Interstellar's ambulatory computer TARS is like the love child of 2001's enigmatic black monolith and its chatty computer HAL. Nolan also offers variations on some of 2001's signature moments: Where Kubrick filmed a shuttle docking at a space station as if it were a graceful mating dance, scored to Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz," Nolan counters with a much more anxiety-driven docking sequence, with his shuttle and spacecraft revolving furiously like two whirling dervishes as Hans Zimmer's score pulsates away.

Read more Critic's Notebook: The Case Against 'Interstellar'

Moviegoers flocked to the $165 million Paramount/Warner Bros. co-production during its opening weekend as Interstellar grossed $47.5 million in North America and $132.6 million worldwide. (2001's lifetime domestic gross of $60 million amounts to more than $390 million in today's dollars.) Reviews have been mixed but on the whole (with a 73 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com) have been better than those that greeted 2001. And this time around, the New York Times was a lot more positive, with A.O. Scott predicting the movie "may take its place in the pantheon of space movies."

Over the years, the Academy has become more receptive to sci-fi movies. In 1982, it virtually ignored Ridley Scott's visionary Blade Runner, which created the template for dozens of subsequent movies about a dystopian future. By 2010, though, the Academy nominated James Cameron's Avatar for nine Oscars, including best picture, and last year, it handed out seven trophies to Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (though Team Gravity took pains to claim that the movie was more science fact than speculative science fiction).

But Interstellar wears its speculative heart on its sleeve, and that ultimately may decide its Oscar prospects. It already has attracted admirers. Emile Hirsch tweeted, "An absolute must-see, it is truly unforgettable." Director Brad Bird chimed in, "Dazzled by the ambition & intelligence of Chris Nolan's INTERSTELLAR. Terrific performances, haunting imagery, WOW."

Read more Todd McCarthy on 'Interstellar' and the Evolution of Space Epics (for Better or Worse)

But other Academy members sound as if they are echoing Hudson's "what the hell?" reaction. "I thought it was sort of fun but ridiculous and way too long. It's not going to be one of my first five, that's for sure," vowed a member of the actors branch. Confessed someone from the public relations branch, who attended an Academy screening in L.A.: "I got pretty lost with the story and was turned off by the length. There was nice applause at the end for McConaughey and the cinematographer, but other than that, it was quiet."

Like 2001, Interstellar is designed to be a visionary experience. But that's a calculated risk because, by definition, not everyone will get that vision.

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