Around the time he started hitting the big numbers with The Dark Knight, it became fashionable to heavily criticize Christopher Nolan. Here was a filmmaker who graduated from ultra-low-budget filmmaking to helming huge studio blockbusters in just a few short years. He was clearly a smart guy and treated his audience as such, and took everything very seriously. Sure, some people don’t want a “serious” superhero movie, that’s fine, but Nolan unfortunately found himself also followed by the kind of rabid fandom that never wants to hear a single bad word uttered against him. In turn, this led to others gleefully crapping all over his works simply for not being the genius-level masterpieces others were treating them as. It’s a sad state of affairs that I couldn’t help but be reminded of as I headed to see a midnight screening of his latest film Interstellar on opening day. For the record, I’ve been on the Nolan bandwagon since I first saw Memento in 2002. I think he’s built an incredible body of work in the short time he’s been making films and he hasn’t even come close to making a mediocre film, let alone a bad one. I do like to use ratings in my reviews, and none of Nolan’s films would slip below a 3.5/5 for me, though only Memento would get full marks.
Interstellar is not a flawless masterpiece of cinema, nor did I ever honestly expect it to be. It has its fair share of problems, but it’s an incredibly ambitious, thrilling adventure that takes us to the stars and beyond. It wants to explore real scientific theories in a plausible future scenario via an exciting journey while keeping a human story at its heart. Nolan’s setting his sights far, far higher than the vast majority of blockbuster filmmakers. I can’t condemn him for not quite reaching them. We’ve even had a couple of very good blockbusters earlier in the year (DoTPotA, Guardians of the Galaxy), but this is something else. I enjoy the Marvel movies a great deal, but I’d take one Interstellar over a handful of them.
The opening section of Interstellar is almost a textbook example of naturalistic world-building. After the title card, we get a couple of brief interview segments intercut with the main footage. This immediately establishes that what we are seeing is in our future, but in the past for those speaking. Nolan spares us an opening text crawl or voice-over telling us what happened to the world, instead letting bits of information gradually flow from conversations. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed father of two, working as a farmer in a dust-ravaged area of the USA. We learn that the dust is gradually destroying all the crops, and the future for humanity looks bleak. A lot of this footage resembles ‘rural Americana’ type visuals one might see in travel commercials, such as a local baseball game, and could even be taking place in the past but this is suddenly altered by the arrival of a surveillance drone over the farm. Cooper’s reaction is to immediately chase after it and try to intercept it with his laptop; he’s clearly not just a farmer.
More information about the world is skilfully revealed as Cooper is summoned to the principal’s office at his kids’ school. His daughter Murphy, who greatly looks up to him, has got into trouble for finding an old textbook that talks about the moon landings as fact; the current ones state that they were an admitted hoax. We also learn that Cooper is an engineer and former pilot, dissatisfied with his current line of work, but as he is told “the world doesn’t need more engineers, it needs farmers”. Some folks might accuse the film of being overly expository in these scenes but Nolan’s put real effort into weaving these facts into dialogue that never feels shoehorned. Only later when fellow scientists are explaining the nature of wormholes and such do they feel like they’re just talking directly to the audience. It’s a bit of a conundrum, on the one hand of course Cooper should already know this information, but it’s a fair assumption that the majority of viewers may not.
Nolan’s working with enough material for a mini-series and even with the film’s near-three hour running time, he stumbles into a few pacing issues. Gravitational anomalies start to occur on Cooper’s farm, he and his daughter soon decipher them as co-ordinates, leading them to what’s left of his former employer, NASA. He’s soon asked to pilot a potentially world-saving mission through a wormhole that will take years. Cooper’s recruitment and goodbyes do feel a little rushed, but his drive away from the farm is perfectly intercut with the spaceship launch countdown, sparing us an unnecessary training montage.
Character and world building aside, it’s when the film gets into space that it really takes off (…sorry). The visuals Nolan and his effects team craft are sensational; space travel has rarely looked so astonishing. He employs a technique similar to last year’s Gravity in which all external space shots have no sound effects, as they actually would. Over the course of the journey Nolan creates some spectacular set pieces too, scenes of serious heart-in-mouth intensity that had me on the edge of my seat multiple times.
This is extraordinarily enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s score. He’s a name that’s become ubiquitous in modern blockbusters, and being as prolific as he is, the trend-setting composer often delivers blandly generic scores, but every now and then creates something special. This is no quickly put together in post-production effort, he’s been working on it since production for the film began (we first heard a taste of it a year ago in the teaser trailer). It’s unlike any score he’s composed before, primarily utilising the sound of a distinctly old-fashioned instrument – the pipe organ – over electronic layers to craft an intense, exhilarating accompaniment to the awe-inspiring visuals. Zimmer’s combination of the old and the new reflects Nolan’s own in his design of the film. For every futuristic piece of machinery there’s a character working with pen and paper.
Joining Cooper on his mission are Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi – star of last year’s similarly ambitious Cloud Atlas). One accusation often thrown Nolan’s way is how humourless his films are, Interstellar counters this by adding a robot named TARS onto the crew. TARS is a wonderful creation, initially his blocky design appears impractical but later makes perfect sense. Voiced by Bill Irwin, TARS strikes just the right balance of being an amusing yet plot centric comedy sidekick without ever becoming annoying.
I don’t wish to divulge the exact nature of their mission but it’s based on the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who’s also a producer) and involves trying to visit other planets. I’d have a lot more to say about the specifics in a spoiler review but I won’t touch on it now as this is a film best enjoyed with little knowledge of what lies beyond; there are surprises, some you might see coming, others you probably won’t. Interstellar is true science fiction; it’s not just space fantasy, it explores ideas of time relativity and black hole navigation along with potential habitats on aliens worlds. It’s a lot to take in, but Nolan and his brother/fellow screenwriter Jonathan strive to keep the science accessible in a manner that will appeal to some but repel others. One development the story later takes could be accused of simply manufacturing conflict for the sake of it, which was my original reaction. But on reflection it also has a point to make about human nature on the brink of survival, and Interstellar avoids a far more predictable sci-fi plot twist that it easily could have taken.
As incredible as his ideas, visuals and action sequences are, Nolan’s rarely been praised for his dialogue. For the most part there’s no issue here until one scene when Hathaway starts to deliver a monologue about the ‘transcendent power of love’ or something. It could really be groan-inducing but thankfully Hathaway’s a good enough actress to sell the moment. There are a couple more bits that veer into this sentimental territory but there’s nothing too bad. On the positive side, it’s nice to see all the crew members treated as the trained professionals they’re supposed to be. When faced with dire situations, no one acts hysterically or starts screaming, they always sensibly and quickly assess their situation and attempt to decide the best course of action.
At the centre of all this is McConaughey’s performance as Cooper. His incredible career turnaround that started in 2011 appeared to reach its peak with his Oscar win in March but really it’s been leading to this. This isn’t as obviously a showy performance as his method work in Dallas Buyer’s Club, and in many ways it seems to be a role tailor-made for him, but he has to go through a vast range of emotions and absolutely nails every one. I think I can comfortably say this is the best work he’s done. There aren’t any show-stealers among the recognizable supporting cast, but no weak links either.
Interstellar is fairly upfront about how indebted it is to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and this never becomes more apparent than in its somewhat confounding finale, which also features one of the most striking and memorable visual ideas in the film. Inviting comparisons to 2001 is a tricky prospect though, especially for a film that wishes to be as mainstream-friendly as Interstellar. That’s not to say that Interstellar is dumbed down at all, because it isn’t, just that it’s not ever attempting to be as cryptic as 2001. This will doubtless give many people the ammunition they need to take down Interstellar, I can already imagine the comments. The fact is Nolan is trying to tell his own story, not remake Kubrick’s. Maybe he doesn’t want to make a film that people will ponder for decades about its true meaning? I don’t for a moment buy the argument that less explanation = better film. That said, there are more than a couple of moments towards the end of Interstellar when a character states out loud something that’s perfectly clear visually, and it’s times like these when Nolan should have dialled it back a notch or two.
The most major way in which it differs from 2001 is that the space adventure is not all we see. Nolan often cuts back to events on Earth, letting us know what’s going on with Cooper’s family. The big question is whether it should have done this at all or just stuck with Cooper throughout. It’s undoubtedly true that all the best moments in Interstellar occur in space, but could it have retained its emotional core of a father-daughter relationship without the Earth scenes? I just don’t know, I’m struggling to imagine a version of this that doesn’t cut back but it’s quite possible that the film would have been just as effective. At least the cutaways don’t drain the tension. Likewise the film’s epilogue may prove to be another divisive element, but Nolan avoids milking what could have been a very corny moment by seeding it right at the very start of the film.
As I said, Interstellar is not some perfect masterwork that redefines science-fiction cinema as we know it. What it did do however, is remind me just why I love going to the cinema in the first place. It’s a grand spectacle that amazes with its ambitions, dazzles with its visuals, takes us through a whirlwind of emotions on a thrilling journey, and leaves with a great many ideas to think over. It’s an absolute must-see cinematic event.