Reviewed by Jack O'Kennedy
Christopher Nolan could never be accused of lacking confidence in his own abilities as a filmmaker. Throughout his storied career he has played with convention, mixed genres and tackled weighty themes all whilst creating blockbuster entertainment that is both commercially successful and critically lauded. His breakout film Memento juggled a scuzzy neo noir tale with a fiendish puzzle box of a time line. The Prestige brilliantly married a period drama of duelling magicians with an exploration of twisted ambition and the ruinous pursuit of perfection. Inception saw him combine a heist flick with a psychological thriller, cracking open minds instead of safes. His Dark Knight trilogy helped transform the superhero film into the money devouring behemoth it is today whilst still dealing in big ideas like the corrupting nature of power and the potency of symbols. With Interstellar, his latest endeavour, Nolan is quite literally reaching for and beyond the stars.
Starring Matthew (insert Dazed and Confused gag here) McConaughey as Coop, a widowed former NASA pilot turned farmer, Interstellar presents us with a world on the edge of collapse. With crops failing and dust storms now a regular occurrence, the future of the human race on earth has never been more uncertain. That future is embodied by Coop’s children, who rather conveniently, represent the two halves of their father’s persona. Tom (Timothée Chalamet), the elder of the two, is the grounded pragmatist, ready to carry on the agricultural work the planet so desperately needs. Murph (Mackenzie Foy) on the other hand, stands in for the former adventurer inside of Coop, a whip smart scientist in the making with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
In fact, it’s Murph’s innate curiosity that sets the main plot of Interstellar into motion when an initially baffling bedroom encounter rather convolutedly leads to Coop discovering an underground bunker housing none other than Michael Caine’s aging physics professor and the remnants of the NASA space programme. In an almost absurdly brief turnaround time, Coop finds himself blasting off on a mission to discover a planet capable of sustaining life and ensure the survival of mankind. The kicker? His journey will involve navigating black holes to find new galaxies (the interstellar travel of the film’s title) where hours in Coop’s life will equate to years, even decades, in the lives of his children back home. The threat hanging over Coop’s head is not only can he complete the mission in time to save the Earth, but can he return before his children join the withered crops in the dust?
Nolan has always had a keen eye for visuals and Interstellar is no exception, boasting some of the most gorgeous images of space ever committed to film. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s lovingly crafted cinematography is simply beautiful to behold, whether it’s a thrilling drone chase through a vivid green cornfield or an awe inspiring trip along the rings of Saturn. Interstellar had always promised unique vistas and breath taking world building which it delivers in spades. However, the quieter moments are equally memorable. The way the dust in Murph’s bedroom dances in the sunlight and the lingering of Hoytema’s camera on McConaughey’s devastated face as he drives away from his family into the unknown are gorgeous small moments in a film concerned with very big ideas.
Ultimately, it’s in the sound design that Interstellar truly comes into its own with composer Hans Zimmer continuing his most fruitful partnership with some of the best work of his career. His stirring score makes the personal beats hit hard and transforms the interstellar travel into a near profound space opera. It’s extremely difficult not to get sucked into the spectacle of it all when Zimmer’s cathedral music is movingly intercut with the deadly silence of the black abyss outside of Coop’s spaceship.
Unfortunately, the emotional impact drawn out by the score is somewhat lacking in the storytelling department. Despite it’s end of the world scenario, colossal spacecraft and vast scope, co-writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan are almost at pains to stress that Interstellar is the tale of a father and his daughter. Whilst it makes sense to anchor a film that deals with such grand concepts as love, mortality and our place in the universe on this central relationship, Coop and Murph’s interactions never quite hit the dramatic high that the film truly deserves. Coop’s fellow astronauts, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyassi) also suffer from a lack of characterisation, reduced to shallow Basil Expositions who are in the end upstaged by the dry witted, on board robot TARS who almost steals the film from under McConaughey’s nose.
What’s most unsatisfying about Nolan’s latest offering is the way the story develops in the third act. Having a reputation as a director who isn’t afraid to throw a few spanners in the works in the closing moments of a film, it’s disappointing that Interstellar chooses to walk a very predictable and well-trodden path. Featuring what must be the slowest ticking time bomb in recent memory (Granted it’s difficult to make the gradual extinction of the human race into an urgent threat in a feature length project) Interstellar inelegantly introduces a very forced threat late in the game in an effort to raise the stakes and inject some tension into Coop’s mission, in a way that does not at all ring true with what came before. This, coupled with an episodic and oddly unfulfilling ending results in a finished product that despite all its bells and whistles (and boy are they pretty bells and whistles) is definitely a minor Nolan film rather than a major one.
Neither a masterpiece and the spiritual successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey that some are claiming nor a Dune shaped turkey that suggests Nolan’s gone off the boil, Interstellar is more accurately, a noble failure. In a time where original concepts in blockbuster filmmaking with a dedication to practical effects are thin on the ground and a future paved with comic book heroes and wannabe franchises is on the cards, films like this are a rare treat to be savoured. Let’s just hope that next time Nolan gives us characters and a story as deep and complex as his ambitions.