Director Christopher Nolan has a useful knack of reinventing, or at least rejuvenating, mainstream cinematic form. Through a near perfect balance of mainstream appeal and innovative artistic ambition, his films have stood out as triumphant experiments outside the norm for audiences over the last fifteen years. Nolan’s films have captured the masses imagination like few Blockbusters have since the glory days of Spielberg. Nolan’s pedigree for crafting successful and innovative cinema is undeniable when you look at Inception, Memento, The Batman Trilogy and The Prestige.
For his latest trick he’s ventured into the deep, dark depths of space in search of his most ambitious film- Interstellar. Nolan’s attempt at science fiction is a far cry from the adventurous romps of Star Wars, Star Trek or Guardians of The Galaxy, instead it can be described most comfortably as a natural successor to Kubrick’s awe inspiring 2001: A Space Odyssey. Epic, grandiose and wondrous, Interstellar is Nolan on an unprecedented scale.
The tripartite of Nolan, blockbuster and unchartered science fiction is at times as messy as it sounds leaving plenty of soppy scripts, plot holes and polarising scientific complexities. However you can’t help but sit back and wonder in childlike awe at the sheer scope of Interstellar’s universe. Nolan attempts to go where no filmmaker has gone before, and while it’s far from a successful voyage, there’s plenty to admire and engage in the depths of space’s mystery.
The first hour of the film sets the scene impressively as earth stands on the brink of extinction, well earth’s human population at least. In this not so distant future, which oddly resembles a 1950s dustbowl, food is a rare commodity and the great strides made by humanity into the future are a distant memory. This identity crisis manifests itself early when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is told by his daughter’s teacher how the Apollo moon landings have been disowned as a sign of the frivolous spending that ruined earth.
It’s in with this austere, cornfield laden backdrop that the film’s central voyage emerges. Under the guidance of Professor Brand’s (Michael Caine) underground NASA, McConaughey and his scientist daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) are sent into space to find humanity a new host planet. Going where no man has no gone before, the team must, as Caine reiterates in a true Nolan-es refrain, “do not go gentle into the good night”, and venture into a mysterious, time bending wormhole.
Unlike most sci-fi films, time travelling is far from the novel means of future transport from A to B. Here, the intricacies of time travel, black holes and quantum physics are central to the film and its dialogue. Whether or not it’s accurate is largely irrelevant. Nolan’s staple narrative tool as always been exposition, his films are firmly laid out to the audience without a touch of ambiguity, and here this approach is at it its most prominent. The relativity of time, conceivability of wormholes and ability to break the space time paradigm are spelled out to McConaughey, ignoring the fact he should probably know these things, with the clear intention of giving the viewer a stab at the film’s logistics even at a rudimentary level. These explanations could easily lapse in to tedious lectures eerily reminiscent of drab days in stuffy classrooms, but the seeming plausibility of Nolan’s futuristic world makes the space oddities abnormally intriguing rather than tedious chores.
Just as Inception spelled out dreams within dreams and The Prestige clued us in on magic tricks, Interstellar uses science to bring us round to the film’s central journey. Of course attempting to explain concepts as brain jarring as the fifth dimension, the fourth is confusing enough, becomes increasingly jumbled towards the film’s end. The climactic half an hour ends up being truly perplexing. Just as you think you’ve mastered the logistics of worm holes, a plot hole twice the size opens up.
As much as the science of Interstellar dominates, it’s the humanistic elements of the narrative that burn brightest in the vacuum of space. You could quite easily fill a swirling space station extrapolating the many thematic touches in the film- the power of love and its enduring wholly irrational appeal, humanities self-destructive nature contrasted with its unquenchable thirst for exploration or even the simple bond between parent and child. There are so many dialogue refrains that by the end of the film you’re not entirely sure what the overriding message is. Nolan’s favoured protagonist, the damaged man trying to find his calling in a dismissive world, once again orbits in to view, yet the surrounding thematic satellites dilute one strong idea into a hotchpotch of weaker incarnations.
Interstellar’s dialogue does nothing to aid the wayward themes as soppy speeches dominate much of the film’s notable exchanges. The strong performances are blighted by a sense of humour failure and trite feel-good Blockbuster fuelled monologues led by Hathaway. McConaughey fairs best as suitably cavalier space cowboy Cooper via a suitably rounded performance along with a lack of trite shite in his script. Bar an odd cameo from Matt Damon who never appears comfortable in his spacesuit, the cast are hard to fault in their application. Perhaps the only other real disappointment is in Hathaway who’s made to look rather boring and lightweight in contrast to fiery poise of Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s daughter Murph.
It’s impossible to watch Interstellar without last year’s Gravity floating into focus. The latter is undoubtedly the more impressive spectacle when it comes to illustrating the claustrophobic plight of surviving in space’s terrifying void alone. If Gravity exists on a micro level then Interstellar excels on a macro one, taking humanity’s, not just one person’s, struggles to the fore. Like Tarantino’s very relatable yet incomprehensibly separate reality, Interstellar seems to take place in a prescient parallel world where earth has opted to eject humanity.
Rather than use CGI to inspire like Gravity, Nolan uses this backdrop to set a tone filled with equal amounts of awe and dread, typified by the ubiquitous Hans Zimmer’s eerie score. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography isn’t wholly memorable or spectacular and perhaps that’s down to Nolan’s insistence of a making the film a very personal, human tale in space rather than a science fiction film superficially lumped with people. It’s in Nolan’s ability to amaze making the implausible plausible that shins here, bar 2001 you’d be hard pushed to find a film that made space travel feel so very close to us grounded mortals.
You’d struggle to convincingly place Interstellar ahead of any of Nolan’s preceding works. This isn’t to say it’s a bad film, far from it. In spite of its narrative flaws, dragging running time and confused climax there’s an entertaining, thought provoking film strong enough to redefine our expectations of science fiction like Georges Méliès did in 1902 with the iconic A Trip to the Moon. Christopher Nolan’s effectiveness may have been hampered by Blockbuster pressures, but his status as one of the great contemporary auteurs on such a large scale remains unblemished, perhaps even enhanced, by the sheer ambition and innovation he endeavours to provide in his work. Once again Nolan has captured the attention of audiences like no other big budget director can.
McConaughey’s mission may take him to planets light years away but through Nolan’s nuance we just might believe he started on ours, and that’s a mighty impressive feat.
6.5/10- Intergalactic…at times