‘Nolan’s most ambitious film to date and while there are things in it that may not work, it is never anything less than commendable’ – Thomas Parkes on ‘Interstellar‘
It must be nearly 20 years ago now since a younger version of myself sifted through a cupboard of videotapes trying to find something to watch on a typically boring summer afternoon. I had already watched ‘The Concorde …Airport ’79’ so much that the image had degraded down to pure static, so that was out of the question. I then noticed a tape that I had not seen in our cupboard before, and I didn’t recognise the handwriting on the label either. It was ; ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’. I watched it out of curiosity. My mind was blown. I remembered being wowed, terrified, confused, hypnotised and confused yet again. Yet through all of the confusion was the realisation that films could have ambitions and big ideas and even though my younger self couldn’t even begin to unravel them at the time, I knew they were there. It was almost like someone had put that black object (a video tape) in front of me in order to expand my childish mind and open it up to new concepts and other avenues of thought. Perhaps, but what is certain is that for me it had ignited a life long love of films and all of the subsequent sci-fi movies I would ever see would (perhaps unfairly) be judged against Stanley Kubrick’s epic.
One such film is Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster ‘Interstellar‘ in which a group of astronauts and scientists embark on a journey into the farthest reaches of space in order to secure the survival of the human race. The film opens almost like a documentary with talking heads discussing how, in the not too distant future, the earth has become unable to sustain human life with crop after crop failing every year plunging mankind back into an agrarian society. Our protagonist ‘Cooper’ ( Matthew McConaughey ), once a NASA test pilot now lives on farm with his father-in-law ‘Donald’ ( John Lithgow ) and his two children ‘Murph’ and ‘Tom’ struggling to grow corn, which is the last remaining crop that hasn’t been affected by the blight. As ominous dust storms roll through the town with increased frequency and severity it becomes apparent that the earth is doomed and merely awaiting the apocalypse. However, while Cooper’s daughter Murph is suspended from school for a minor incident she discovers mysterious co-ordinates that lead to a secret base which turns out to be the last remnants of NASA, now forced to work in secret as the monetary spend needed to sustain it would be unjustifiable to a world struggling to survive. It is there that Cooper learns that NASA plans to launch a mission to find a new world deep beyond our galaxy that can sustain human life and save the remaining inhabitants of earth. In true hollywood style the only thing NASA have been missing is a good pilot, but wait, isn’t Cooper a pilot?! Yes, yes he is.
Ever since Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise with 2005’s ‘Batman Begins’ he has shown himself to be a director with real class, who doesn’t buckle under the pressure of massive budgets or expectations but rather thrives on these things to deliver films that provide the appeal and spectacle of a typical blockbuster, yet go deeper than that to offer the audience something more to engage with. So while films like ‘The Prestige’ or ‘Inception’ on the one hand play out like moving puzzles, encouraging active participation by the viewer, the experience is never hollow or alienating as Nolan invariably brings out excellent performances from his ensemble casts within the framework of solid narrative structure. These films, like his Batman trilogy, were successful because Nolan is able to find the right balance between action, visual spectacle, intrigue and pathos and ‘Interstellar’ is no different.
Interstellar is Nolan’s most ambitious film to date and while there are things in it that may not work, it is never anything less than commendable. Nolan wants to touch upon everything from the gargantuan and incomprehensible to the small and personal and while the film mostly manages to reconcile these disparate elements there are times when it misses the mark and feels a bit clunky and heavy handed. However, it is the pathos in Nolan’s film that makes it resonate as strongly as it does as it makes the characters believable and relatable even when the images on screen are at their most fantastical and uncanny. This is accomplished by a fantastic cast. Matthew McConaughey is excellent as the lead role, Cooper, a man who must make the difficult decision to leave his children behind in order to find a new world for them. The relationship between Cooper and his children is effectively handled throughout the film by video messages sent between the space ship and home. However, the size and gravity of the planets that the astronauts visit are so vast that 1 hour on the surface is equivalent to 7 years back on earth which means that when Cooper watches subsequent videos from home his children are now the same age as him. These are some of the strongest scenes in the film with excellent performances from Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck as the adult versions of Murph and Tom respectively. The idea of different stands of time running simultaneously reminded me a lot of ‘Inception’ actually. Anne Hathaway also puts in an excellent performance as one of Cooper’s fellow astronauts, Amelia Brand, who like Cooper has her own specific motivations for participating in the mission. It wouldn’t be a Christopher Nolan film without Michael Caine being in it, and so in this film he plays Amelia’s father and the lead scientist behind the mission. Elsewhere there is an artificial intelligence robot on the ship called Tars that while providing a nod and a wink to Kubrick’s HAL from 2001 and even the monolith in its design, is completely different in tone and actions.
The film looks incredible thanks to Nolans direction and the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema (Her, Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) who is Nolans new director of photography since long time collaborator Wally Pfister has moved on to become a director himself. Use of CGI is relatively minimal but when they are used they are remarkable thanks to the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne who helped the team create the visual aesthetic of interstellar travel based on real (kinda) scientific theory. Some of the sequences are absolutely beautiful and awe inspiring and are accompanied either by the desolate silence of space or what is in my opinion Hans Zimmerman’s best film score to date. Homages to 2001’s lush orchestral score whilst also referencing more minimal composers such as Philip Glass result in a typical yet surprising score which is also quite moving at times.
I can understand why some people are not going to like this film. It might be too ‘sciencey’ for some people, and not ‘sciencey’ enough for others. The first section is slightly baggy and could have had around 15 or 20 minutes shaved off it, but that ‘bagginess’ is also effective in conveying the stagnation of our dusty dying world and when the movie finally launches into space it’s a non stop thrill ride that doesn’t let up. There are some instances of exposition during the film’s most abstract sequences which I found mildly jarring and a there’s also a completely unnecessary reading of Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ that happens a few times which just feels poorly judged. The final act of the film I do think will polarize audiences as it could be seen as a step too far in terms wringing every single drop of sentimentality out of the film.
But all these things are minor quibbles in my opinion as the film succeeds a lot more often than it fails. Films like this should be celebrated and seen in the cinema. The spectacle, the images, and the sound design all make for an incredible cinematic voyage that should be experienced by everyone, all issues aside. This is what blockbusters should be, and not a superhero cape in sight, which is nice for a change.