DIR: Christopher Nolan • WRI: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan • PRO: Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst, Emma Thomas • DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema • ED: Lee Smith • DES: Nathan Crowley • MUS: Hans Zimmer • CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn
Once considered the ‘saviour’ of the modern blockbuster genre, Christopher Nolan has in more recent years become a divisive figure. His most hardened acolytes will defend his every utterance while his equally tenacious detractors decry him as a no-talent hack that’s managed to fool everyone into thinking his movies are more than just well-shot, shallow distractions. The one-two knockout of The Dark Knight followed by Inception created a lot of goodwill that allowed The Dark Knight Rises to slip by with Nolan’s reputation intact; it wasn’t a bad movie and there were a lot of individually great bits in it, but no one really expects the third part in a trilogy to be good at this point.
Interstellar then is the first time Nolan’s really had to prove he can do this blockbuster shtick when removed from long-gestating pet projects and The Goddamn Batman. Well, let’s just say there’ll be plenty for both sides of the Nolan argument to get into heated debates about.
And the all-important question; when Nolan’s first post-Batman film heavily uses the term “Lazarus” after he negated to do so when everyone was asking for it, could it be that he truly does get a kick out of antagonising Bat-fans? (Kidding… mostly.)
Set an undisclosed amount of time in the future, Interstellar follows Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer and former engineer/pilot. With the human population devastated after a global food shortage, most people are now farmers. However, crop after crop continues to fail and the human race trudges slowly but inevitably towards extinction by hunger. After his daughter Murph (Foy) discovers some strange anomalies on their farm, Cooper is led to a secret government project headed up by an old friend of his, Brand (Caine), who might just have a dangerous solution to our species’ looming extinction. In case the title didn’t give it away, it involves space.
From a technical point of view there is, as ever with a Nolan movie, a lot to admire. The cinematography is consistently pleasant but largely little more than functional, save for some of the effects-heavy space sequences and the ice planet which really stand out as the visual highlights of the movie. The score is in a similar position. Zimmer has, like Nolan, become somewhat divisive over the years. In many ways the score here is a better version of what he was approximately aiming for with Man of Steel. It’s certainly nowhere near the awful dreck that was his work on The Amazing Spider-Man 2 but nor is it as memorable and inventive as Inception or the Batman scores. The main issue is that it feels terribly derivative. A large swathe of the main themes sound so much like Philip Glass that you have to wonder if he wasn’t their first choice. I’m happy to report there isn’t an Inception-Bwong in earshot but unfortunately it’s been replaced with a massive overuse of organ music that couldn’t be screaming “Didn’t 2001 make space sound majestic yet divine?!” if it tried. Some of the more intense action scenes, and the initial blast-off sequence, are extremely well scored and you’ll quickly remember why Zimmer is accompanied by the hype that he is, but far too much of the film just sounds so disappointingly familiar or at worst, clichéd.
As to those action scenes, they’re genuinely exciting and close to being unbearably intense. This is helped in no small part by the score and the general volume of the chaos that often surrounds them. There is a mild issue with everything being so loud that it can drown out the dialogue (especially in IMAX) but it remains worth it just for that feeling of armrest-gripping tension. Getting to these scenes is another matter. The initial movement of the film set on Earth is by no means boring, and contains some fascinating world-building, but it does start to drag on for just long enough that you begin to wonder when exactly you’ll be getting to space. In that sense the running time is both a blessing and a curse. You get to spend a substantial amount of time with these characters (and in space) through multiple eras and really get a well-rounded experience as far as their arcs go. (Although, Hathaway’s character still feels lacking, never feeling quite like a fully-rounded person.) This can’t stop the film from feeling overlong but it conversely still doesn’t feel as long as it actually is so that may be a moot point.
If there is a major issue with the film, it’s one that can’t be easily explained and certainly one that can’t be talked about without spoiling things. For months now, people have been talking about Interstellar in relation to the movie Contact. Now, while that comparison certainly has some basis, Interstellar largely avoids falling into the same depths of New-Age-y nonsense that drowned Contact in its final act. That’s not to say the ghost of Contact is entirely absent but it’s underplayed in a way that it wouldn’t have been if this film was in the hands of anyone other than Nolan. That said, the ending comes dangerously close to disappearing up its own ass (being pulled into its own black hole, if you will), especially when it seems like the unthinkable has happened and that Nolan is about to be overcome with sentiment by invoking the old “power of love” deus ex machina. Mercifully this doesn’t entirely come to pass but the resolution (and indeed the whole setup) does feel unmistakeably Doctor Who-esque in its hand-waving, contrivance-ridden miasma of soft-science and its borderline invocation of magic to justify it.
This is still however a comfortably Nolan movie, thematically speaking. His usual go-to moral greyness and notion of ‘the truth only being worth anything in relation to how useful it can be’ are all prominently on show. Perhaps even to a degree previously unseen as there is a recurring motif of characters, usually jokingly, telling each other what percent truthful they’re being with one another. There is also a nice amount of humour, mainly from John Lithgow’s brief appearance and the strangely designed robots. Said design is quite clever as it completely bypasses the uncanny valley by not even trying to make them look like anything resembling humans. It’s a small but clever choice that more movies could learn from. Aside from that, all the old Nolan tropes are present and accounted for; a wrap-up montage with voice-over, clunky writing, main character who wants to act for the greater good but for compromisingly self-centred reasons, weird relationship with female characters and naturally someone speechifies groggily from a hospital bed. The only real surprise on that front is the sudden and slightly awkward appearance of sentimentality.
This review sounds more negative than it should but really, it is definitely a film worth seeing and worth seeing right, i.e. on the biggest, loudest platform available. It’s not Nolan’s best and it’s not his worst (in as much as he has a worst) but it is certainly less than the incredibly worthy, meaningful movie it seemed to be being billed as. The performances are all great (especially the actress playing the young Murph), it looks great and there’s a handful of brilliantly exciting and emotionally devastating scenes that justify seeing it all on their own. It’s not as deep as 2001, it’s not as inventive as Inception and it’s not as intense as Gravity but it’s still a damn good ride while you’re on it.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Interstellar is released 7th November 2014
Interstellar – Official Website