My major criticism of recent Christopher Nolan films (the pretty-great Inception and the rather-lacking The Dark Knight Rises) has been their rigidity. Nolan is a supremely accomplished and endlessly talented filmmaker, but his strengths flourish in a technical sense. His recent works have felt more like architectural achievements than films; dense, complex, fastidiously crafted. But watching them feels like cramming for some kind of construction exam. What’s been missing, in short, is the heart.
Well slap a biscuit out of my mouth, because that certainly isn’t the case this time. Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan present us Interstellar, a sweepingly ambitious science fiction spectacle that attempts to quantify love in a scientific universe.
Set in a not too distant future (with some pleasingly chunky pieces of tech lying around), it seems the human race has packed in picking a fight with itself seeing as a blight has decimated our food reserves and much of the population too. This is the end, not with a bang but with a whimper, and Nolan’s apocalypse is like a candle very slowly burning down to its end. A light modestly winking out.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a caretaker at Earth’s midnight. He works a farm, nurturing a corn crop with his gifted daughter Murph (a superb find in Mackenzie Foy) and his less-gifted son Tom (Timothée Chalamet). He’s frustrated at the lack of choice his children have in their dwindling world, but they’re making the best of it. Cooper was also once a maverick pilot with mad skills (hint; that’s going to become really handy really quickly).
Like something out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, Murph discovers a strange ‘anomaly’ in her bedroom. A “ghost” as she calls it that appears to be trying to contact her through binary dust piles and toppled books. Cracking one such code brings Cooper and Murph to a secret government installation; the last outpost of NASA, helmed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine). Don’t tell anyone, but they’re working on a last-ditch project to save mankind – by looking for a new home elsewhere through a fortuitous wormhole that has appeared near Saturn. Damn, they could really use a pilot. Lucky Cooper turned up really or they’d have been sitting on their hands for who knows how long?
In another break from the established Nolan pattern, Interstellar‘s Cooper listens to advice given by Michael Caine immediately, and signs up for this mission to save mankind. Murph is inconsolable as her father bids her goodbye, probably for decades, possibly forever. And so, after a lengthy but not aimless first act, Nolan launches us into space.
I’m loathe to detail what happens from here. If Nolan’s film conveys any emotion convincingly, it’s how the human spirit can be emblazoned by discovery. This is the story of pioneers with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Cooper is accompanied by Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway; Nolan’s secret weapon for a second film running), dutiful exposition-filter Romilly (David Gyasi) and a pair of charming, comedic robots, TARS and CASE (voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart respectively). Oh, Wes Bentley’s there too. Their adventures are far-reaching and episodic, framed by conversations that try their hardest to distill complex principles of quantum mechanics and relativity into basic audience-savvy soundbites. I’m not going to question the science offered by Interstellar because it simply isn’t my field. As a sci-fi movie I accept the story being told to me will do its best to work by its own rules. Nitpicking on this basis feels a little futile.
It all looks and feels incredible. There’s a wafer-thin physicality to Nolan’s space vehicles that feels tangible; even more so than in Gravity one gets a sense of the extreme precariousness of space travel. While the vistas of the infinite offered by Nolan are as grand as some of those in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Interstellar‘s own looming father figure, aped here in many shots and music cues). If Nolan has been guilty of losing humanity in his movies, how will he find it in these cold depths?
To be fair, Nolan’s films haven’t been lacking in emotional resonance. Memento and Insomnia in particular are effective character pieces with moments of great pathos. But the work since then has felt a little too mechanical. There’s a certain degree of irony in Nolan’s most scientifically minded film being his most overtly sentimental. But Interstellar is sentimental. Enough to make Spielberg throw up in his beard. The problem is that the touchy-feely warmth seems to have been layered on afterward like so much syrup. It coats the film instead of co-mingling with it at a base level. And as the rest of the story is so weighted with gravity (pun kinda intended), with knitted brows and melodramatic drivel that screams SHIT THIS IS SERIOUS… the sentimentality frequently plays as, well, laughable.
Interstellar‘s big screen grandeur will wow many on their first visit to see it, but one can’t help but predict the same sort of drop-off Gravity has encountered once the film has some room to breathe and down-scales to the small screen. There’s a lot of duff over-emoting going on here. Michael Caine is frequently the worst offender, though the guttural huffs expelled by McConaughey as he goes where no man has gone before may well become the stuff of parodies soon enough. For all its finesse and grandeur, Interstellar isn’t far removed from the embarrassing portentousness of Irwin Allen at his silliest. Especially as the story grows more and more reliant of contrivance and million-to-one coincidence as it goes along (as much, if not moreso than Gravity).
It’s commendable for a film of this reach to ask the audience to focus as it reels off so much dense information (though that isn’t that much fun), it’s great that Nolan is so enthusiastically pro-science while still trying to make time to give his film a warm heart. But he’s floundered this time. And it’s really frustrating.
Jessica Chastain is somewhat sidelined in an Earth-bound storyline which is pivotal to the overall film, but feels secondary in Nolan’s interest when there’s so much going on in space, while Casey Affleck appears to have been given only the one acting note; “has a beard”. While a surprise guest appearance midway through the picture pulls the viewer out of the action completely, and it takes a couple of minutes to settle back into the film’s meandering reality (this section provides Interstellar many of it’s best thrills, but could arguably be edited out completely, pulling the running time nearer to two hours instead of nearly three).
There are treasures here. Some sequences are wonderful. Plus it’s great to see Nolan settle down for a change and allow some of his scenes to last longer than 30 seconds. But Interstellar is a deeply frustrating picture. As occasionally brilliant as it is frequently overbearing. It’s as though Nolan is frantically trying to keep the smoke and mirrors going to hide that, underneath it all, his film is no less bonkers a flight of fancy than anything Shyamalan might cook up. It’s better dressed. It’s exceptionally well dressed. But it’s often little more than a silly, clumsily soppy sci-fi yarn covered in big words. I can’t help feeling like they’re really just the emperor’s new clothes. Yes, we finally get a Nolan film that doesn’t merely feel like a dense construct. Instead it feels held together with blu-tack.