In co-writer and director Christopher Nolan’s vision of the future, it’s not the death of our planet’s vegetation that poses the greatest threat to humanity, but a lack of ambition. As crops fail and the Earth shrivels into a dust bowl, its inhabitants have stopped looking up at the stars with hope, and instead face their fate with a gloomy resignation. “We don’t need engineers,” a teacher tells Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, a test pilot turned farmer, “we ran out of food.”
Nolan’s latest magnum opus, arguably his riskiest so far, is a grand meditation on exploration, loneliness, love and self-sacrifice. In the tradition of such weighty genre classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, this feels like the director’s own attempt to make what Arthur C Clarke famously described as “the proverbial good science fiction movie” and it’s likely to perplex and thrill audiences in equal measure, just as Kubrick’s Space Odyssey did on its release in 1968.
In the simplest, most spoiler-free terms, Interstellar is about a last-ditch attempt to find a habitable planet for humanity as the Earth threatens to splutter and breathe its last. McConaughey’s Cooper is a rock-solid, all-American family man, the widowed father to a young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and teenage son Tom (Timothee Chalamet). But then a chance encounter with eminent scientist Dr Brand (Michael Caine) reignites Cooper’s desire to reach for the stars, and he reluctantly agrees to join astronauts Amelia (Anne Hathaway) Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) on their search for a new home.
Nolan has long championed in-camera effects and traditional filmmaking, so it’s little surprise that Interstellar has the gritty, used patina of 70s and 80s films like Silent Running, Alien, Outland and The Right Stuff. The visual effects look less like the product of a 21st century digital effects studio and more like the wonderful things Douglas Trumbull was creating in the 60s and 70s.
The story itself shot through with a palpable air of nostalgia. Cooper is a brave, resourceful adventurer in the Chuck Yeager mould, a character as comfortable sitting with a beer on his front porch as he is at the helm of a spacecraft. Through him, Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan describe a Ray Bradbury-like story about America’s pioneering spirit – a call to arms, perhaps, for a generation who grew up without heroes like Neil Armstrong to look up to.
As Cooper’s ship roars towards its uncertain destination, messages home from his family remind him of what he’s given up for the greater good. These scenes, as Cooper watches his children grow up from his isolation in the depths of space, are among Interstellar’s most affecting. The future world Nolan’s created here is also wonderfully subtle; the Earth’s gloomy history is expressed with a single shot or a solitary line of dialogue – the notion that wars have ceased, simply because humanity’s too exhausted to carry on fighting, for example, is an evocative and disquieting one.
For long stretches, however, Interstellar’s drama is as muted as its grey and brown colour palette. There are deep conversations about humanity’s fate, the nature of good and evil, and the minutiae of what the mission involves delivered in grim, serious tones by grim, serious characters.
There’s no doubt that Interstellar is superbly shot and well acted, as we’d expect from the director of such films as Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception. So why, for this writer at least, did Interstellar feel so difficult to connect with? Perhaps it has something to do with the story, which feels as though it’s being pulled in three different directions at once – from one angle we have a cerebral story about our place in the universe, just like 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the other we have a family drama that should be filled with warmth and optimism. Then on the third we have a mystery where all the discussions about ghosts, relativity and love all intertwine and have a greater significance.
Somehow, all the things Nolan tries to express don’t quite coalesce into a satisfying whole, even though individual elements and scenes have genuine power. There are quiet sequences that carry an eerie sense of chilly menace. There are loud moments of crisis where Hans Zimmer hammers out deafening chords on his church organ and the hairs on the back of our necks stand to attention. There are rousing speeches, repeated quotes from Dylan Thomas, acts of bravery and tears before bedtime.
But the way Nolan cuts back and forth between these events has a deleterious effect on the dramatic tension. Every time we start to feel the cosmic chill of being huddled up in a space craft with a bunch of other homesick travellers, or feel a shudder of wonderment at a shot of a distant planet, the action cuts back to events back on planet Earth. Instead of remaining with Cooper his companions, and allowing the audience to feel their loneliness and claustrophobia, Nolan and editor Lee Smith remove us from it. In its more languid moments, Interstellar feels less like a daring head-first dive into the unknown and more like an austere science lecture. Compared to Interstellar, other SF films about space and the unknown, such as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, are like a colourful episode of Lost In Space.
Having said all this, it’s important not to downplay just how good Interstellar is when it does burst into life. The design of its ships, AI machines and space suits are magnificent, and production designer Nathan Crowley brings a pleasing realism and freshness to familiar genre gadgets and staples. There’s even a great ship interior that recalls one described by Arthur C Clarke in his novel Rendezvous With Rama. Above all, though, Interstellar is a rare example of a nine-figure art movie. Only a director with a string of blockbuster hits behind him could get such a film made, and we can only wonder what Tinseltown’s executives must have thought when they saw what Nolan had produced with their (reported) $165m budget.
What’s difficult to say, especially after one viewing, is whether Interstellar should be regarded as a flawed masterpiece or disjointed space oddity – after all, not everyone appreciated Kubrick’s genre touchstone the first time around, either, and that’s now rightly regarded as a classic. For us, at least on first viewing, Interstellar doesn’t quite hit home as satisfyingly as Nolan’s previous films did. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to head back to the cinema and wonder again at the finer details to be found in its bleak future world.
Interstellar is out in UK cinemas on the 7th November.
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