Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine
The sublime and the ridiculous are regular, if uncomfortable bedfellows. The risk of toppling from the former to the latter increases the harder anyone pushes at a boundary that didn’t seem possible to break. Take the great explorers of human history, the very people that inspire so much of Christopher Nolan’s latest opus, Interstellar. It’s a finer line than it looks between Edmund Hillary triumphantly scaling Everest and Salomon August Andrée embarking on a one way trip to the arctic in a hot air balloon laden with pink cravats and champagne, yet no winter clothing. These people see a barrier and they run full tilt for better or worse. This time out, Nolan does exactly the same, often for the better, sometimes for the worse. Thankfully, for every instance where Interstellar bounces awkwardly off into stilted emotional manipulation, there’s at least two that punch straight through to sights you never thought possible.
Just where are these barriers he’s so intent on blasting aside? Interstellar posits a time in the not at all distant future when our stay on earth is drawing to a close. The world population has shrunk dramatically in the face of international food shortages. The only job that matters anymore is farming. It’s this task that Matthew McConaughey’s widower Cooper, one time engineer and thwarted astronaut, is now reluctantly devoted to. Living on his farm with daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), he’s stuck battling the elements in a doomed bid to rebuild a tottering existence.
When our planet is dying, where should we look? The answer is up, and the (possibly) chance discovery of a small NASA team led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) soon sees Cooper taking off to the stars in search of a new world with a crew including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a couple of handy robots both performed by Bill Irwin who voices TARS (Josh Stewart lending his voice to CASE). It’s hardly original. Looking to the stars for salvation is a science-fiction favourite that’s been seen countless times before. And yet at the same time it’s never been seen like this before.
With over an hour of IMAX footage – for your own sake, do what you can to see it in this format – Nolan and his team smash every visual bar they’ve set before. There’s a melancholy grandeur even on earth as the camera sweeps across dying corn fields and intimidatingly regular dust clouds, but we’re really here for the journey to the cosmos, and it doesn’t disappoint. There’s a spaceship docking sequence worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, low hanging ice clouds and waves that leave anything earth has ever seen looking like ripples in a paddling pool to name but a few of the wonders on display. Underscored by a potent combination of silence and Hans Zimmer’s latest masterly score, it’s about as close to breath-taking as is possible to get.
Even the science feels real. This is no air brained, back of a fag packet GCSE lesson. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the man whose works inspired the film in the first place, comes on board to ensure there’s an authentic tinge to all things outer space. The seductive lens effect that characterises Interstellar’s wormhole experiences comes directly from Thorne’s input, but his influence runs right through climatic changes on earth to carefully designed spaceships. Nolan, writing with his brother Jonathan once more, does what he can to make the repeated scientific leaps understandable. If it occasionally feels like a lecture, it’s one delivered clearly and concisely.
The importance of science and humanity’s ability to harness it to get out of any number of scrapes is an enduring theme throughout. Right from the off, Cooper is lecturing young Murph about the need to test and prove theories while railing against the Government’s decision to label the moon landings fake. The only other urge that features as strongly as the scientific, is love. Even here though, the Nolans’ bring in the theory of evolution to justify the extreme survival instinct and the desire to find a future for his children that drives Cooper forward.
For all its achievements, Interstellar doesn’t float effortlessly free of the ground. The switch from big picture adventure to intimate emotion causes the film to stumble. When the scale is this large, the lurch into personal drama can’t help but look pixelated. For every devastating moment – a time lapse sequence that sees young Murph and Tom emerge as bitter and withdrawn adults played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck shakes to the bone – there’s another that feels forced. One speech on love delivered by Amelia is likely to result in sniggering across the cinema. Yet even then, after a plea to act on love is made, Cooper goes the other way. He’s a man of science first, a practical man who wants to save humanity without dooming it for selfish gain.
In McConaughey, Nolan has the perfect Cooper. His laconic charms play well under pressure as he rises to the challenge of the conventional leading man without dull heroics and tedious chin jutting profile shots. McConaughey slips, scrapes and slides his way through the universe, a man of sage wisdom and suffocating doubt. He’s the stand out by far, though by no means the only decent performer. Hathaway does well with a prominently incomplete character, while Chastain and Affleck play the one note they’re given effectively. It’s Nolan regular Caine who draws the short straw, stuck booming out Dylan Thomas like a Saturday night drunk catcalling across the high street.
Bombast is certainly on display and it doesn’t always work, but Nolan shows time and again that he isn’t afraid to gamble. If his numbers don’t always come up, they appear far more than chance should allow. From the vast expanse of space right down to an inaccessible ending that will delight or frustrate depending on your disposition, Interstellar is a film operating way out alone. It’s the most flawed effort Nolan’s made in some time, and quite possibly the most brilliant. Aiming this unfathomably high was always going to be a stretch. But whenever Interstellar falls short, it jumps straight back up and tries again. If the object is out of reach, the answer is always to reach higher. And reach Interstellar does, with awe inspiring results.