Amid the ever-abundant slew of sequels and ever-expanding range of superhero movies over the last couple of years, there has also been a resurgence in attempts to tell grand scale stand-alone mainstream science fiction stories. To mixed results (Elysium, Oblivion) or raves that weren’t matched by box office (Edge of Tomorrow). Christopher Nolan’s 2012 Inception is rightly seen as the high-water mark for what can be achieved with a strong original idea and a compelling narrative to match. Its success meant there was a bona fide Nolan brand; from now on, it wouldn’t just be his Batman pictures that attracted mass audiences. It was perhaps foolhardy to test that brand (although I’m sure he doesn’t think of himself that way) with another grand scale science fiction film, since comparisons were inevitable. While it has many positives, not least conceptually and in the breadth of the canvas on which Nolan depicts his vision, Interstellar comes up decidedly short.
Nolan may have boxed himself into a corner. He isn’t just a serious filmmaker; he’s a big, serious filmmaker. And one who has chosen to express himself in genres that attract the greatest mileage of Internet column inches. The overwhelming weight of expectation in focussed on his every new project, and his reputation had already taken its first tumble before Interstellar arrived to mixed response. The Dark Knight Returns proved to be as stodgy and unremarkable as The Dark Knight was innovative (I say that as someone who nevertheless enjoyed it for the most part).
To fans of his “realistic” version of Batman, and Nolanites generally, the man can do no wrong. To others he is a self-important, heartless, humourless pseud, whose very cult status and sense of superiority is reason enough to malign him (and then there are the assertions regarding his acumen, not least his ability with action sequences). But Interstellar is Nolan flying solo again, unshackled from the franchise that sent him into the stratosphere. He reworked a script by his brother Jonathan, originally designed for Spielberg. The teaser promised “proper” hard SF, with big ideas and mature themes. This is the director attempting to grasp the hem of Kubrick’s robes.
So it is that Interstellar exemplifies both the best and worst of Nolan; strong, compelling ideas and philosophically rich underpinnings competing with ponderous delivery or punctured by a lack of self-awareness. And then there’s the bid to add feathers to his creative bow. Interstellar finds the director set on mustering genuine emotional content, as if challenging those who claim he’s a purely cerebral creature (I don’t think this is true, but he just doesn’t make cuddly films; he has that in common with Kubrick at least, if not the peerless talent). The result is probably the most mixed of his films from scene to scene. The Dark Knight Rises quickly reached the point where it was evident how silly much of it was in spite, or because, of its sobriety and (if you were of a kindly disposition) you could enjoy it on that level. Interstellar’s content is by turns inspiring, intellectually dense, (occasionally) moving, fervidly obtuse and utterly banal. Which means it isn’t a film that is easy to dismiss, but neither is it one over which to effervesce.
Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper (or “Coop”, but not of the Special Agent variety) is a widower father and farmer on a future dustbowl Earth. Scarce resources and the struggle for survival have rendered humanity a race of caretakers. Messages from a higher intelligence, manifesting as poltergeist activity in daughter Murphy’s (Mackenzie Foy) bedroom, lead them to a top-secret base established by the remnants of NASA. There, they learn of a plan to save the human race from a dying Earth. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) offers Coop, a former NASA engineer and test pilot, in on the mission. Coop leaps at the chance to fulfil his dream but this means leaving behind Murphy and his son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), in the care of his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow).
This being the standard length for a Nolan film (competing for three hours), it’s the best part of an hour before Coop leaves Earth. The director makes good use of that time, ensuring we get to see the straits the Earth is in and establishing the special father-daughter bond and thus the immense betrayal felt by Murphy at his departure (in a series of awkward explanatory dialogue passages, Coop has to explain to his 10 year old, who must surely have asked this at some point before, that the Murphy’s Law after which she is named is not negative but means simply whatever can happen will happen). Coop’s frontiersman spirit is in conflict with his paternal duties, so it’s fortunate that, unlike Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he can justify absconding on the grounds that the human race is at stake.
We learn there are two plans; Plan A requires that Brand solves a crucial equation enabling the manipulate gravity, thus lifting into space huge stations that are being built (a bit cart and horse, that). The human race can then follow the pioneers to the new world that awaits. Plan B, assuming A’s failure, finds the new world populated via a bank of fertilised eggs. It is on A former that now grown-up Murphy (Jessica Chastain) works; a crucial conceit of the picture is the effect of localised planetary gravitational effects on the passage of time. I say conceit, as it is posited that the extreme effects of time witnessed in the picture would be impossible under the conditions encountered. The manner in which this time dilation is announced going in, and the clumsy excitement with which Coop tells his daughter before his departure, could be seen as an accurate reflection of Nolan’s own interests in the theory. If he is as captivated by his emotion content, he fails to show it. Indeed, there’s a strong sense of someone using a hammer to crack a nut; the director over-emphasises and truncates those emotional beats because he is uncertain that he can deliver them.
But first things first. What of the Earth that has been envisaged? The stricken milieu is wholly tangible, and the director wisely limits himself to one or two locales. Those with a huge effects box and a penchant for extravagant pixilating would no doubt have cut away to a vacant metropolis or the erosion of well-known landmarks. Instead we have dust storms and bronchial complaints, crop failures and slow, sinking, resignation regarding the bleak horizon. It’s a plausible environment but it isn’t terribly interesting, so it’s a relief to get off into space (as with most Great Depression-set movies, from which this takes its cues, it instils a great depression on the viewer); unfortunately, the cuts back to Earth that accompany the mission are a constant reminder of the narrative unbalance. If the visual sense of this weary apocalypse is fine, the sketch work and oblique references made to the form of society don’t necessarily add up. Coop seems to have grown up during a period of famine and food shortages, until there was a mass shift towards agrarian solutions.
With this, it seems the army has been dismantled. This in itself seems highly fanciful; so a form of world peace is in place, a unilateral laying down of weapons? What stops starving, poverty-stricken and diseased populations from rioting? Or one side from not going the disarmament route? Wouldn’t constant shortages lead to civil unrest (not when there’s time for baseball, it seems)? It could well be that the entire economic system has changed, that wealth has been redistributed. Except Coop still pays his taxes. Unqualified references like this represent big leaps as they instantly create doubts as to how much thought went into this future world. That’s one reason Nolan’s limited locations (farm, town, NASA base) make sense; they ensure we don’t ask too many questions. We learn from Brand at one point that drastic population control measures were considered, which he refused to be involved with. This, and the food shortages, put me in mind of No Blade of Grass, wherein mass starvation leads governments to decimate city populations in order to create a chance for the remainder.
It’s curious how the picture chooses to over-explain some areas (the science, the thematic fixation on the power of love) while deciding that less is more for others. The glimpses of this global situation are tantalising, even where it’s difficult to see that the Nolans actually had anything coherent in their heads. It’s especially interesting that the official line in this future, down to school text books being rewritten, is that the Moon landings were faked as a plan by the US to bankrupt Russia (as explanations go for believing this conspiracy theory it isn’t the most convincing). They have gone out of their way to include this, so it deserves some attention. What is that we’re supposed to construe from this? Coop, modelled after The Right Stuff’s Chuck Yeager/Sam Shepard (notably Coop is a test pilot rather than an all-out astronaut, and in Kaufman’s film Yeager is seen to have ploughed the furrow that the first astronauts followed) is indignant and outraged that the symbol of the pathfinder spirit is sullied by such outrageous lies; he is even pleased his daughter got into a fight at school defending the honour of the Apollo missions.
So it looks as if Nolan, through his lead, is dismissing the errant mutterings of the foil hat brigade, in the same way he snorts derisively over ideas of the supernatural (Coop gives an impassioned defence of scientific advances in the form of the MRI machine – one of the “useless machines” the Soviets bankrupted themselves producing in order to compete with the US – that might have saved his wife’s life if they were still around). But is that really what he is doing? This is the director who made an entire film about stage magicians, only to introduce real magic (well, science, but it’s the same difference representatively) at the end. The scientific reasoning that emotions may be able access different dimensions might be an appealing means of accounting for supernatural phenomena (as in, the more advanced the science/understanding of the mechanics of the universe, the more likely it is to look like magic to those who don’t comprehend it) but it labours beneath the faint conviction of the delivery; there’s no getting around how flaky this sounds when attempting to translate it into plausible language. Because it is. Are we to believe that Nolan, the most literal of SF/fantasy directors (who turned the dreamscape into – a quite superb one, but nevertheless – giant heist movie, rather than exploring its apparent illogic and absurdity) entertains the supernatural, the arcane, the existence of… God? Possibly in the most tentative, Carl Sagan of ways. All those things may be valid, if squeezed into a box marked “science”.
What is striking in respect of Coop is that he is consistently wrong about the vital stuff. He is wrong to dismiss his daughter’s belief in poltergeists (since the phenomena is real even if the explanation for it is wrong); he is wrong to believe in the mission (whether or not it ultimately succeeds, the motives behind it were not honest), he is wrong to dismiss Amelia’s (Anne Hathaway) conjecture about the science of love; twice in fact, as he heads for the wrong damn planet (where he’s wrong about Matt Damon’s Mann), and then because he discovers that the means to save humanity is by communicating with his daughter through a trans-dimensional bookcase (a moment where you start wondering if a fifth-dimensional Douglas Adams is present in the writer’s room, denied the chance to crack any jokes or include a mattress exclaiming “Flobble”).
Could it be that Coop is also wrong to rail at the sacrilegious denial of the reality of the Moon landings? This isn’t only pertinent in respect of the consciously invoked the spectre of Kubrick; the famous legend that director was contracted to shoot the Moon landing footage (when you get to the point that The Shining is Stanley’s coded admission of this, you’re so far down the rabbit hole you have probably burrowed out of it in Australia). Nolan, a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, has explicitly stated that Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece informed his approach to Interstellar (with The Right Stuff), and he would most certainly have been conscious of the theory. But the more significant factor in this scenario is within the narrative itself; the notional faking of the Moon landings requires a lying, duplicitous NASA. And in Interstellar we learn that Coop has been victim to a lying duplicitous NASA; Brand solved the equation years ago (Murphy can’t be such a shit hot physicist if she only realised this during his deathbed admission) and determined that the only strategy was to pursue Plan B.
As with the purported NASA of the 1960s, Brand is waging a propaganda war. For all his eventual hopefulness, Nolan is keen to emphasise harsh realities about society’s lack of sufferance and empathy outside the immediate sphere. Getting behind a make-believe mission to save everyone on Earth is a vote winner. Getting behind the eventual survival of nascent humanity while the rest perish on a doomed world is quite another matter; the stampede of every man for himself will leave altruism and self-sacrifice at the door.
And the philosophical debate presented by Brand and the wretched Mann is an interesting one, perhaps the film’s most engaging. But it’s part of a different tale to the one Nolan wanted to make. The survival of the seedlings of the human race, while mankind perishes on Earth, is a much more intellectually meaty premise, one where philosophy and ideology become thorny in the face of the big picture. After all, assuming Brand was right, and the power of love didn’t prevail, he would also have been justified in pursing the only viable avenue for humanity’s survival. Wouldn’t he? And Mann (an on-the-nose name) would be correct to do everything in his power to lead them to the new Eden? In that version of Interstellar, there would be a natural bridge with the bittersweet Silent Running (which is echoed in the O’Neill colony of the film’s conclusion).
So is the subtext that Nolan believes the Moon landings were faked? Who knows? It’s a bit like asking does Nolan believe in God. Or does Carl Sagan, whose Contact Interstellar resembles in a number of significant respects (a daughter’s loss of her father, distortion of time and contact with higher intelligences intent on the advancement/survival of humanity through sentimental means). Sagan, although effectively an atheist, demurred from labelling himself as such because, for him, it came down to insufficient evidence either way.
If Interstellar and Contact are any example, what appears to happen when atheists (or agnostics) address the more cosmic conundrums is that ultimate realisation and revelation take on a disconcertingly twee form. Scientific boundaries are bridged through affirmation of the home and hearth and familial bond. Hence the alien (God substitute) in Contact takes on the form of Foster’s father, and the communicating forces in Interstellar turn out to be Coop himself (the Son of God, or fifth dimensional aliens, or evolved humanity – although the latter should be taken with a pinch of salt given how on the ball our protagonist has been elsewhere in the film). At least Kubrick could be relied upon not to muddy his waters with easy sentiment or undemanding exposition. That’s why 2001 has a transcendence and impact far beyond Nolan’s range. Conceptually and poetically he’s in the nursery; reduce the sum total of cosmic experience to one’s ephemeral ties and you may think you are addressing a universal identifier but more likely you will have scrawled across the finery of your storytelling possibilities in black marker pen.
While Nolan is (probably intentionally) murky in his vision of what goes on behind it all, he is quite happy to grasp the subjective home truths of personal experience as demonstrable and verifiable (as played out by Amelia). This has the side effect of making it unclear exactly what he is trying to say. His rationalist vision is subverted by the power of love; is Nolan saying he believes in science and the literal, except when it comes to what goes on inside us? Or that what goes on inside us is every bit as scientifically accountable as the verifiable material world? There’s a clear embrace of swelling, emotive themes in Interstellar, in the face of giving up on the human race and by implication forsaking one’s family. The problem is, very few can pull off this kind of thing. Look at a similar uneven picture that also summoned the spirit of Kubrick (since it was his baby for decades); A.I. Spielberg was completely the wrong person to tread the delicate line between depth of emotion and fantastic vision, which is why that picture turns to mush in places. If you’re guide rope requires you to connect the cosmic to the personal and intimate, you will more than likely come a cropper and your methods end up appearing trite (even Mechano-man Cameron had brickbats aimed his way for The Abyss) unless you have a truly unique perspective (Terrence Malick, say).
I wouldn’t seek to debate the scientific plausibility or otherwise of the concepts Nolan utilises (for every informed person suggesting he has honed close to the theoretically feasible there’s another asserting he has taken diabolical liberties), as long as he maintains internal logic. But I would take issue with some of the plot devices and science fiction tropes he employs and some of the methods by which he conveys his concepts. Are we to believe Coop, an ex-NASA guy, really needs the concept of wormholes explained by a fellow astronaut passing a pencil through the opposite ends of a piece of paper?
Coop arrives at the NASA base just when they looking for an astronaut; he’s a former test pilot, and they just happen to be in the vicinity (thank goodness they’re only a day’s drive away). And then he appears to set off on his mission the very next day… The level of contrivance here would beget the notion that Nolan was actively indulging themes of destiny and synchronicity if he didn’t actively work in the opposite direction with the copious scientific grounding. It is also no less glaring for Coop marvelling at the unlikelihood of the coincidence (while this may be a deliberate pointer to the revelation that it was his future self’s actions that sent him to NASA, the convenience of his pilot status is more difficult to explain away). Rather, it seems like the doubtful old writer’s device of copping to implausibility by having characters recognise the implausibility. Coop also still wakes up in sweats, haunted by a (Yaeger-ish) plane crash that also happened to be caused by the gravitational anomaly. Unless this too was purposefully caused by the fifth dimensional (Star Children?) beings to secure his destiny, but that seems like a stretch. Generally, the picture is far too content to play the “meaningful” card in the place of plausible plotting.
We also end up in the realm of the (much over-used) bootstrap paradox when Coop travels down behind the mattress, I mean bookcase, and we discover he was the poltergoost all along! So he is able to communicate the equation to his now grown daughter, the one that will lift humanity up among the stars. But… the Nolan Brothers’ contrivance (again) is to have Coop repeating and going through the exact same motions that his (young) daughter encountered, without apparently realising that he’s doing exactly the things she communicated to him as having happened. One might put it down to his excitable state, caught up in the moment, but it takes a lot of swallowing, not least because audiences are lately well versed in this kind of for-the-sake-of-a-twist storytelling. I was always slightly incredulous that Time Crimes received the raves it did, when it requires its protagonist to go through the most statistically unlikely of exact repetitions in order for events to play out seamlessly; being conscious of the original events cannot but cause them to play out differently if freewill is involved (and there is only a suggestion there that the protagonist is consciously engaged in repeating the events he has previously seen). So with Coop; Nolan would need to tackle the sequence differently (either the means by which “originally” Murphy communicates the activity to her father, or the means by which Coop fails to realise what he is doing) for it to be credible. The upside is that Interstellar’s foray into the improbable is considerably briefer than that of Time Crimes.
I tend to be more impressed by science fiction that actually attempts to work through paradoxes in a cogent manner (which usually requires multiple alternate timelines) but very few do (Looper is another that, having been lauded, fails to cohere). The paradox in Interstellar barely passes mention in and of itself because it’s the stuff of the norm (Nolan’s film is filled with such familiar devices) but Coop’s initial reactions do stretch credulity. He would at very least though “Dang, I’m stuck behind that polter-bookcase, the one that I’m now… Dang!”
Of course, at this point, the brothers are allowing logic and reason to take a backseat. It’s the free pass given by the workings of their wormhole. It’s magic and God in a different form, made palatable by pseudo-gubbins about humans from the future; God still effectively appears in stand-in form, which rather undermines the great human achievement (well, human and friendly robot achievement). There are no such things as ghosts; it’s all rationality and science, except can you really call it that any longer when your fifth dimensional father is communicating with you through a bookcase? As noted, Nolan previously dabbled in science=magic with The Prestige and its queasy reveal. That worked as a “WTF?” rabbit-out-of-hat moment, but Interstellar ends up banging is head repeatedly against that bookcase.
In part this is down to Nolan spends far too long on the sequence. He labours the point and the visuals while failing to convey the awe/wonder for which he is striving. “I’m only tiny!” shouts Coop as he floats about trying with almighty gusto to push books off the shelf. Yes, we get it Chris, if only you’d been so long-winded in making sure we understood some of the (long-winded already) science elsewhere rather than blinding us with it! In part, he flounders because there is something inherently silly about Coop’s desperate bid, in spite of the tesseract/sub-Escher visualisation (it’s the Douglas Adams preposterousness). In part it’s because Nolan, for all his skills, has no real sense of the surreal. He wants the bookcase to be his equivalent of the hotel room in 2001 in terms of the familiar made strange, but he can’t even equal the slightly offbeat beach at the end of Contact. Nolan doesn’t think or see that way (he even gives Coop a friendly neighbourhood robot as a comfort blanket to ground the already not-so-absurd).
If he did he might have been able to cut through the issues with the story and bowl on through with sheer visual élan. The third act of the film has huge problems, most intrusive of which is the decision to cut back to the parallel action on Earth. Which is almost laughably underwhelming prior to the bookcase incident. Casey Affleck continues his unlikely streak of posing as really threatening while actually being a mere slip of a lad (with a quite super glue-on beard) and his son gets all wheezy.
Just as we didn’t think events could get any more dramatic, Topher Grace stares with trepidation at a burning field and yells that Casey’s coming back (presumably Toper was cast because they needed someone Casey could feasibly beat up). Nolan kills the momentum of his space scenes with this most banal of parallel action; it’s understandable that he wants to return to Murphy throughout. He feels the need to maintain the father-daughter link and the promise of a promise fulfilled. But the way he has gone about it goes against the natural inclination of a narrative that wants nothing to do with her as an adult because she just isn’t interesting (this is no fault of Chastain; young Murphy and her relationship with Coop are affecting, while adult Murphy seems to hinge on the desperate hope that their Oscar nominated actress can fill in the gaps).
Nolan then proceeds to do even more damage, fumbling the all-important emotional culmination of his piece when we meet our third Murphy (Ellen Burstyn). We’re left wondering, “Is that it?” She has hung on for dear life, and Coop fulfils a father’s vow to be with his little old daughter. She’s on her deathbed and, just to make sure we realise the dramatic power of this, there’s an on-the-nose line about how parents should never see their children die. So, no sooner has he set foot in the room than Murphy tells him to naff off again. The result being, Coop sets off at end to be with best gal Amelia … whom he just left so he could keep promise to be with his daughter… who saw him for 90 seconds before telling him to go and be with his best gal Amelia. It’s an endless loop! If only they had instant texting through wormholes and black holes it would make everything so much simpler.
Stood next to the bruising missteps such as this, the special guest star Matt Damon plot strand is much less of a problem but it still falters. For a start, it is staged as a diversion, another episode in their attempts to find a habitable planet. This means we have to go through the seven ages of Mann very quickly in order to cut to the chase. That might not be too big a deal if it wasn’t that we’ve encountered the marooned survivor so frequently in SF films (Event Horizon, Sunshine, Supernova spring to mind) that we know exactly how this is going to play out. Damon is okay, and he does a respectable job of Mann attempting to convince himself that he has no choice but to leave Coop to suffocate, but he doesn’t leave much impression either. That Nolan has chosen not to go the full-on babbling loon route doesn’t actually alleviate the déjà vu of Mann’s presence.
Nominally, Mann serves to spotlight several of the picture’s grand themes. He awakes and is overcome with emotion of being found, having given up hope; his heartfelt emphasis of the relief of seeing another human being, and the hug he gives Coop is as good as he gets, however. He’s also there for Murphy’s message about Brand’s duplicity, justifying the scientist’s cold logic and so undermining that Mann is “the best of us”. The unravelling of Mann serves to further undermine the ethical basis of Plan B; not because it isn’t sensible, but because a cowardly (kind-of-) rationalist is giving it his full support. And, while Mann gives voice to some valid arguments at the outset, once he has revealed his true colours he descends into passé psycho mode, heading off in a shuttle to commandeer the main ship Endurance and so head off to Edmund’s world (the third possible life-giving planet, where Amelia’s beau had touched down). It struck me that making Mann Machiavellian was the easiest of options, there to spell out the “Evil is what you take with you” speech Coop gives earlier. Coop may be wrong in respect of some key points, but he is seen to be right in his passion not to give up on his daughter, I mean mankind, because we can relate to his aw shucks good old sincerity. The more interesting version of Interstellar would have a rationale and sympathetic Mann, so we are torn between his view and Coop’s.
But these broad strokes are essential to new Nolan, Mr Warm & Cuddly. I actually quite like the New Age-y science of love, or emotions generally, being a gateway to another dimension, but in a po-faced film like this it invites ridicule. Amelia’s speech needed to be moderated and signposted, rather than delivered in a prolonged expository vomit when it comes to the decision of which planet to visit next. The idea isn’t quite inimical to the broader picture, but it’s fashioned so clumsily that it asks to be rejected outright. One might use a similar argument to justify the scene as for Coop’s repeated actions behind the holy bookcase, that Amelia’s speaking in desperation. Except that her theory proves to bang on (it must be synchronicity again, right?)
The emotional beats aren’t all failures, but too many of them are. The casting of McConaughey is very shrewd, because he instantly offers a warmth and vitality that counters Nolan’s cut-glass manner. The scene where Coop watches transmissions following a gap of decades on Earth, and the response that plays out on his face, is genuinely moving (although it must be said, Hans Zimmer score also does a lot of the heavy lifting). But there’s little else that is really affecting. It’s a problem that there is so little chemistry between McConaughey and Hathaway, as we’re left wondering why he even goes off to look for her at the end (apart from because his daughter decrees it). Intentionally or not, the moment plays that he’s looking forward to shooting off for an adventure in his spaceship rather than itching to hitch up again with the woman of his destiny.
Nolan’s film notably identifies the female characters as instinctively correct in fundamental and key areas, even if they still need a good solid man to do the rugged stuff (you know, the type to heroically pitch into black holes or bark orders when a wave several hundred feet high is charging towards you). Women’s intuition into the possibilities beyond hard (or non-speculative) science is proved correct, whether it relates to poltergoosts (Murphy’s brother is the epitome of unimaginative, linear thinking) or the transcendent power of love. Trust non-rationality. Trust your sixth sense. Unfortunately, these identifiers alone do not make strong characters. To be fair, Coop aside (much of which is down to McConaughey) Nolan disappoints with the characters across the board. Murphy is little more than a cypher once she grows up, and Amelia’s function is to counterpoint Coop rather than pose as a character in her own right.
It’s nice to see John Lithgow and Michael Caine (who lives an awfully long time, until we realise he’s supposed to be youngish when we first see him) but they don’t come alive as characters. Wes Bentley and David Gyasi fare better, to the extent they are missed when they exit, but the overriding impression is that, because of his attempts to emphasise the emotional story, this is the Nolan film where the characters are least effective (well, maybe its better than The Dark Knight Rises on that score).
When it comes to the effects, the hardware, the set piece sequences, though, Interstellar rarely fails to deliver. The early pursuit of an Indian air force drone, Coop’s truck ploughing through a field of corn, is invigorating. The visits to the alien worlds are both thrilling and captivating, even if they are illustrative of Nolan’s tempered imagination. A world of knee-deep water, except for the waves (one wonders where they come from; do they lay bare vast deserts when they rise?), and the most fascinating of accompanying concepts; the time dilation that sees 23 years (there was bound to be a 23 in there, wasn’t there?) pass for Gyasi’s Romilly while a few hours have gone by on the planet. The shoot in Iceland for the Mann planet is less tantalising as it’s become something of a go-to country for SF of late (Oblivion, Prometheus), but the frozen clouds are a nice (unscientific) touch.
Nolan encourages the icky practicality with a most unpleasant looking suspended animation method. Then there are robots TARS and CASE, off putting at first with their lack of vocal refinement – a sign Nolan wants to go so un-Kubrick he’s announcing that as his starting point – with an arresting half monolith/half flip-flop puzzle toy. The scene on the water world where CASE rescues Amelia is about the closest the picture gets to classically rousing heroic action sequence (it could almost have been at home in something like The Black Hole).
The set piece-de-resistance is the edge-of-seat docking sequence, in which Coop pilots the shuttlecraft to dock with the crippled Endurance; the shuttle must maintain the same turbulent trajectory in order to complete the task. The later fall by Coop into the black hole, as the shuttle (apparently) separates around him and leaves him alone in the stark inky blackness, is effectively the anti-trip to 2001’s light show. Rather than getting out of one’s head, it emphasises the attachment to physical form that is Nolan through-and-through. It’s worth noting, as this materiality informs Nolan’s approach throughout.
Nolan eschews CGI wherever possible and boasts the immediacy of practical effects. Those complaining Interstellar lacks the wonder and majesty of 2001 shouldn’t be surprised. Nolan is going for the “knocking about in a tin can” ramshackle, cramped vibe of The Right Stuff, and for the most part succeeds (there’s nothing here to equal the awe of that picture’s space particles scene either, though). There’s no doubting that Nolan can create an effective, riveting sequence but there’s also little doubt that at this point that he isn’t an elegant sculptor of action. He sticks the pieces together wherever they best fit in the editing room in order to create the overall effect; it’s an interesting example of a guiding intelligence succeeding where the aesthetics of screen geography and interaction let him down.
Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar is nigh on the star of the picture. It is certainly enormously responsible for whatever emotional impact the film has. That slow, insistent and weighty piano is hugely affecting. And the change in tone as the darkness of Brand’s secret is revealed takes on the brooding menace of an outtake from The Shining. While Zimmer’s work has often been forgettable, his collaborations with Nolan have been anything but. If Nolan has been on a bit of a retreat from surety in his last two pictures, Zimmer has been going from strength-to-strength.
Besides a rather uncertain paean to the love between a parent and child, what is Interstellar about exactly? It’s a mass of contradictions that seems to result of shunting various concepts and movies together whether they are quite suitable or not (actually, bit like the way in which Nolan fashions his action scenes). It’s an ardent supporter of science even if that ends up equating to magic; a rallying cry to exploration and the frontier spirit that keeps coming back to what’s important at home and what you left behind; a hero’s tale where his cool-headed rectitude is proved wrong. Is the film about the indomitability of the human spirit or simple-minded mush about the love between a father and a daughter?
Perhaps some of these contradictions are strengths. Perhaps Nolan wants to essay that anything that can happen in a movie will happen. The inability to pigeonhole Interstellar means it is eminently suitable for long discussions about ways and means and intent. What’s less debatable is that the third act is a mess, and that Nolan’s express intent to make each new film a three-hour epic is an impediment not just to economy of storytelling but, when it skewers the main plotline, the engagement of the viewer. Interstellar is a much, much more stirring and though-provoking film than The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s also every bit as messy.