I am running dangerously low on superlatives for Christopher Nolan’s films given the ludicrously high standard he sets himself. Interstellar is his most ambitious project yet: an epic, mind-bending, emotional sucker-punch of a science fiction movie that paints on a vast canvas of space and time.
The less known about the plot the better, but it is safe to explain the basic premise without risk of spoiling things. Essentially an ecological disaster on Earth means crops are failing and the human race is doomed. Then a mysterious wormhole appears by Saturn (with who put it there being a key question), offering the tantalising possibility of exploring planets in another galaxy to which the human race could be relocated. The problem is that NASA’s preferred pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) would need to leave his children behind. Due to relativity, wormholes, black holes and other quantum complications, time will pass far quicker on Earth than on his voyage, meaning his children – and indeed the human race – could be dead and gone before his return.
The architect of Cooper’s voyage, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), says that because he is a physicist he is not afraid of death. He is afraid of time. And time in this film is viewed as a critical, finite resource like oxygen or food. Yet the heart of the story is not brain-testing science (though there is plenty of that), but a touching relationship between father and daughter, and a sentimental but admirable belief in the power of love as a force that can take the human race beyond the three dimensions we are limited to. Critics of Christopher Nolan have in the past claimed his films are cold and without a unifying emotional force. I have always thought such claims to be false, but it is hard to imagine that hoary old line being trotted out for Interstellar. One scene alone – involving Cooper viewing video messages from Earth – will resolutely put paid to that idea.
McConaughey delivers a fine leading performance as Cooper, a widowed farmer with prior piloting experience dismayed to find himself part of a “caretaker generation” of farmers when his heart secretly yearns to explore the stars. This is made abundantly clear in a brilliant early scene which also sets up his close relationship with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy – also brilliant). In said scene, a school teacher berates Cooper for allowing Murph to believe the “uncorrected” version of space race history. Textbooks have been altered to make the Apollo missions appear nothing more than an attempt to get the Soviets to spend money on something that will never work, by faking moon landings and so forth. Cooper and Murph (and by extension Christopher Nolan) reject such conspiracy theories out of hand, instead clinging to the romantic notion of mankind’s destiny to explore.
Elsewhere there are decent supporting performances from Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, Timothee Chalamet, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck and even Matt Damon in a small but pivotal role. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema replaces Nolan regular Wally Pfister, and shoots (on gorgeous 35mm) some spectacular visuals – particularly the dust storms that blight the cornfields back on Earth. There is also some brilliant location shooting in Iceland, doubling for a place I won’t spoil. Most of the visual effects were achieved in camera, using the bare minimum of CGI (mainly wire removal), and as such the film has a physicality to it that looks and feels completely believable. The sound department do an incredible job – with the occasional use of complete silence being as effective as any sonic rumbles – and Hans Zimmer contributes a terrific music score.
As far as Nolan is concerned, to call him ambitious is an understatement. He and his brother Jonah have fashioned a screenplay that owes a great deal to The Right Stuff, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and particularly Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet Interstellar is also sufficiently original in its own right to feel like a proper successor to such movies. Nolan’s singular direction means comparisons to the likes of 2001 are never made unfavourably, and he conjures enough vivid images of his own (which I daren’t discuss in this review for fear of spoilers) to suggest that Interstellar might latterly be considered a classic of the genre.
If the film has a flaw, it is that it contains too much to take in, certainly in one viewing. Nolan has to hand-hold the viewer through a number of difficult-to-grasp concepts which requires brain in gear at all times. As a consequence, the big emotional stuff – some of which is arguably overly sentimental – doesn’t quite hit the target simply because one is still getting one’s head around how and why. Of course, it might just be that I’m not clever enough and that on repeat viewings I will see this for the masterpiece that many claim it to be.
Obviously it goes without saying that to be properly appreciated Interstellar must be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system. Whether you understand every iota of quantum physics or not, you certainly won’t leave the cinema feeling short changed on spectacle.