Set in the near future, Interstellar predicts the effects of humankind’s rapacious materialism: raging dust storms tear through the land, crop yields are an annual disappointment, and the earth is no longer capable of sustaining its six billion inhabitants. Matthew McConaughey is Cooper, a former NASA astronaut turned corn farmer and inspirational father to Murph (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck). Cooper wants his children to be inquisitive and ambitious, despite being part of a ‘caretaker generation’, burdened with the responsibility of finding a new home for mankind but destined never to reap a reward for their efforts.
The relationship between Murph and Cooper has an endearing spark to it, cruelly snuffed out by a script more interested in flashy sci-fi set pieces. Mackenzie Foy puts in the film’s most moving, appealing performance as the young Murph – smart, loving and pathologically curious – though this is sadly not sustained after Murph grows into Jessica Chastain. Cooper’s scientific, logical outlook on life is challenged by Murph’s conviction that there is a ghost in her room: a ghost that can communicate by manipulating dust into binary code.
The code leads Murph and Cooper to a top-secret NASA base, where final preparations are underway for a spacecraft mission to find a planet for human habitation, led by Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and her father (Michael Caine). One of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe is why every Nolan film must involve Michael Caine in the role of a wise-cracking older man who’s good with technology; the warm charm he effused as Alfred in the latest Batman reboot has utterly dissipated. He now plays himself with a total lack of enthusiasm. Nonetheless, Cooper is excited by the project, and agrees to take a leading role.
This is a film on a huge scale, boasting a budget of $165 million. Until now, the real appeal of Christopher Nolan as a director has been his outstanding track record of making blockbusters with brains – 2010’s Inception being the perfect example.
His are films that deserve, and bountifully reward, repeat viewings; that ask for a level of engagement most big-budget directors are not brave enough to demand.
Yet in the case of Interstellar, something has gone badly wrong. It is a real mess of a film, and tragically seems to suggest that Nolan has got too big for his boots, has gone too far.
The scientific accuracy (or not) of the concepts Nolan explores, so lambasted by the scientific community on Twitter, are ultimately irrelevant, and are frankly the least of the film’s problems. The plain weirdness of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which Interstellar owes a colossal debt, works precisely because it refuses to give any sort of rational, coherent explanation for its haunting strangeness. Here, a painfully contrived effort to pull a series of dubious scientific strands together results in an utterly unsatisfying and laughable end, with the only mystery being how Nolan could permit such a narrative travesty.
Of course, it might be that once this comes out on DVD, all the naysayers will be proved wrong, as the benefits of being able to pause, rewind and over-analyse are felt. There are countless videos and articles online trying to decode Nolan’s previous work; some cogently, others through the exaggeration of insignificant detail. But even if a whole network of deeper meaning exists beneath Interstellar’s surface – doubtful, but just possible – will it ever properly excuse a first viewing experience that is so unsatisfying?
In any case, the script is alarmingly clunky, particularly in the first half of the film, where exposition is clumsily and unconvincingly shoehorned into the dialogue. Anne Hathaway’s character, Dr Amelia Brand, is riddled with issues: as the only female member of the exploration team she is seen to prioritise emotional attachment over rationality at key junctures, before making a near-parodic speech about how ‘love’ might just be the one thing that really can transcend space and time, or something. It’s staggering that such a lazily drawn character could be tolerated by a director otherwise so meticulous and intelligent in his film making.
The dialogue that’s there is hammy, but, more frustratingly, some dialogue is lost altogether, swamped by a badly mixed soundtrack that seems to have prioritised subwoofer rumblings over the delicacies of dialogue, making the lines of Jamaica Inn seem crystal clear and beautifully enunciated in comparison. From a hurried and utterly unscientific google of ‘Interstellar sound problems’, I’m reassured this isn’t anything to do with the particular screening I was in.
Despite these irritations, it doesn’t feel like a 3 hour film; its totally unpredictable narrative at least make the time tick along nicely, or maybe ‘that’s relativity folks’ as one of the shuttle crew cheerfully puts it. The cinematography is unquestionably stunning, and provides enough distraction to maintain interest, but Nolan fans will be disappointed.
This doesn’t reach anywhere near the magical heights of The Prestige; the precision of execution that we’ve come to expect from Nolan is nowhere to be seen.
When dead-ends are reached, the film simply heads straight through a narrative wormhole, always conveniently emerging at a point where all is resolved and the next chapter can begin.
There are brief flashes of the better film that Interstellar could have been. The examination of the father-daughter relationship between Murph and Cooper has moments of emotional subtlety and tenderness. Their separation, in both space and time, provokes interesting questions about what exactly constitutes the parent-child bond, and makes for some of the most moving sequences in the film. Matthew McConaughey is solid enough as Cooper; both he and his character are given the seemingly impossible task of holding their own whilst everything around them descends into chaos.
If there’s one silver lining though, it’s the thought that in future Nolan will have go to back to the intricate, self-contained beauty of his earlier work.
After all, where can he go from here? He’s simply tried to do too much, even within the scope of three hours.
To give Interstellar the benefit of the doubt, as a number of critics have been tempted to do, is to utterly undervalue the cinema-going experience: the idea that the messy, incoherent plotline somehow cleverly evokes the thrilling sensation of a journey into the unknown smacks of a desperation to incorporate this bum-note into Nolan’s otherwise celebrated oeuvre.
Instead we should just admit that, this time, Nolan has failed. Films that earn a repeat viewing usually provide a renewed sense of wonder on each revisiting, but those that seem to demand it through an arrogant faith in their director’s legacy are in danger of leaving everyone disappointed.