The latest film from Christopher Nolan (The Batman Trilogy, Inception) is sure to be, for many, the most anticipated film of the year. This is especially considering the marketing tease of epic intergalactic exploration, the fact that it is shot in a combination of anamorphic 35mm and IMAX 70mm (and will be projected in both formats), and brings in the man behind the McConaissance. This may be Nolan’s most ambitious film yet, as he attempts to balance an intimate existential story about the power of love and its ability to bind humans and families together across time and space, with credulous scientific hypothesizing about cosmic physics and a challenging mission to save the world. At the same time it is his most intellectually wobbly, narratively goofy and surprisingly forgettable.
As fascinating as Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s ideas are, and as impressive as the former’s vision as a director is, this doesn’t hold up to even modest scrutiny. Failing to grasp how the startling final act revelations work is not a deal-breaker for me, but I can’t forgive the mediocre writing that plagues this film, in spite of its substantial visual artistry and the stunning depiction of unexplored regions of deep space.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widowed engineer turned farmer, is living on an Earth that is slowly becoming increasingly environmentally devastated and uninhabitable. He is living on his farm with his late wife’s father (John Lithgow) and his two children Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet). He is grooming Tom to follow in his footsteps, while the inquisitive Murphy shares his love for engineering. Following a serious dust storm, which frequent the area and are worsening, Cooper and Murphy are led to mysterious coordinates by a strange (but easily accepted) gravitational anomaly in Murphy’s bedroom. She believes she has a ghost, but something has definitely been messing about with her books.
They find themselves at a top-secret NASA base run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway). As it happens, a wormhole has been discovered near Saturn that can connect widely separated regions of space-time and act as a portal into another galaxy. Brand proposes that Cooper join his team of scientists on a voyage to find a humanly habitable planet in a parallel galaxy. Cooper struggles with the decision to leave his two children – Murphy is especially unforgiving, given the fact that he cannot promise a return – but he eventually decides to join Amelia, Doyle (an impressively bearded Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and a robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) on the mission.
What has become clearer on reflection is just how poorly paced Interstellar is. We rocket through the first act, with everything thinly developed and the storytelling priorities very skewed. By the time Cooper launches off, about 40 minutes in, what is actually happening to the Earth he is leaving behind and the specifics of the mission are cloudy. It is all relayed through a Caine monologue. The ghostly anomaly in Murphy’s room also lacks a convincing context to back it up. But once the mission starts the film slows down significantly, only to awkwardly pick up the pace in the final act as the dual narratives (space and earth) start to connect.
Similarly with the entry into space there is a dramatic increase in spectacle – their entry into the wormhole is among some of the most formidable visual representations of space to be ever put on film – and this is what viewers will expect. Some of this does rival masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine and Gravity, but this craved spectacle is disappointingly intermittent. Considering the film’s gargantuan scope, and the stakes that accompany their decision to explore each planet – a short span of time on one, equates to decades on earth for example – it is actually rarely tense. But when the visual splendour, emotional stakes and Hans Zimmer’s substantial organ-heavy score are all in sync it is very exciting. This mostly happens pretty late in the cumbersome run time.
These jaw-dropping moments are separated by clunky science jargon-heavy exposition blocks that feature the characters in their craft debating the next course of action, throwing around speculation and making crude drawings and diagrams to explain just what is going on. Since the mission is so briefly sketched out initially, the course of action requires such consideration. The planets they land on are beautifully represented, wonderfully realized worlds. But, what happens while they’re there is much less assured. This is a double-hander to complicate matters. Jessica Chastain as the elder Murphy becomes a core character in the second half, reaching out to an aging Doctor Brand and trying to finish his life’s work while never giving up on her father’s return.
The cast is fine, with none of them near their best. McConaughey’s character is the heart and soul of the film, and the most moving moments are because of him. He brings his tanned, weathered look and is about as good an everyman rocket scientist as you could expect. Hathaway’s character is initially quite dull but becomes increasingly interesting, She is a scientist because we take her father’s word for it, and her love for one of the preceding investigating astronauts (and the hope of seeing him again) is the cause for some conflict between the crew, and outlines one of the key themes of the film. I can’t recall Michael Caine having a line of normal dialogue. He is either detailing elements of the plot, or quoting a poetic passage of wisdom or something or other. Chastain doesn’t really have a lot to do, unfortunately.
In my experience with Christopher Nolan films – aside from Inception, Memento and Insomnia, which I think are great – they are exhilarating cinematic experiences that con me into thinking I have seen something remarkable. But, watch them again at home and the thin characters, broadly sketched and heavy-handed themes and often-ludicrous dialogue impair one’s appreciation. Nolan has proven to be a far better director than screenwriter, and I don’t think it has been more obvious than in Interstellar.
Having seen this in IMAX, it has turned out to be one of the more disappointing experiences I have had in that environment. Even on the world’s biggest screen I wasn’t involved in this. I was immersed in screen, sure, but not at all in the story. Much of the film looks fantastic. Gifted DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her) ensures that it doesn’t look like Nolan’s last handful of films. They don’t look bad – quite the contrary – but similar. Having said that, the first act (pre-space) looks distractingly poor. I’m not really sure why. The image was very dark, oranges and browns were over-accentuated and the close-up heavy compositions were not served well by the enormity of the screen.
On a final note, this is a very serious film. The future of humanity is in the hands of these astronauts, but there is not a shred of awareness about the silliness of the plot. Even the attempts at jokes mostly fall flat. This is a film that is trying very hard to be taken seriously and provoke an audience to think about big ideas, but by forcing its audience to think it exposes its poorly camouflaged narrative issues.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer(s): Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Mackenzie Foy
Runtime: 169 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: November 6 2014; USA: November 7 2014