11 November 2014


This review will be as close to spoiler-free as I can get, but if you'd really prefer to go into Interstellar cold, come back and read this after seeing the movie.

For better or worse, Interstellar lays Christopher Nolan bare as a filmmaker, revisiting many of the themes of time and familial relationships that have been touched upon in his previous works and exploring them in the manner of a big-budget thesis film. If nothing else, it's impressive that Nolan has so quickly become one of those directors who can impress himself upon every frame of a huge production such as this.

The story begins in a not-so-distant future, when Earth has regressed into a agrarian dustbowl. Farming is the biggest occupation in the world and all of the planet's crops, save corn, have died out. Former test pilot Cooper's children were born into this world, but he's frustrated that circumstances have prevented him from using his considerable talents in a useful fashion. Then a series of unearthly events lead him to NASA, where his former employers draft him for their final space mission, Endurance, to voyage through a wormhole to search for another habitable planet in deep space.

It's never as rewarding to cast a superficial eye over one of Nolan's films and that's especially true here. At a glance, it would look like nothing so much as Armageddon with A-levels, with its symbolism, sentimentality and myriad flaws. The obvious downsides here all seem to come out of the script, which was written by the director and his screenwriter brother Jonathan, leaning on things that certain critics have said to be weak in Nolan's canon up until now.

The slow build-up does much to establish the relationship between Matthew McConaughey's Cooper and his daughter Murph, played by a magnificent Mackenzie Foy. There's a terrific scene that has been teed up in the trailers where Cooper has to say goodbye to her before heading into space that is heartbreaking, but it's perhaps the peak of the actual emotion in the film. It's present and correct thereafter, but as Nolan takes a more academic interest in the theoretical underpinning of the film, so the sentimental side of things starts to suffer.

Plus, we learn in another pivotal scene early on that she's named after Murphy's law, which Cooper explains is less about anything bad happening than about the potential that anything that can happen, will happen. This is a keystone for the entire film's dialogue thereafter, because anything that it tells us can happen in its endless scenes of exposition, inevitably does happen. It's a clumsy way of establishing things and entirely counter to the refusal to spoon-feed information in 2010's Inception. It may be the first blockbuster to explore the relativity of time so thoroughly, but it becomes a slog when so much of it is traipsed over in textbook fashion.

As usual, the performances are top notch, with McConaughey's astronaut farmer serving as Woody and Buzz all at once and holding up his end of the emotional heft all the way through. In the absence of a traditional femme fatale, Nolan lets down Anne Hathaway's solid performance with an underwritten female character, but she too brings her A-game. As a sprawling ensemble piece, there are also brief but memorable turns for veterans Michael Caine, John Lithgow and Ellen Burstyn, and amongst the supporting cast, Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck excel as characters back on Earth who are rightly sceptical of Cooper's chances of saving the world.

The production design is as reliably brilliant as the cast- the closest it comes to 2001: A Space Odyssey is in some transcendent imagery once the Endurance has left Earth. The thunderous sound design and Hans Zimmer's honking-est score to date tends to drown out some of the dialogue at crucial moments, but it complements the purely visual moments with shock and awe. Another crucial bit of production design comes with the Endurance's robotic helpers, a pair of Lego-like creations which fall somewhere between 2001's monoliths and the funny robots you see on Doctor Who- the idea of them ratcheting their humour levels up and down based on a mechanical intuition of what humans like, might be a perfect metaphor for the notoriously straight-faced filmmaker's approach.

It's easier to nitpick the plot of this one than even the good Nolan movies, but it also has more ambition than anything he's done before. Although a lot of the parts that are played as twists wind up being somewhat predictable, there's a terrific unheralded star who turns up in the middle of the movie and near enough steals the show- that character's actions dramatise the philosophical conflicts, as opposed to leaning too heavily on dialogue, making him a breath of fresh air in a film that runs to almost three hours. If the film were so maniacally driven as his character all the way through, it would probably have felt tighter.

We could go on for much longer and there would still be more to say about Interstellar, as insistently epic and interestingly flawed as it turned out to be. Nobody could accuse Christopher Nolan of lazy film-making and nor is it fair to use the "A-Levels" tag to drub a film that puts this much thought into its spectacle. The heart of the film beats slowly, artificially sped up by some Nolanesque cross-cutting between outer space adventure and Earthbound depression late in the game, but this is a film about relativity. Your mileage may vary but personally speaking, I found it to be an essential cinema experience, but only so far as it is to be experienced, rather than enjoyed.

Interstellar is now showing at cinemas and IMAX screens nationwide.

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