Early in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar former pilot and failed NASA astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is told that his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) has been wasting her time at school reading about the fallacious propaganda of space travel. ‘You don’t believe we went to the moon?’ Cooper asks of Murph’s teacher Ms. Kelly, whose reply that the moon landing was brilliant propaganda designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union is at once a stab at creationism in the classrooms of contemporary America and one of many layers of exposition that plants the audience firmly in the mindset of the survivors left in the world of the film.
Interstellar is at once a post-apocalyptic vision of the near future and an exploration into the unknown reaches of space, where most dystopian visions are happy to wallow in the dust and decay of humanity’s inevitable demise, Interstellar takes to the stars in search of virgin planets to restart the human race. Most of the terrestrial action takes place on a dying planet Earth seemingly born of the conceptual union of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, while the space voyage is more the streamlined aesthetic of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than the grungy garage shop of Scott’s Alien. Crops are failing and huge duststorms buffet what remains of humanity in a world that is set after a fall that is only ever hinted at, an appropriate ambiguity that will have audiences making up their own minds as to what straw broke the planet’s back. The juxtaposition of setting, the dust bowl and the cosmodrome, are by no means incidental, instead they are used to illustrate the dual nature of humankind, the mindset to dig in and insulate, ignore the world’s problems until it is already too late and the few who rise above and reach beyond their grasp. While films are not new to the realm of prophecy, few have been able to convey disaster with the kind of nuance Nolan is able to employ, but the film fails to sufficiently probe the pertinent question; do we deserve salvation? For every heroic deed there is a selfish one disguised as magnanimity and for every Murphy and Cooper there are a thousand Ms. Kellys stuffing their heads in the dirt.
Interstellar follows the journey of four astronauts as they set out into the unknown reaches of space on the other side of a wormhole in an attempt to find a habitable planet and save humanity from extinction. The film’s action is concerned with the exploration of space and time and these elastic concepts give Nolan the freedom to explore the unknown in new and fascinating ways. Like Odysseus, Gargarin and Magellan before them, the cosmonauts of the Endurance space shuttle explore the unknown, their aluminum life-raft set adrift on cosmic waves which promise salvation but constantly threaten destruction.
While the plot’s progress relies on the external voyage of the astronauts it is also a voyage of the soul and the heart of the film lies in the relationships between the main protagonists, particularly Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy’s Murph. McConaughey is fresh off winning the best actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club and the brilliant True Detective and his transformation continues to impress as he takes on the emotionally hefty role of Cooper, Chastain is, as always, an impressively mature and adept actor and the two have a chemistry that transcends time and space. The earlier part of the film is all about Foy and McConaughey and their relationship onscreen is joyful and loving and ultimately heartbreaking when the inevitable journey begins. But Coop’s family is a troika not a duo, and where his daughter is a ray of hope, his son Tom, played as an adult by Casey Affleck, is given to despair and his interactions with the spectre of his father are as heartbreaking as is his resigned plod into oblivion. One of the great things about the film is the time it takes to set up these relationships, bonds that tether the film to the audience, giving us an emotional stake in the grand action to come.
In the tradition of 2001, Interstellar’s soundtrack is full of operatic scores that cut to the core. From sweeping pieces of discovery to the quieter moments of sorrow marked by a slowly pulsing passage, Hans Zimmer’s score is sublime. In addition to the film’s music is a soundscape that makes use of the eccentricities of the vacuum of space to interpose its visuals; scenes of violence are punctuated by the sound of silence in contrast to the usual sonic assault of modern films and the interplay between audio and visual is masterful.
The visuals of Interstellar are what you would expect from the man who brought us Inception with plenty of zero gravity wonder to feast your eyes and wrack your brain. The visuals lend the film a grounding that creates an attachment to the characters and their environs which in turn allows for the filmmakers to create some scenes of heart-pounding intensity. Aside from the aforementioned slump in the films second act, Interstellar is rich in originality. One planet on the crew’s voyage is covered in a vast ocean that threatens to destroy the astronauts with tidal waves of biblical proportions; nature itself is the creature from outer space, and no trite villain is necessary for thrills or the progression of the plot. On another orb the surface is a crumbling waste of cracked ice shelves that defy the laws of Earth’s gravitational pull, held together by their planet’s reduced gravity. In addition to these new and innovative situations there is also a plethora of homage, and for every scene ripped from the annals of sci-fi lore there is a new and unique twist to give most of the film a feeling of freshness and excitement.
Unfortunately Interstellar is blighted by some rather atrocious dialogue that is stinging in its sweetness and a sequence of plot that stands out not for its visual brilliance or its heartbreaking tenderness or its awe-inspiring galactic seafaring, rather, what this scene stands out for is its banality and obesity. Bookended by two parts of one of the best space-faring science fiction films in recent memory, this particular scene reduces all that came before and all that transpires after to great what should have been transcendental, it drags Interstellar from its rightful place in an heavenly orbit just long enough to dirty its pristine and nacreous aluminium skin with the dust of hackneyed Hollywood.
Christopher Nolan is a director of intimidating talent and an overabundance of style, with nary a misstep on his way to becoming the most talented of American directors, his films have become the benchmarks in their respective genres. And make no mistake, Nolan is a genre filmmaker, and it is here where other supercilious directors would scoff that Nolan thrives as an amalgam of art-house auteur and Hollywood blockbuster director. Nolan has consistently delivered some of the best films of the past decade and more, pushing the very boundaries of what films can be, Interstellar is meant to represent the culmination of his oeuvre, the next step in his evolution as a filmmaker, and for the most part he has succeeded, but an overweight script forces Nolan’s transcendence to succumb to the gravity of narrative expectation. Interstellar is nonetheless a brilliant film brimming with a wonder of the unknown that will lift you into the clouds and beyond if you allow yourself to be taken along for the ride.