Christopher Nolan can sure pull his weight these days. To walk into a major studio and ask for a gargantuan sized budget (around $165 million) and get it, with a hefty amount of creative control allowed, is no small feat. And Nolan wouldn’t want to do anything that could be considered a ‘small feat’. Make no mistake, Interstellar is the grandest film he has ever attempted; visually and narratively.
The Earth is dying. Great clouds of dust perpetually sweep across the land, killing the crops. A former Space-Engineer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon the remnants of NASA and is asked to pilot an expedition through a wormhole to find a habitable planet to live on. The focus of Interstellar is not so much the stars and the space between them; it is about the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).
McConaughey is the big bright shining star here, doing his best (and his best is very good) at keeping the whole film grounded. Michael “Exposition” Caine also turns to up to do you-know-what – but seriously, he actually has a more fleshed out role than his other Nolan iterations. For a child actor, Mackenzie Foy does her job, there are moments where she is genuinely quite good but otherwise it’s an okay performance.
Critics often remark on Nolan’s coldness and distance when it comes to the emotional sides of his films though I’ve never really found that to be true. Take Inception, despite being mind-bendingly confusing and full of mesmerising action sequences and set pieces, Cobb trying to come to terms with the death of his wife is the nexus of the film. Similarly, The Prestige, for all its bells and whistles about magic, actually focuses on the complicated relationship between two men.
Interstellar is much the same. The central drama on which the film revolves is ever-present and helps contextualise much of the weird space wormhole stuff. For all Interstellar‘s expansive cosmic scope, it firmly focuses on the individual; and despite being called “Interstellar” the heart of the film lies on earth and its inhabitants, much like how Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 ends looking at Earth, Interstellar remains introspective throughout.
Nolan’s films are often centred around highly complex devices: Angier’s ‘magical’ duplicating machine in The Prestige, Dreams in Inception and so on, and Interstellar is no different in that there are multiple complexities to consider, but the thing they are centred around are infinitely less interesting than the concepts that are explored using them. I’m reminded of when Angier unveils his miraculous machine and proclaims that “Man’s reach exceeds his imagination”, a pithy phrase that could easily be applied to Nolan, if one was being so critical. Wacky concepts such as: Space travel, wormholes, Black Holes, relativity, a dying Earth; have a similar function in Interstellar. They are meaty concepts and the film is stuffed to the brim with them. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, even just thematically. Visually, the film offers up an array of equally confounding images – the sequence in which our heroes travel through the wormhole quite literally bends and curves all over the place.
Speaking of recurring themes in Nolan’s films, his favourite, time is back again. Usually, he uses time as a structural device (most notably Memento, Insomnia and Inception) but here it acts most strongly as an ever present force that is acted out upon the characters. One of the astronauts even remarks that time is a resource like food and fuel. Evidently, Nolan is interested by the subjectivity of time and that is a very strong element of this film. Even ‘The Endurance’ (the big space thing they connect to, I’m sorry, I’m awful with space lingo – the one on the poster!) has the appearance of a clock with its 12 compartments and constant rotation.
The elephant in the room, the obvious cinematic comparison to make would be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick is notable for his absolute trust in the image, as in 2001 he steadily and confidently holds shots and asks us to gaze longingly at the space, er, odyssey. Nolan often cuts a lot faster than Kubrick – Nolan is still a director of big budget blockbusters remember – but he seems to have taken a few tips from Kubrick’s masterpiece that really add a lot to Nolan’s unique style.
When Nolan holds his camera, it is to great effect. In so doing, he utilises another trick from Kubrick: Silence. In Interstellar it is used in one of two ways, first to encourage our capacity for wonder and second, for horror. For cinema, a visual and auditory experience, to cut out one of those elements strands us. Without the anchor of a soundtrack to emotionally guide us along, we feel lost. This restrain sets Nolan apart from other blockbuster filmmakers. Though, the use of silence is nothing new, both for cinema and for Nolan. You will probably remember the first fight between Batman and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (in hindsight, a failed film) where Nolan cuts the music to let us hear the strain in Batman’s grunts to show us how much he is struggling to keep up with Bane. Or perhaps in The Dark Knight, when Harvey Dent is being escorted by SWAT van and is ambushed by the Joker, the loss of music there, again, highlights the fragility of the situation. Thus, the silence in Interstellar shows us just how fragile the astronauts are in the vast emptiness of space.
Despite the departure of Wally Pfister, the director of photography for most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is still drop dead gorgeous. It’s when Christopher Nolan goes against his usual fast cutting style that the space sequences really stun. Like Kubrick before him, he knows the right time to hold a shot and get us just to look. Even the opening act of the film, which is set on Earth, looks fantastic. It is helped, in part, by Nolan’s understandable obsession with practical effects. He has gotten to the stage where if he can use a practical effect instead of CGI, then he will. For example, there is a great shot early on when Cooper is driving through a wheat field. Nolan pulls the camera up to show the car driving through an actual wheat field that they actually built. This allows him to show interior shots of the car and long exterior ones that do a far better job at immersing the audience as opposed to one CGI set-up and the rest of the scene located in the car. I’ve seen the film twice now, once on IMAX and once on 4k. Undoubtedly the IMAX screening was superior if you only go to IMAX once a year, make sure it is to see this film as it looks and sounds superb.
In terms of set-pieces, we are not undersold. There are some truly magnificent set-pieces here; one in particular is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen. If the rotating hallway in Inception is Nolan in miniature, then in Interstellar we get to see Nolan operating at maximum. In truth, Interstellar acts as a microcosm for all of Nolan’s recent work: Grand and epic in scale (lately anyway), narrative complexity that grows more so by the second, intellectually engaging blockbusters but unfortunately it contains the main pitfall of his work: clunky, exposition heavy dialogue. Doubtless, Interstellar won’t convert any detractor of Nolan’s, and it will excite fans of his – like me.
Now, I didn’t particularly mind the dialogue, sure some of it is very clunky and sounds like something you’d find on a cat poster (yes that’s a Lego reference) such as “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space”. When taken in isolation, it’s quite bad, but in the context of the film it makes sense. It is the kind of desperate, melodramatic thing someone would say in an extremely disparate situation. But if the latest Captain America film can get away with “Activate the Algorithm” then I’m sure Interstellar can get away with whatever it throws at us. The role of exposition, in my eyes, is to make sure the film makes sense to the audience while they’re watching it. Explaining how wormholes work to an Engineer while en-route is a little barmy but keeps the pacing of the film at an acceptable level. Perhaps one could say that Nolan makes his premises too complicated and has to dig his way out of his labyrinthine holes. It is, however, a matter of opinion. If it bothers you, then it bothers you. But for me, it wasn’t enough to take me out of the film as I thought Nolan did a good job of investing me in the story.
One thing I will not tolerate (aside from an authoritarian tone obviously) is debasing the film on grounds of scientific inaccuracy. We had this problem with Gravity last year, and like clockwork, we are back again. The science in the film isn’t a set of rules to be strictly adhered to; it’s a set of possibilities to navigate and explore. The accuracy of the science is utterly irrelevant (this isn’t Primer after all), as long as the film makes cinematic sense, then who cares? Of course, in an ideal world, we’d have both but the film uses the real world science as a platform to tell its story, it is not about the science. That said if there’s one thing that Nolan’s film are good at (and there’s a lot more than one thing) it is start conversations. After all, his brand of thoughtful blockbuster is rare these days, and to combine intellect and financial success in the way that he has is pretty astonishing, and sort of unprecedented.
I doubt there will be a more ambitious film this year, or even for a few years, than Interstellar. For that alone it deserves credit, but it exceeds its imagination and its grasp. Nolan has created a mesmerising film that lives up to its gargantuan hype. For my money, it’s one of the best films of the year. This is why we go to the cinema: to be enthralled, to wonder, and to be moved. Interstellar has it all.