Mounting his most ambitious film to date, Christopher Nolan creates a pummelling, exhilarating ride into the unknown that leaves the audience battered and shaken. Shot, scored and cut for maximum impact, Interstellar is an event movie of the kind rarely seen today: entirely self-contained, helmed by a singular, polemic filmmaker and staunchly opposed to comfortable mediocrity.
Directed by Christopher Nolan / Written by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan / Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain / Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema / Music by Hans Zimmer / Production by Syncopy, Lynda Obst Productions, Legendary Pictures
Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, a trained pilot grounded on an Earth rendered barren by The Blight, a disastrous plague that decimates Earth’s crops, leaving only corn able to survive in the huge dust storms that ravage the landscape. As a result, the world has turned away from engineering, space endeavours and the consumer culture we know today and become an agrarian society of depleted resources, run by a “caretaker generation”. Desperately longing for an age when he could have explored beyond the stratosphere, Coop channels his fascination with the limits of mankind’s experience into his precocious daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain,respectively the 10-year-old and adult Murphs). In her bedroom Murph discovers a mysterious presence that flings books from her shelves and writes codes in heaps of falling dust in an effort to communicate something. When Coop witnesses this phenomenon first-hand, he and Murph determine these messages to be a set of co-ordinates that they both feel sure will lead them on an adventure. From there the scope of Interstellar expands rapidly, as Coop is reunited with his old colleague, Dr Brand (Michael Caine). Dr brand directs what remains of NASA and has been working on two plans to save humanity from its dying motherworld; each plan involving transportation through a mysterious wormhole near Saturn to another galaxy. Coop is recruited immediately to pilot the spacecraft Endurance on NASA’s last-ditch mission through the wormhole to find the astronauts sent ahead in search of habitable worlds. He leaves Murph and her brother Tom behind, knowing that if his mission fails, his children will perish in a world that is starving and suffocating.
Before it breaks from Earth’s gravity, Interstellar is persistently frustrating, setting up everything we need to know about our characters’ going forward and not much else. Nolan’s direction feels unconsidered, disinterested in the events on Earth and impatient, as the audience no doubt will be, to get on a space ship and dive headfirst into the unknown. An early engaging moment, when Coop and Murph intercept a stray drone over the cornfields, treads heavily into Steven Spielberg territory, which is no great surprise, given that the film’s co-writer Jonathan Nolan had originally written the script with Spielberg attached to direct. There is a sort of de facto poignancy in the portrayal of the farmers’ stubborn, day-to-day Americana and evocation of the country’s history through Nolan’s use of Ken Burns’ interviews with actual survivors the 1930s dust bowl. Sooner or later the sombre exploration of Earth’s current state gives way to the needs of the plot and getting Coop into space, but the build-up is hurried and constructed on shaky foundations. Coop’s goodbye to his family is such a shock to the pace of the film up to that point that Hans Zimmer’s massive score (cranked up to eleven) is called in to distract us from the abruptness with which Coop just decided to abandon his children. Anyone bothered by this, or how haphazardly Coop is suddenly entrusted to pilot mankind’s last hope into the beyond, had better get used to the roller-coaster pacing because there is plenty still to come; Nolan clearly does not believe in long goodbyes or letting the dust settle on any given scene. But once Interstellar enters space, so much of what dragged the film down in its first act melts away in favour of moments of sheer wonderment and anticipation.
Coop, Dr Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and their personality-infused robot companions, TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) make their way to Saturn. There an unknown extra-dimensional intelligence (“they”) has placed a wormhole, through which it is possible to glimpse and then reach another galaxy, where previous expeditions had laid homing beacons on no less than three habitable worlds in orbit around a black hole, named Gargantua. Key to the way in which Nolan plays with the passage of time for Coop and his ageing children back on Earth is the location of two of these planets on the cusp of Gargantua’s event horizon. So close to the supermassive black hole, the time-dilation on these planets is pushed to the extreme and just two hours on the surface for their first exploration costs our intrepid crew (and the people waiting for them) twenty-three years back on Earth. As time passes in micro-and-macro scale, so Murph comes into her own as a brilliant physicist, intent on launching a lifeboat to save what remains of humanity on Earth, whilst her father and his crew fight to travel from one world to another to assess where humanity stands the greatest chance of survival.
The sequences traversing space, staring into a new galaxy or a black hole and landing on alien worlds, are astonishing to behold. Absolutely convincing and more concerned with realism than picture-perfect beauty, Nolan’s epic images of space travel are bettered only by his nerve-jangling action, which never allow us to forget that there are just millimetres of metal separating our heroes from the void outside. It is a unique joy to feel the sensation of exploration in an environment so charged with the hopes and dreams of mankind: Nolan’s way of photographing it feels like something he has been building towards for decades. Nolan has been a vocal advocate for the survival of film in mainstream cinema and Interstellar looks so rich and resplendent that it might as well have been made just as a proof of concept for 70mm. Certainly the buzz that has grown to a deafening howl around this film should translate into packed screenings of 35mm and 70mm film projections. Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shoots for creamy, organic-feeling colours and has a loose but deliberate penchant for moments of watery focus during close-ups that gives the impression of seeing images from paper prints.
Truly, the images of Interstellar could not be further from the hyper-sharp artificiality of almost every other modern-day blockbuster. Van Hoytema’s distinctive treatment goes a long way to separating Interstellar visually from the obvious influence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, instead accentuating the evocation of Tarkovsky. Where Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s influence shines brightest is Nolan’s use of spinning to create everything from atmosphere to action sequences. The centrifuge that permits artificial gravity within the astronauts’ ship also gives the disorienting affect of sudden shafts of bright, white, unfiltered sunlight to cut into a scene, as if the vast forces outside are actively intruding upon the humans in their puny tin can. Van Hoytema’s photography of the blinding light of space is simultaneously beautiful and brutal and an indispensable part of the mise-en-scène, used in a way never before seen in cinema.
Accompanying this masterful depiction of the outer limits is Hans Zimmer’s vast, requiem-like score, played on a Gothic organ that must lurk in a huge, bat-filled cave. Zimmer’s looping score often batters the viewer, sometimes to positive effect, and is appropriately epic, sombre and in reverence to the mysteries of the universe. Borrowing a pinch of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra here, a dash of Wagner there, and a great deal from Phillip Glass’ minimalist, organ-heavy music for Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Zimmer’s score, when married to Nolan’s cosmic imagery, feels exploratory itself. Certainly it is at its best when not having to distract the aidience from the deficiencies in the scripting.
As Zimmer’s score explicitly tells us, Interstellar is a film of heightened emotions, veering away from the more emotionally neutral and bleak nature of Christopher Nolan’s earlier films. While this results in moments of cinematic brilliance that are likely to be burnt into the memory more indelibly than any that Nolan has crafted before, there is a sense that a conflict exists at a script level, one that inevitably bled into the editing room. There are two films unfolding here: one is a fascinating ride into deep-space exploration and the future of mankind; and the other is a Spielbergian fable, but one weighed down by so many twists and conflicts that it has no time to conclude itself satisfactorily.
As with the time-dilation in Inception (2010) the Nolan brothers explain clearly enough what the rules are within this story. As before, the brothers are happy to deliver inelegant exposition but also expect their audience to keep up with the surface of the theory at play or at least get immersed enough in the spectacle to go with the flow and not sweat the technics. Interstellar is no more challenging to understand or follow than Inception but it is perhaps most enjoyable to those of us with only a vague understanding of what black holes are. The more freedom the filmmakers have to establish the rules on their own terms, the better for a strong narrative. What a shame it is then that this 169-minute film feels so rushed. For better or worse this is a story with absolutely no time to waste. While the Spielbergian ghost positively influences the cross-dimensional relationship between Coop and his ageing daughter, Spielberg’s weakness for hastily tying up narratives in need of more space to breathe during their third act has also trickled in. The fantastical, message-in-a-bottle twist requires a leap of faith that is hard to make, even with Nolan’s heavy emphasis on cross-cutting between the events occurring in our galaxy and the one being explored. When not building to moments of unbearable tension, Nolan builds towards epic emotional climaxes, which are increasingly skipped over with brief, perfunctory exchanges, some getting left out of the film entirely. The events of the final ten minutes betray Nolan’s waning interest in the emotional journeys of the characters and leave a sour taste in the mouth once the buzz of the spectacle as a whole begins to fade.
Interstellar is both a total mess and a cinematic masterpiece. The power of emotion, dreams and ambition that flourishes in this depiction of exploration and discovery is not diminished by the cack-handed treatment of the story and remains grounded by Matthew McConaughey’s unforgettable performance, as well as formidable turns by Jessica Chastain, McKenzie Foy and David Gyasi. What Nolan has been driving at for most of his career (and more so, now that 70mm is being valiantly preserved against extinction) is the essence of cinematic spectacle: not the manipulation of light but the same tangible reaction as when early cinema audiences would panic at the sight of a steam train speeding towards the screen. In this respect, Interstellar can be considered a triumph, and a triumph on this scale should be viewed on the biggest screen possible.
Updated numbers: Interstellar opened in China on 12th November 2014 and banked a grand total of $121,990,000 towards its $663,705,000 Worldwide box office tally (thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers).