You’ve got to give director Christopher Nolan credit for having the chops to pull this one off; hard edged cinematic science fiction with a little sci-fi thrown in. Unlike with the likes of The Prestige or Inception, the narrative here is fairly straight forward. Then again, the is Christopher Nolan, so are some narrative gymnastics to be expected, just not how you’d expect it.
As with his other directorial efforts of late, this movie is dense with ideas, and it’s not just the science or astrophysics. It’s also incredibly ambitious in terms of its storytelling to the point that it almost sacrifices character for concept. Are alarm bells going off in your head about now?
It might almost be obvious that Nolan’s inspiration for this movie goes back to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, even in terms of filmic structure. Unlike with 2001 which leaves the viewers befuddled and open to their own interpretations of what the story is about, Interstellar tries to explain it all and then veers off into the unknown.
The opening is Earth-bound, giving us a view of the world as it is in this undefined future where population is out of control, a ‘blight’ is decimating the crops that the only food left growing is corn – which is also doomed – and a drought that creates constant dust storms leaving everything caked. In all this, a child has a brush with the unknown; a ghost supposedly haunting her room and trying to communicate with her, much like the ape-man of 2001’s opening.
This leads to the discovery of an anomaly in space that prompts the titular space travel complete with minimal crew and super-intelligent robots. With shades of Peter Hyams’ underrated 2010, this crew isn’t just on a voyage of discovery but also on a mission to find out what happened to previous expeditions. And then… I’ll leave you to find out what’s next, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of from for conflict, is there?
The movie rests entirely on Matthew McConaughey as the lead character, Cooper, an ex-engineer/test pilot turned reluctant farmer (because the world no longer needs engineers, despite the numerous farm machines at work that are constantly in need of some servicing). A huge majority of the movie are through his character’s eyes and his motivation is to save his children from a doomed future. His fractured relationship with his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a child, Jessica Chastain as the adult – it’ll make sense if you know your science, but the movie will spell it out for you) provides the bulk of the emotional story. Sure, there are other emotional beats but they also barely register.
Time may be a factor to be concerned with within the story, but the characters are not given the time to have such emotions. There is no awe in leaving Earth for the stars, or carrying out interstellar travel through the wormhole, or even – as the posters and trailers have shown – discovering new potential planets for human survival. All of that seems to be carried out with clinical detachment and the same seems to apply to Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand when trying to make a case for a planet where the man she loves supposed is. In fact, all the scientists come across as cold and emotionally detached, utterly mission-focused which, ironically, leave the robots with hints humanity shining through. Very much 2001: A Space Odyssey again.
Still, there is an intelligence in the overall structure of the story with numerous morsels for the brain to feast on. Most are good and tasty, stuff to ponder on like the future of the education system, or the linear nature of time and occasionally stubborn single-mindedness of the human mind; other bits are a touch bland like the two primary planets visited, and how we don’t get to see much of either. And – again – like with 2001, there is that confounding third act that really begs for a leap of faith from the audience as all the hard science-fiction we’ve had up to that point gets sucked out into the vacuum of space and we dive head-first into pure sci-fi. My realisation at that idea Nolan was getting at – and unfortunate outburst in the cinema that may have miffed a few viewers around me for perhaps realising it way ahead of them – was probably more to the expectation of Nolan’s typical narrative gymnastics. It can be profound or incredibly frustrating, depending on how you want to accept it.
The movie is visually arresting at times with special effects sparsely used (only two major effects companies listed in the credits), giving a sense of ‘reality’ to the ships and environments. The visual concepts of the two cosmic holes is fascinating while, as mentioned, the alien planets leaves something to be desired. Then again, they were looking for habitable worlds. Nolan has said, and it has been reported elsewhere while also confirmed by cast members, that no green screen was used in filming, relying instead on the tried and tested projection for backgrounds. The two main ships, the Ranger and the Lander, were built for practical filming, as were portions of the Endurance. In a way, as much as there is to discuss about the film and its concepts, there’s equally plenty to talk about on how the film was made. Empire magazine had a very intensive article about the movie.
The rest of the supporting cast do well enough within the movie, but nowadays, it’s a rarity when a cast member doesn’t click with the rest on such major movie projects like these. Jessica Chastain probably had the hardest part, having to project the adult Murph as sliding between the cold science and the heartfelt and lost daughter that Cooper has to leave behind. How sympathetic you feel about that character will also be key to the overall feel of the movie as the relationship between Cooper and his daughter is the emotional core.
Thinking back on his movies, Nolan’s characters are often driven by there passions more than love, making this new territory for Nolan to explore. The music score by Hans Zimmer barely helps in that regard, and at one point, for me anyway, telegraphed danger way ahead of time. There’s no denying the scope Nolan was going for, and it is far more ambitious than even Inception. The structure of the story itself would pose many narrative problems, which could be why Steven Spielberg decided to pass on directing this. Still, Nolan managed to wrangle it into his own creation. While it may be viewed as a classic now, 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t accepted in its time either.
And time will tell where Interstellar is concerned.
Stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy and Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Images from Interstellar official site
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